They say when it comes to new housing, there's good, fast and cheap, and we can have any two. Should we accept that? We really need all three.

A lot is at stake. The immediate needs of people classified as homeless, the aspirations of first-home buyers, the character of residential communities for generations to come, the health of the construction and finance industries, the integrity of the tax system, the capability and standing of local authorities, the quality of the urban environment, our contribution to climate change.

The stakes are as big as big can be. Cam Perkins is a public realm strategist at the council's development agency, Panuku. He told a Green Housing Summit last month most of the world lives in cities and we need a new model for how to make that work. "If we create one," he said, "it could save the planet."

Auckland could learn from the French development. Photo / Getty
Auckland could learn from the French development. Photo / Getty

So how about this. A new city precinct created on a wasteland of abandoned old industry and freightyards, with a mixed residential population: 50 per cent social housing, 20 per cent rent-controlled apartments and 30 per cent houses sold on the open market.

Advertisement

The precinct is for everyone: families, students, young working people, dependent older people and the disabled. A third of the units have three or more bedrooms.

The different housing types and different types of residents are dispersed through the entire complex. Everyone lives in a mixed community, including the elderly.

The middle of the complex is an undulating 10ha public park with canals and streams, picnic areas, vegetable gardens and many plantings. It has a fitness trail, children's playgrounds, a skate park, basketball and handball courts, petanque and a field big enough for ball sports. The buildings themselves have access to another 6500sq m of private green spaces, solely for the use of residents. There are green walls and terraces, and 16,000sq m of green roofs. Rainwater is used for a variety of purposes and the birdlife is abundant.

On their ground floors the buildings have shops, schools, public service centres, cafes, community centres, places of worship, shared service areas such as laundries, a cinema and other recreational facilities. Commercial and residential are above. There's a nursing home with medical care.

On one edge of the complex is a very large government office building, with thousands of workers, setting a new benchmark for energy efficiency in the city.

You get through the precinct largely on walkways and cycleways, but on the periphery are rail lines, tramways, buses and, yes, roads. Bike-hire stations and a car-hire station have been installed. There's plenty of space for bike storage, and some car parking, too.

Waste is collected by an underground pneumatic system using self-emptying bins, connected to all residential buildings and public facilities including the parks. Recyclables are sorted and transported to specialist companies by rail.

Unitec has sold land to the Government for housing. Photo / Getty
Unitec has sold land to the Government for housing. Photo / Getty

Solar panels on the roofs produce nearly 40 per cent of all power used in the complex. More energy comes from geothermal sources directly under the precinct. Heat from greywater – the water that disappears down the plugholes - is extracted and reused. The plan is to get carbon emissions to zero.

To make it all happen, property developers were brought into the fold early. Compliance with social and environmental targets is mandatory.

To keep it all happening, the people who live and work there "take ownership" - through neighbourhood workshops, energy-efficiency training and other community engagements. An on-site design and technology workshop constantly evolves the environmental efficiency of the site.

It's a dense, multifunctional city within a city and it already exists. I've been there. It's in Paris and its name is Clichy-Batignolles. Soon, 7500 people will live there in 3400 units, with another 140,000sq m of office space and 69,000sq m of shops and public facilities.

No housing project in this country, existing or proposed, is like Clichy-Batignolles.
Why not?

In terms of residential size, transport links, greenery and topography, the Parisian precinct is strikingly like Auckland's Unitec site, right by Oakley Creek.

That site, known as the Wairaka Precinct in the council's Unitary Plan, is where the Government plans to build 3000-4000 residential units.

But there are some critical differences. In Clichy-Batignolles, height restrictions were relaxed: 10 of the buildings are 50m tall. That's about 15 storeys.

The entire complex is therefore light and open, dominated by its beautiful park. The tower blocks are not forbidding but were designed with terraces, balconies, greenery and light. Each has as different design, to maintain variety, but the standard is uniformly high.

The two sites are the same size: 54ha. But Unitec is keeping almost half its site, at the southern end, for its own operations. The housing development, including parkland, commercial and recreational facilities, will take up only 29.3ha. This is another big difference: the problem of fitting everyone and everything in is far more acute.

Which is not to say it can't be done. Wairaka will have a density ratio of 102-137 dwellings to each hectare (dph). Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm packs 9000 homes into a beautiful 62ha site at an average density of 145dph, with mid-level buildings but no tower blocks.

A third big difference is that the master-planning for Clichy-Batignolles makes it a model for community building with high standards, both social and environmental. It's far from clear how well the master-planning for Wairaka will do that.

The delegates at that Housing Summit organised by the Green Building Council last month filled a hotel conference room and for the whole day they talked about just one thing: how to make sure all the new social and affordable houses will be good enough.

Bindi Norwell of the Real Estate Institute spelt out the immediate need. Fifty-six per cent of rentals have mould, she said, and so do 44 per cent of owner-occupier homes. Nearly half our homes are poorly insulated, even after years of government programmes to improve home insulation.

Every speaker lined up to say one big thing: the new lower-priced homes, especially KiwiBuild homes, must be above the Building Code. Because the Building Code isn't good enough.

The Government says it understands. Building and Construction Minister Jenny Salesa told the summit that Auckland is short about 45,000 homes. Your level of poverty, she said, will determine how acutely that shortage affects you and also the quality of what you can afford.

It's called a democracy deficit and, she added, the Government is determined to close it. She reminded delegates the Healthy Homes Guarantees Act will introduce new minimum standards for insulation and heating sources from July next year.

Ah, said the delegates. Good but not good enough.

She said KiwiBuild is an opportunity to lift innovation. Developers have already said they want to do that.

Hmm, said the delegates. Still not good enough.

She said they were reviewing the Building Act 2004 and a Cabinet paper would probably be produced before the end of the year. "It will impact standards and much more," she said. "We're not rushing into this and doing it piecemeal."

The trouble is, they are rushing into it. They have to. We need more houses.

Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford told the Weekend Herald he wants to have 12-15 projects on the go at any one time, each with about 5000 homes. Bigger than Wairaka. Bigger than anything currently announced.

And he wants them to be good. "I want people in two, three generations, to say they're proud to live in homes built in 2018."

Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford. Photo Jason Oxenham
Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford. Photo Jason Oxenham

Actually, he wants them to be really good. "I want people to look back on what happens in KiwiBuild now as being like a new generation of The Group."

That's a very high bar. The Group Architects of the late 1940s and 50s pioneered a New Zealand style with open-plan homes and timber construction. They changed architectural thinking but their houses were one-offs. They never had to mass produce anything.

Building a lot of houses is not impossible. Sweden built a million homes in the 1970s, in a scheme backed by the state. New Zealand built more houses in the 1970s than we do today.

"The world," said Twyford, "is replete with examples."

True. But building a lot of good houses, fast and cheap, that's another matter. Twyford's quick solution was to announce KiwiBuild homes will be "bought off the plans".

What plans? The property developers working to the high standard he's talking about are doing it one building at a time. They're nowhere near working at scale. The mass housing developers rebuilding Glen Innes and other chunks of Auckland, they don't come close.

Twyford was nothing if not ambitious. "Any housing project the Government is involved in, KiwiBuild homes must be included. That means it will have mixed housing and good master-planning."

He said the idea was not to gentrify but to renew the quality of the housing for the people who live there now. To build more and better without driving up land prices. To create construction jobs for locals. To give those locals first rights on new homes. To guarantee that anyone displaced by the work can come back.

And yes, he agreed, building good homes wasn't just about the quality of construction. It was also about the environmental impacts and the cost. And the way you create and embrace communities. But is that a commitment? What does he mean?

Many of the speakers at the Green Housing Summit had a simple challenge for the Government: adopt Homestar, grade 6, as the mandatory standard for KiwiBuild.

Homestar is a system that rates residential buildings for health, warmth and energy efficiency; water use and waste; materials; and use of the site. It also allows for innovation. Homes are graded 6 to 10, although it's very hard to get higher than 7.

Most new homes that meet the basics of the Building Code would achieve only a 3 or 4 Homestar rating. Most of our existing homes are no better than 2 or 3 Homestar.

6 Homestar means a saving of up to $2 a day in energy and water bills.

It costs more to build to a 6 Homestar standard, but only a little. The Green Building Council estimates 6 Homestar adds nothing to the purchase price of a three-bedroom house if it's slightly smaller than the larger homes often built today, and just 1.5 per cent to those as large.

Roger MacDonald, CEO of Panuku. Photo / Supplied
Roger MacDonald, CEO of Panuku. Photo / Supplied

Roger MacDonald, CEO of Panuku, put the marginal cost at 1.8 per cent, but said it was lower for projects with many units. Panuku already mandates 6 Homestar for new housing it's involved with.

Patrick Dougherty of Housing New Zealand said his organisation also believed in building "far above the code" and was "very keen" on 6 Homestar. The long-term objective of HNZ, he said, was to help establish "healthier and more stable families in their communities".

As he noted, 6 Homestar isn't exceptionally high. Ockham Residential's Daisy building on Great North Rd is 10 Homestar.

With all this support from central and local government agencies, why is the Government itself being so tardy?

Twyford told the Weekend Herald, "I love the Green Building Council. Homestar's great."

So why hasn't 6 Homestar been mandated for KiwiBuild?

"We're going to look at it," he said. "The short answer is, we just haven't got round to it. But clearly we will require KiwiBuild to be above code."

He added: "The big priority is to get the pipeline working."

But don't they have to do both? Get the pipeline working and make sure good housing flows down it?

"We're up for the conversation," he said.

Roger MacDonald told the summit Panuku would shortly announce it had also signed up to the Green Star rating system.

Green Star is designed for larger projects and has far-reaching implications for governance, environment, economic prosperity, liveability and innovation. Green Star is what you'd want if you were trying to get close to the standards of Clichy-Batignolles. MacDonald said Panuku will be the first institution of its kind in the world to formally adopt Green Star for communities.

And that's the key. Building houses in a way that helps to build communities.

When the Government announced its plans for Unitec/Wairaka, Twyford said: "This is a beautiful and historic piece of land with natural features such as the Oakley Stream running through it. It's close to education, employment and public transport. This new community will have open spaces, new parks and shops.

"We want to create a place for people to put down roots and to live, work, learn and play, for generations to come."

In the Clichy-Batignolles development in Paris, compliance with social and environmental targets is mandatory and its residents take ownership. Photo / Getty Images
In the Clichy-Batignolles development in Paris, compliance with social and environmental targets is mandatory and its residents take ownership. Photo / Getty Images

Wairaka is his showcase. His chance to show us how good the Government can be, not just with housing but with the whole thing: integrated urban community development.

Twyford uses the phrase "everyone having eyes on the park". It's one of his markers of good design: every resident can look out on something lovely.

Perhaps surprisingly, Bill McKay, senior lecturer in architecture and planning at the University of Auckland, doesn't agree. "Look out at the green? That's the way we've talked for 150 years. We don't need an acre to kick a ball around. We need pocket parks. Microplanning is critical."

He argued new residents would be well served by the mature bush of the Oakley Creek gully. Plus, the Waterview tunnel project created new parkland on the other side of the creek, complete with playground and skatepark, all easily accessible by the new footbridge.

"Besides," he said, "there's Chamberlain Park nearby, and Western Springs. And other parks."

McKay is keen to get the residential numbers up. "Not town houses, they're a waste of space for sites like Wairaka. They're okay out in the suburbs, but they need to put in as many people as possible here."

He'd line Carrington Rd with apartment blocks all the way down. Four or five storeys high with balconies at the rear for the afternoon sun.

Anything higher? "Maybe a couple of tower blocks near building 1" - the old brick Carrington Hospital building at the Pt Chev end. It has a category one preservation order and will stay.

The precinct is already zoned for medium-density housing. It's a mix of THAB (terraced housing and apartment blocks) that allows five to seven storeys, and mixed urban, allowing three storeys.

Twyford thought some blocks might go to six or eight storeys, but probably not higher. He doesn't see a need for taller apartment blocks.

There are practical considerations. Any variation to the Unitary Plan will slow down the consenting process, especially if there are objections. And tall buildings are complex, which also slows the consenting process. Stephen Town, CEO of Auckland Council, told the Herald recently a taller block can take a couple of years just to get the necessary consents.

And Twyford is in a hurry, pushed along by every ringside commentator with eyes only for the numbers and little thought for the quality. He wants building to start next year.

But still, the higher you build the more you can preserve green spaces, and Clichy-Batignolles proves that with a good, completely integrated master-plan, it can be done well. Developers at Hobsonville Point seem to agree: they've just applied for resource consent to build a 15-storey apartment block there.

As yet, there is no master-plan for Wairaka.

"A lot of it was already done by Unitec," Twyford said. "Our intention is that we will build on that." So to speak.

There are many issues still to confront. The highly engaged Mt Albert Residents Association (MARA) has been especially concerned about the traffic the site will generate, and Bill McKay agrees it could become a problem.

"They'll need a big rethink on roading," he told the Herald. "Both in the site and leading in and out of it." Twyford hopes not everyone living there will feel the need to own a car. He expects e-bike share and car-share schemes to operate on the site.

Master-planning for Wairaka is now in the hands of HLC (Homes Land Community), the HNZ subsidiary that's in charge of many projects including Hobsonville Point. HLC is working closely with the KiwiBuild team at MBIE and local iwi. They'll want to make it good, of course they will. But no one has ever asked them to make anything as good as Clichy-Batignolles.

And yet. "Imagine," said Panuku's Cam Perkins to the Green Housing Summit, "if New Zealand's clean, green, 100 per cent pure image was actually the way we lived. It's possible."

Simon Wilson will return to the Wairaka project and other housing developments in future articles.