Urban living takes a positive turn in New Zealand
by Simon Farrell-Green
These urban dwellings show the upside to high-density living.
New Zealand cities – most acutely in Auckland – are in the middle of a well-publicised housing crisis. Put simply, there aren’t enough houses to cope with the number of people who want to live there, causing prices to spiral out of control and putting home ownership out of the reach of mere mortals without wealthy family or a large income.
It’s been caused by various factors: in Auckland, a laissez-faire attitude to planning over several decades has resulted in suburban sprawl, and the city has now run out of land – and houses. Wherever they live, New Zealanders can no longer assume it’s their right to live in a standalone house with a big garden around it. Density, however, can lead to other more positive things – community, conversations with neighbours and walking to work, just to name a few.
Already, two-thirds of kiwis live in cities, despite our country’s reputation as a bucolic paradise of bush and farm, and as our cities grow they will inevitably grow up, putting more houses on the same land, and building up to provide more space. As these New Zealand houses show, living in a denser environment doesn’t have to mean doing without.
In Narrow Neck on Auckland’s North Shore, architects David Mitchell and Julie Stout built three dwellings on a standard 500-square-metre site, which would otherwise have housed just one single-family dwelling. The main building houses a spacious apartment with roof deck upstairs, and a one-bedroom apartment downstairs; there’s also a self-contained studio in a separate building.
Space in the two main apartments is generous, with plenty of room for extended family and friends. Originally, the house was developed this way so that Stout’s mother could live with them – more recently, they’ve rented the downstairs flat out, providing extra income and a sense of community.
In the studio, a sleeping loft with a beautifully crafted timber screen sits above a compact kitchen. The various parts of the building are tied together with the clever use of timber, plywood and in-situ concrete.
In the family
In Wellington, meanwhile, Kerr Ritchie architects designed two townhouses on one small, steep site: one for a couple and their children, the other for the husband’s mother. Each family already owned their own houses nearby, but wanted to live together on the same site, and build something interesting in the process. The rear house is 210 square metres and the front house is 90 square metres.
Because the family had a limited budget, but really wanted to build new, Kerr Ritchie kept the materials simple – plywood and stainless steel in the kitchen, and plywood on the floor, which is usually used as a sub-floor and covered up. The result is a pair of houses that work very hard indeed, and work together to create a family compound on one site.
Although the land is steep and the houses don’t have much land for gardens, they do have small courtyards and decks. “As you move up through the site you can walk out onto good useable space,” says architect Pete Ritchie. “Even on the highest level you can walk out into your vegetable garden. It’s capturing the topography.”
Down the hill from Brooklyn in Aro Valley, architect Rosie Chang of Shinton*Chang renovated a dated 1990s townhouse into a sleek contemporary gem. Chang bought the house after returning from London because it was central – Aro Valley is a cute little suburb close to the city, with cafes and craft breweries aplenty.
“Coming from London I found it curious that these terraced townhouses are perceived here in New Zealand to be cramped and perhaps second rate,” Chang says. “We found them pretty spacious and full of potential!”
The place was dark and badly organised, with little to no storage. Chang left everything roughly where it was, using cabinetry and a full-length bookcases to store everything. Seen here, the kitchen used to take up a lot of space: by cutting back the island and extending the cabinetry along the wall, she freed up room for a big table.
Chang repainted the walls white throughout, and added dark timber floors to make the space feel clean and modern – previously, the whole house was carpeted, which made it feel small.
The owner of this apartment in a heritage building on Queen Street in central Auckland bought the space – which had previously been used for storage by an art gallery – because it was central and close to work. Together with her two daughters, she commissioned Dorrington Atcheson Architects to reconfigure the space into a generous living area, along with three bedrooms and two bathrooms in a mere 110 square metres.
Architect Tim Dorrington split the apartment down the middle – on one side, there’s a long open-plan living room with an over-length custom-built sofa under the window, which overlooks a busy square. On the other side, he created a box made from hot-rolled steel that houses two bedrooms – blades in the side open up for ventilation and light. The master bedroom opens off the end of the living room via a big sliding door, and has a wall of much-needed storage reached by a ladder.
Dorrington used the double-height of the apartment to build the bedrooms around and on top of each other. Both of the girls’ bedrooms are on mezzanines: one even slots in above the ensuite bathroom. It’s a novel approach to urban living – and the family of three couldn’t be happier with their new digs.