Big ambitions for small sites

Posted 05 May 2012 by MediaStuff Popular
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HOME SWEET HOME, SOON: New subdivisions are springing up around Christchurch.


Christchurch's earthquakes will flush a big group of new-home buyers onto the market, but is what they are being offered a step forward for city living? JOHN McCRONE investigates.

Sunday afternoon and the crowds are out shopping for new post- earthquake homes. Dad comes into the showhome with a wide grin, having decided to put a hold on a $220,000 section.

The sun must be really shining on his day because his optimism seems undented when he discovers the house design he wants will not, in fact, fit onto the land.

"You've only got 540 square metres there," points out the saleswoman, "and you've picked out a 240sqm floor plan." It has four bedrooms, a double garage, ensuites, walk-in pantry, cubby- hole computer study, and all the rest that comes now standard on a modern suburban McMansion.

"The site's nowhere near big enough," she says in a voice of gentle regret. "You need a smaller house, much smaller."

Even these showhomes on their 750sqm plots are shoehorned so tight to the boundary fences that there is barely room for a row of hydrangeas, let alone greenery or trees of any size.

The sales lady continues. To get near what he wants, he would have to negotiate consent from - she counts the other surrounding bare plots - seven future neighbours. It won't happen, she quietly implies.

But today we are talking dreams here, catalogue shopping.

With about 10,000 homes red- stickered or red-zoned in greater Christchurch, there is a huge number of people looking for a house and land package, or a new house to go on their existing land.

Sure, there are many who have reason to feel unhappy and hard done by. The compensation is not living up to expectations.

Yet equally, there are plenty, like those fingering the furnishings of the nine showhomes on display at Ngai Tahu's 1600-section Wigram Skies development, who appear to have the cash and be enjoying the experience of being a buyer with a choice to be made.

A young couple, baby in arms, are exchanging pleasantries with a second agent. Their red-zone payout is taking time to sort out, they say.

"But you're going to get a brand spanking new house out of it," reminds the salesman cheerfully.

"Yes," agrees the girl. "We've got to be thankful really."

Anywhere else in the world but New Zealand and it might be a different story.

So it is time to dream a bit, and there is a lot to like about these new subdivision homes once you pass through the front door.

Hushed double glazing, dramatically sweeping windows, high doorways, a stage-set central family living space and small surprises like sensor lights which switch themselves on automatically when you enter a pantry or walk-in wardrobe.

It all looks straight out of a magazine, architecture for the masses, a big style upgrade on houses even only 10 years ago, and all you have to do is stab a finger at a design, sign the contracts, and in about a year, step into your new tailormade life.

I bump into proud dad with his family inspecting another showhome, only marginally smaller. Once more, they are eagerly pouring their future into its spaces.

The show village at Wigram Skies has four volume builders represented - Peter Ray, Mike Greer, Orange Homes and Golden Homes. A decade ago, they might have offered a dozen variations on a theme. Today, their brochures bulge with off-the-peg floorplans.The treadmill would go here, the PlayStation could go there. Young son is fantasising about a ping-pong table right in the living room. Dad is pondering whether he could get a drive-through garage with a rear door so he could back a boat trailer into the yard.

Even then, two-thirds of buyers tweak the blueprints further, often combining different layouts they have seen. That is the advantage of today's system building and computer-aided drafting, they say.

So for red-zoners, there seems ample choice, and the choices are glossy.

A large number of Christchurch households could be making a substantial move upmarket in the next couple of years.

But then again, there are the doubts. Once you dig into them, the choices are narrower than you think. On price and style, there is a subdivision formula. Outside of that, choice drops off dramatically.

And how much of it is a triumph of marketing?

The showhomes are seductive, but what will Christchurch's new neighbourhoods be like in 10 years?

Leave it to the free market, the Government said. Let the consumer choose and the suppliers provide.

Check what is actually going on and it quickly becomes apparent that whatever style of subdivision was taking place before the earthquakes is now simply happening on a suddenly more urgent scale. There is not the time to change the recipe.

To some, the quakes should have been an opportunity to break the mould.

Christchurch architect Roger Buck, a longtime advocate of sustainable housing, says this could have been the moment to make the move to not just greener homes, but greener suburbs.

More innovative ownership models could have emerged, such as community designs grouped around shared garden spaces.

Instead, all he sees are cookie- cutter estates offering standalone houses on ever-shrinking plots. "They're short-life buildings to begin with, what I'd call stick houses," he says.

They look ritzy when first built, but use flimsy materials and are unlikely to age well.

Also, the sections are too small. Buck says people are clinging onto the old quarter-acre Kiwi ideal, but trying to make it work on half the land. We are building a rash of new suburbs that will never have vegetable patches, proper gardens or the shelter of trees.

"When the easterlies blow through, they will be utterly bleak."

Nor do these subdivisions allow people to capture the winter sun.

"You need do no more than orient your house to the north and that's free winter energy.

"However, developers just chop up the land at random to get as many sections out of it as possible. The house are then plonked down to fit the roads."

As for solar water heating and other green design basics that should by now be standard, he says people question the payback and leave these options out. "Yet they'll spend $50,000 on a kitchen without batting an eyelid."

Leaving it to the market is just asking for shallow choices, Buck says. "People are only interested in the fancy brochures - the latest gear, the flashy stuff."

Lincoln University associate professor in property studies John McDonagh agrees that people are questioning whether we are building the slums of tomorrow - houses too big on land too small, subdivisions which are tight tangles of roads where the only escape is by car.

However, he says it is unrealistic to expect a radical change in thinking just because of the earthquakes.

"It's a lowest common denominator thing.

"Developers get comfortable building a certain type of product. It's a risk-free approach. They know they can do it."

Developers are themselves hemmed in by a set of market forces - the price of land, the cost of borrowing, council planning regulations and what people actually want to buy. Anything adventurous or off-beat does not seem worth the effort.

"They've got their costs pretty well nailed down, and as long as there's sufficient demand for that type of product, then why do they need to take the risk of doing something different?"

The problem is that the current formula for subdivisions like Wigram is pricey. Sections cost $200,000 to $250,000. Houses add another $250,000 to $350,000.


"The result is the supply is all being added at the mid to top end," says McDonagh.

Many red-zoners may make it work because they can cash in on enough land to afford to rebuild on a smaller plot, he says, but a lot more are going to be left out because even this compromise is now beyond their reach.

"There is the almost complete removal of the bottom end of the market now, and that's going to hit not just property buyers, but those who have been renting properties as well."

For those with a budget of $500,000 or more, the industry believes it is, in fact, meeting their needs very well.

Brent Mettrick, managing director of Christchurch-based Stonewood Homes and director of the New Zealand Green Building Council, says that today's subdivisions are a marked improvement on the old.

Mettrick accepts it is unlikely there will ever be big trees in any of the gardens, but he says many of the subdivisions are landscaped to have trees in pocket parks and community spaces.

The truth is that trees are a problem plenty of homeowners are glad to leave behind.

The shading, the leaves in the gutters, the potential arguments with neighbours - even on a traditional quarter-acre section they were an issue.

Mettrick says there is snobbery against subdivisions, yet they are cleverly designed around modern needs and wants.

High on people's checklist is simply control over their own properties.

Mettrick says this is why Kiwis are still averse to anything else but a detached house standing on its own land.

If you consider one of the biggest changes brought by the subdivisions, it is that every home now has a proper front door.

Gone are the days of ranchsliders around the side and other confusing entranceways.

"There is a definite frontage to a home now. People have become more private in their living, so the backyard isn't connected to the front yard any more. The look is much more formal."

The insides of homes are also more organised. Entrances lead immediately to a combined family living space, but there is also a second entertainment room that can be closed off by bifold doors.

The kids can be shut away while they watch a different channel.

Mettrick says people also expect now to be able to heat the whole house.

"They don't leave the back bedrooms cold like in the old days."

They want double glazing and venting, so the windows do not run with condensation, and high internal doors, which allow the warm air from the heat pumps to flow. Then there are the indefinable touches that can be achieved with mass-produced but architectural designs - the way ceiling heights and wall angles are constantly changing. Houses feel more expensive because they are not boxy but crafted.

People lead similar lives these days, Mettrick says - a couple both out earning a wage and looking to relax in comfort when they get home. The kitchen and the sofa are the natural focus. They are happy to sacrifice the garden or outlook.

Tidy floorplans mean builders get the most out of smaller sections. "The designs are efficient, so houses use less room. Five years ago, the average house we were building was 220sqm. That's now about 200sqm."

Subdivisions have evolved, Mettrick says. Another change is that council rules are forcing more diversity. New regulations have pushed the minimum number of dwellings per hectare from 10 to 15. Higher density is actually a goal. This is why you now find rows of townhouses dotting subdivisions.

The larger subdivisions are also being built around shopping areas and other facilities to give them a proper hub.

As for being soulless, Mettrick says he is often invited to street parties a year or so after subdivisions have been built and people tell him quite the opposite. "We usually find there's a strong sense of community because people all arrive at the same time, at a similar stage of life."

You can see it in the reactions of those looking over the showhomes at Wigram Skies, and feel it in some of the recently completed developments such as Delamain on the edge of the city near Yaldhurst.

Others might judge a subdivision while driving down the road, but seen from the inside, money does buy comfort, a house to fit the modern lifestyle.

Yet that still leaves a gap. There is a price band that provides house buyers with tremendous choice.

However, drop even a little below that and it suddenly becomes hard going.

Mike Greer, of Mike Greer Homes, another of Christchurch's volume builders, which now account for 40 per cent of all greenfield housing, says the reality is that too many red-zoners will be priced out of the market.

"It's an extreme problem, I'd say. We really need to be producing something below $400,000, house and land."

Greer says a lot of the buyers he is meeting are actually from undamaged neighbourhoods such as Burnside and Ilam - able to trade up because they are in turn selling their 30 or 40-year-old homes to desperate red-zoners.

Greer struggles to see how the market is going to provide for those with less to spend.

Even if the council released still more land to bring section prices down, its development levies - the cost of consents, new roads, sewerage and other services - are still going to be about $75,000 of the cost of a section, he says.

It would take a completely new style of development to bring prices down, the kind of community design where apartments are grouped around common land.

However, market forces are against it happening, Greer says.

Cantabrians are not used to living this way and do not trust it. "Only 15 per cent of people in Canterbury are willing to live in a two-storeyed house, let alone a townhouse."

Then, developers are not geared up to providing it. Greer says the standard subdivision minimises developer risk because plots are sold and built individually. But community living has to be master-planned. The developer has to carry the cost of the whole project until it is complete.

As it happens, two Christchurch businessmen - Tom Kain and Justin Prain - are experimenting with denser housing developments.

After years of battling for council consent, they are building village-style estates in Yaldhurst and Belfast, one with 350 homes and the other with up to 2000.

The talk is of units and courtyard houses built around cobbled lanes. The plan for Belfast Village includes not only a supermarket but a medical centre, post office and cafes. Prices start from $300,000 for a two-bedroomed house.

The pair say demand is going to be driven by demographics. Already a quarter of Christchurch homes have only one person living in them. A third house a couple.

However, other developers view the village approach as a considerable gamble, given Cantabrian preferences. Stuck on the outskirts of the city also seems the wrong place, but still it is something different, another option.

The market is going to have to provide. People are going to make their choices.

Like brick and tile marked the 1950s, and concrete block and dark- stained timber marked the 1980s, Christchurch is about to see a surge of new-home building which again is going to say something about the tastes and economics of a particular moment in its history.


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