Matthew Paetz: Multi-generational housing options

In the West, multi-generational housing has never been a dominant characteristic of the housing system. Photo / Getty Images
In the West, multi-generational housing has never been a dominant characteristic of the housing system. Photo / Getty Images

The proposed Unitary Plan that has been publicly notified by Auckland Council appears at a first glance to be a sound document in many ways from an urban planning perspective. However, it does not go far enough in embracing innovative approaches to housing.

One such innovative approach is multi-generational housing. In many parts of the world, multi-generational housing is a norm - for example, in many parts of southern Europe and East Asia more than 50 per cent of households comprise three or more generations of family. I understand it is also common in Polynesian cultures.

In the West, multi-generational housing has never been a dominant characteristic of the housing system. Data does indicate that up to a quarter of households may have been multi-generational in many Western countries in the early 20th century, but in countries such as the United States this had fallen to around 10 per cent by the 1950s.

However, a move towards multi-generational housing is now occurring in countries such as the United States, New Zealand and Australia, and is the product of several factors: struggling economies and higher unemployment (especially youth unemployment), high and rising cost of living, insufficient supply of new dwellings relative to demand contributing to unaffordable housing, and greater multiculturalism. In the United States and Australia, evidence suggests nearly 20 per cent of households are now multi-generational, a significant trend reversal. Articles in design magazines such as Dwell are singing the praises of multi-generational housing.

Options for multi-generational housing vary. At one traditional extreme, all generations live under one roof with little or no autonomy, privacy or independence in living quarters. The middle ground is housing design that maintains one dwelling, but might allow for a second kitchenette and greater privacy between the generations. The final scenario is where multi-generational financial resources are pooled, and two or more generations build two dwellings within the volume of what would typically be a mid- to large-scale house.

The middle ground option should be easy to achieve. Yet, many friends, acquaintances or clients of mine in past years who have attempted to convert existing family homes into two dwellings, or at least sought to create some independence by providing say a secondary kitchenette, have often faced the wrath of council plans and planners. Fortunately, and sensibly, the proposed Unitary Plan proposes a provision which allows for such conversions to occur.

What it doesn't readily provide for is the third option. Given that a well- designed building comprising a two-bedroom townhouse and a three-bedroom townhouse can comfortably be realised within a double storey structure of some 180sq m in floor area, such buildings could comfortably be built on sites of around 350 to 400sq m.

The building presents as essentially a medium-sized two-storey dwelling, yet realises two dwellings. This is what is known as "gentle density". Although the proposed plan allows an existing house to be converted into two dwellings in some zones it does not contemplate, for most residential sites, a new residential building which looks for all intents and purposes like one house, containing two dwellings. This seems inconsistent, and prevents a potentially valuable new housing approach.

This approach would allow two or more generations of a family to pool financial resources, buy a vacant site, and build two dwellings. Because the family commissions the build themselves, they are not paying a developer's profit, which is typically 20 per cent or higher.

Such multi-generational housing approaches appear ideally suited to Auckland. They increase density but maintain character and amenity. They assist with housing affordability significantly. And given Auckland's large and growing Asian and Polynesian populations within which multi-generational housing is relatively common, there would appear to be a strong cultural basis for the approach.

Matthew Paetz is a New Zealand planner working in Australia and undertaking a PhD (part-time) on multi-generational housing.

- NZ Herald

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