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SMC ALERT: Future of Housing - Expert Q&A

SMC ALERT: Future of Housing - Expert Q&A

What's the future of housing?
Expert Q&A
14 June 2017

There's no place like home, but owning your own home is harder than ever before. Leaky homes, eye-watering prices, an ageing housing stock and a growing population: how can we make sure everyone has an affordable, healthy home?

Housing is likely to be an issue on the table this election year, plus challenges remain for local government, as highlighted by the Auckland Mayoral Housing Taskforce Report released this week.

The SMC asked experts in the field how design, technical innovation, and industry change could impact the creation of healthy, affordable houses to help make the Great Kiwi Dream a reality.

These are excerpted comments, the full Q&A is available on for registered journalists. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting.
Tricia Austin, Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture and Planning, University of Auckland

Is it enough to just build homes cheaply? What are the other considerations?

"New Zealand builds the third largest (per sq m) houses in the world. On the whole, we do not build houses cheaply - we build large houses on large green field sites. In Auckland, when faced with high land costs, we go on building large stand-alone houses but on smaller and smaller plots. We concentrate on infill - adding a house onto the rear or front garden, rather than redeveloping the whole site.

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"Apartments and terrace houses which are much more efficient users of space have been developed, especially in the inner city suburbs, often on former commercial or light industrial land. More extensive redevelopment and production of apartments and townhouses will require amalgamation of adjacent existing dwelling sites to get sufficiently large plots.

"For example, a piece of land currently divided into 4 sites each with a house on it could provide space for up to 18 dwelling units on a mix of terrace houses and low-rise apartment buildings BUT this would require the whole area to be in one ownership. This type of redevelopment is most likely to take place where the land is in public ownership such as with the Housing New Zealand Corporation (HNZC)."
Dr Kay Saville-Smith, Research Director, CRESA, Leader for the Life in Rent programme in the Ageing Well National Science Challenge

Is it enough to just build homes cheaply? What are the other considerations?
"House prices are not driven primarily by construction costs. However, failures in build quality reduce the productivity of the building industry and/or the performance and functionality of dwellings. Costs fall on consumers (see among other things the leaky building problem).
"Homes need to work for people and protect people from the environment. We are lagging in dealing with designs that will stand up and adapt under climate change scenarios. Often we are exacerbating the problems we will encounter in the future."
Is enough being done at a funding or legislative level to support innovation in the building industry?
"There is a longstanding myth that the building industry is not innovative. If innovative means taking up, and the widespread use of, new products and process then the building industry is actually quite innovative – examples are heat pumps, flat board and plaster cladding, the concrete pad.
"The problem is that many of these innovations do not always deliver benefits and can be associated with unforeseen and negative consequences. Innovation in itself is not always beneficial. This then is the wrong question.
"The question is: is there enough funding and legislative support to get the dwellings we need? Clearly not."
Dr Morten Gjerde, Head of the School of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington

Is it enough to just build homes cheaply? What are the other considerations?
"There is so much emphasis on affordability when we talk about housing these days, which some take to mean cheap, that we forget about other, and perhaps more important, outcomes. The quality of housing should not be compromised in our efforts to build more affordable housing.
"Housing quality is much more important if we extend out the real costs over the expected life of the building. Housing affects people’s health and wellbeing, energy use as well as the need for ongoing maintenance and repair. These factors can all be distilled down to a financial cost and when we compare the lifecycle costs of houses built to perform well, with those that have simply been built to have a low initial cost, we know that building cheaply can be much more expensive in the long run.
"Now, that is not to say that building to a lower cost is always going to lead to lower performance. We can be smarter about the way we build to help costs come down. One way is to use industrialised processes – prefabrication. The operative term here is ‘the way we build’ and not what we build. In fact, prefabrication can improve the quality of the product, largely because the conditions inside the factory are much more favourable.
"However, the bigger issue by far is the land costs – if we want to get serious about building more affordable housing we will have to tackle the skewed value of land for development."
What factors influence uptake of new, cheaper, more efficient technologies by the building industry? What can be done to encourage this?
"The building industry has been notoriously slow to take up new technologies; prevailing attitudes seem to favour existing practices and to shun innovation. While that is a sweeping generalisation, the evidence can be seen in the way builders continue to travel to building sites day after day to piece together their latest project from the ground up.
"It has been possible to prefabricate entire buildings in ideal factory conditions for more than a century. One of the more innovative housing projects carried out in the 1960s was Habitat ‘67 by a young architect named Moshe Safdie. It was built using prefabricated, three-dimensional concrete modules put together more or less like Lego blocks. Disappointingly, projects like Habitat ‘67 still remain special and unique some 50 years later."

Conflict of Interest: I maintain an interest in professional practice through Morten Gjerde Architect Ltd, which has NZIA Practice status. The work of the practice is mainly in the field of urban design and all projects have a close connection with my academic and research agendas.
Emeritus Professor Andy Buchanan, Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, University of Canterbury

What are the benefits of returning to wood as a construction material?
"The biggest benefit is the reduction in CO2 emissions. Large timber buildings can be carbon neutral or even carbon negative, whereas concrete construction is responsible for about 8% of global CO2 emissions.
"The second big benefit of timber is very rapid construction of pre-fabricated buildings, much faster than any other materials due to hi-tech precision manufacturing.
"The other big benefit is the attractiveness of wood buildings to owners, users and occupants."
Is it enough to just build homes cheaply? What are the other considerations?
"Sustainability, healthiness, durability and quality are essential, and more important than cost in the long run."
Chris Litten, General Manager Industry Research, BRANZ

As our population grows, what role will technology lay in creating affordable, healthy and sustainable housing?
"Increasing use of technology, and development of new technology, could have a significant impact on housing in New Zealand. From a BRANZ perspective, improving housing quality is the area where we expect to have the most impact. We are currently developing new approaches that will assist in ensuring high-quality new-build houses are more common and good quality houses are healthier and more affordable.
"They are healthier because quality housing is well-insulated, well-heated and well-ventilated – three crucial elements in ensuring a home is a healthy place to be. They may well be more affordable as technology is likely to speed up building build time overall (delays in which can increase costs).

"BRANZ is continually looking at how technology can improve sustainability as well – our new LCA Quick tool, which enables designers to assess whole of life costs for buildings – will be available for residential housing within the next two years. It is currently available for commercial buildings only. This tool will support sustainable decision-making by providing information on real whole-of-life costs for new-builds."
How can we address issues like lack of insulation in our ageing housing stock? How are these issues from our old houses being addressed in our new houses?
"There will need to be considerable investment in improving the quality of our older housing stock. Where this will come from is not clear. This applies not only to insulation, but to resilience to earthquakes and flood-proofing, as well as other areas.
"We have learned from the building mistakes of the past. Newer homes provide safer and healthier spaces for living. Designs are evolving to better meet needs of both occupants and communities. Choices of lifestyle in terms of housing are more varied. New building materials can offer quality, variety and flexibility."
Martin Luff, Director and Co-Founder Space Craft Systems Limited and a Co-Founder of WikiHouse

As our population continues to grow, what role will technology play in creating affordable, healthy and sustainable housing?
"The building industry lags almost all other areas of production in terms of processes and materials. The way we build our homes has barely changed for over 100 years. We are still using the same guesswork and the same slow, wasteful, imprecise, labour-intensive methods. Although faster, more innovative, more precise, sustainable methods have been starting to penetrate the sector (especially in other countries) these largely remain prohibitively expensive, difficult to implement and poorly distributed, especially among small to medium enterprises (SMEs).
"New, digitally-driven technologies, and the approaches that are enabled by them, can most definitely have a central role to play in the way we can deliver large quantities of much better quality and lower cost housing. The end results can reduce not just financial cost but the high social and environmental costs."
Is it enough to just build homes cheaply? What are the other considerations?
"It's definitely not just sufficient to build cheaply. Building 'cheaply' was, in part, responsible for many of the existing issues (cold damp leaky homes which is a now an expensive multi-billion dollar issue). We need design for the entire life-cycle of the product, from manufacturing to assembly, use, maintenance, adaptation, disassembly and re-use. It's important to look at the big picture of lifetime running and maintenance costs, elimination of harmful materials and finishes, environmental impact (including low embodied energy materials, energy and carbon footprint).
"We need to consider good design at all stages of use to increase safety and quality of life. Technology alone won't solve our problems; only when we can open up best of breed design to all, and undertake all of our developments with consideration to the community as a whole and see housing as primarily a vehicle for financial returns, but rather as an investment into quality of life, will we start to see actual solutions to our problems rather than temporary fixes."
Conflict of Interest: Martin Luff is the Director of Space Craft Systems Limited and the Co-Founder of WikiHouse NZ Lab .

The full Expert Q&A and related resources are available on

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