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Medium Density Living in Aotearoa

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Can we have more dense, compact cities, without sacrificing lifestyle or liveability?

As the cities of Aotearoa grow, many are realising – just as in other countries around the world – that there is a need for our cities to become more dense.  The market response has shown increased demand for inner-city living and medium-density ‘townhouse’ developments, with approximately forty percent of new dwelling consents now for townhouses.

Frustration around loss of productive land and sprawling, car-dependent cities recently led the government to legislate, directing our larger cities and urban areas to densify and increase the number of multi-storey townhouses and apartments.

Hamilton City Council is currently progressing Plan Change 12, with a view to concentrating new development and higher densities in the places where it makes most sense, such as near key transport corridors.

Unfortunately the government legislation hasn’t provided much guidance around how higher density homes should be built.  Attempts to meet market demand, and keep prices under control, have seen developers cut floor areas and in some cases important quality-of-life features more than is ideal.

In exploring medium-density housing types with clients, we’ve identified a number of key considerations.  If you find yourself in the market for a new townhouse – or have an interest in their development – here are a few things worth keeping in mind:

Bigger is not necessarily better.

The number of bedrooms is not necessarily the most important thing, but rather the ability to use spaces in multiple ways.  Particularly if you’re downsizing from a larger family home, flexibility is crucial, for example spaces that can easily convert from an additional bedroom when needed to a home office or vice versa.  Likewise often a single garage is not used for a vehicle but as the storeroom / gym / hobby space or washing room, with the odd night here and there for overflow guests.

Having said that,

Living spaces are important.

Living areas, often minimised in smaller footprints, are where a little extra space is most valuable.  Ideally there should be allowance for enough dining and lounge furniture to accommodate 2 people per bedroom.  Once again, spaces that can have multiple uses make for a more functional dwelling.

Storage, storage, and more storage.

One of the most frequently overlooked or neglected aspects in a medium- or higher-density build is sufficient storage, yet this is important for even the most minimalist of occupants.  Children often come with additional things to store (think push chairs, highchairs, cots, bikes etc.).  As does working or studying from home where space to work or to pack equipment away is necessary to avoid permanently sacrificing the kitchen table. Pull down attic stairs and a lined storage space in the ceiling is a great way to add some much-needed flexibility to a design without increasing the floor area.

Access to Transportation.

Individual needs and preferences vary, however being in close proximity to public transport routes at least provides the option of alternative modes of transport.  Likewise if you’re fortunate to be able to buy within walking distance of your workplace.  Particularly if you’re downsizing, making do with one vehicle for the household instead of two may be an advantage, and may enable the repurposing of some garage space for storage or another use.  And of course you’ll feel better about yourself by doing your bit for the planet, not to mention your physical and mental health.

Access to green or recreational space.

The health benefits of access to outdoor recreational spaces are fairly well understood to be significant, with links to longer life expectancy, fewer mental health problems, improved cognitive functioning, better mood and healthier babies, to name a few.  If you’ve had opportunity to view Hamilton from above recently, you’d know that it is in fact quite green.  However, with a smaller section, considering proximity to the nearest park becomes even more important.

Considerations for medium-density houses based on the work of my colleague Andrea Mead.

More specific information about medium-density housing can be found in the guide ‘Medium’ by architect Guy Marriage.

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