The Government has made three significant housing announcements in the last six months: its 2020 election housing policy programme, January's Public Housing Plan – which aims to build 8000 new state houses by 2024 - and the recent first-home buyers' housing package.
None mentioned the word technology, although the housing plan talked of exploring "innovative solutions to increase the supply of affordable housing". We have been needing those innovative solutions for a while now.
New technology options for building houses have existed for several years and are only increasing. The best-known are prefabs, which involve preparing more of the house, particularly the walls and floors, in a factory rather than on site; thus following the format other parts of a home such as kitchens and bathrooms, have adopted for years.
Prefabs have a strong presence in Kiwi culture from their role as school classrooms, and often not fondly. But today's prefabs are good quality. Their modular construction is automised and so is less expensive and more sustainable - by reducing construction waste.
Consulting firm Mckinsey's says modular construction can halve building times, reduce costs by up to 20 per cent, and contribute significantly lower environmental impact and greater energy efficiency.
The Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation proclaims on its website that greater use of prefab building will bring faster and more affordable homes to the market and some examples have been built, including at Auckland's Hobsonville Pt and increasingly in Kainga Ora redevelopments.
Yet they make up only 10 per cent of the New Zealand housing stock compared to 80 per cent in Sweden.
The Government announced changes to the Building Act in October 2019 to enable a greater use of prehab housing. However, despite the widely acknowledged housing crisis and nearly unanimous support in Parliament for the changes, it has taken nearly 18 months to get these through Parliament and they won't take full effect for a further 15 months.
How many more affordable houses could have been built in this time?
Other building technologies are also being used internationally. In Canada, bone structure is a steel-based construction system that is robotically manufactured and assembled on site - just with screws and a drill. Hundreds of homes have been built this way using recycled steel and foam insulation with energy costs falling by up to 90 per cent.
Reinforced concrete is used to produce less expensive, more sustainable houses. One version, called insulated concrete formwork, uses polystyrene blocks combined with concrete to provide additional warmth and sound-proofing. An MIT study found they were more energy efficient and would have a lower lifetime carbon footprint.
Another version uses glass fibres to make high quality plaster panels to replace concrete and bricks. Originally developed in Australia, the technology involves a low energy production process and the panels when erected on site, do not need plastering and painting. It also reduces construction time and cost and has produced thousands of houses around the world. Pre-Covid, this market was growing at 7 per cent per annum internationally. But not in New Zealand.
The technology opportunity in housing is expanding in other areas. 3D printed houses are now being produced in Washington State. Although in its infancy and so more expensive at a unit cost, its speed, accuracy and efficiency are predicted to have a profound impact on the construction industry. The market size was $181 million in 2017 and was growing 15 per cent per year pre-Covid.
In America, virtual reality company the Wild has created an immersive reality collaboration platform that helps design and construction teams work remotely on building projects. Workers can virtually move into the designs from anywhere, readily adapt the work and share it with customers and regulators.
Irish building company BAM is using predictive analytics and machine learning to better manage construction risks. On-site quality and safety has improved 20 per cent.
A comprehensive study by Auckland Council in 2015 on housing preferences showed most people had little concern for what a house was made of or how - so long as it prioritised light, heating, safety, storage and energy efficiency.
This opportunity has little chance of being realised, and so fewer houses will be built unless the Government, industry and other stakeholders work harder and quicker to resolve legacy regulatory restrictions, bank financing barriers, some industry resistance and the technology gap that exists in New Zealand's housing policy.
• Mark Thomas leads a smart cities business that uses technology to help solve city problems.