Written by John Williams
It has to. Land in our inner-city suburbs is scarce, and the price of the little slices that are available is being driven skywards by increasing demand from a growing population eager to take advantage of shorter commutes, better transport links, and proximity to popular entertainment and hospitality hubs, such as the Ponsonby Road strip.
With land at an absolute premium, we need to find ways of using it more effectively and more efficiently. One of the obvious answers is to build more densely using a cookie-cutter or modular building methodology – enter the plethora of developer-led apartment projects that have popped up along our ridgelines over the past few years.
While the arrival of these new developments has offered a comparatively low-cost entry point into the popular suburbs of Grey Lynn, Ponsonby et al, the clear driver for most of their developers has been a focus on maximising returns rather than enhancing the liveability of their projects by developing a housing model that fosters a sense of community or real value for money.
For most of us, including husband-and-wife architectural team Thom Gill and Helle Westergaard, this is neither surprising nor new – it’s the way things have been in all the major cities around the world for decades. But there is an alternative, and it’s called co-housing.
Gill explains co-housing as a group of like-minded people working together to build homes that they themselves will live in. Once finished, certain facilities are shared within the community so that individual units enjoy more amenities than they would have in a normal commercial property development. “By removing the profit margin and by sharing resources, co-housing produces good-quality housing at a more affordable price than commercial developments,” he says.
One of the key drivers to the success of any co-housing project is that it is designed, built and lived in by people who plan to be long-term residents. A sense of community responsibility, both between the residents and to neighbouring property owners, is at the core of the project.
"It’s an alignment of incentives,” he says. “Good-quality housing that lasts a long time - because the owners are going to live there themselves; reasonably priced, with money spent on the right things - because it's the owners' money and they determine how it is being spent; and a positive contribution to the local community – because the owners are going to be part of that community themselves."
Co-housing’s roots hark back to Denmark in the 1960s, with the idea quickly spreading to neighbouring Sweden. In the mid-1970s schemes progressed south into Holland. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that co-housing made the jump across the Channel and the Atlantic to make an appearance in the UK and the USA. Today, eight percent of Danish households are in co-housing projects, and in Holland there are over 200 senior-only and 100-plus women-only communities.
Interestingly, here in New Zealand, the principles of co-housing echo many of the traditions of Maori housing, as seen in indigenous buildings, such as papakāinga, pā, and kāinga. Looking to more recent history, the first recognised modern form of a modern co-housing development in New Zealand is the Earthsong Eco Neighbourhood, established in 1995 in the West Auckland suburb of Ranui, and it’s still going strong.
Despite the potential contribution to affordable housing, and interest from local and central government in alternative models of housing, a number of co-housing groups in Auckland since the advent of Earthsong have struggled to navigate the complexities of finding a suitable site, financing land purchase, and completing the planning process; that is, until now.
A chance meeting three years ago between Gill and Westergaard, and another like-minded couple, David Welch, a computer science lecturer at the University of Auckland, and his partner Georgianne Griffiths, spawned the idea to create CoHaus, a 19-unit co-housing development that is now in the process of going through resource consent application to build on a 2006sqm site on Surrey Crescent – currently home to residential mental health facility Fairleigh Lodge, which closed in June.
Gill says that their Surrey Crescent site ticks all the boxes.Being close enough to the central city so that residents rely less on cars and more on sustainable forms of transport; close to a local centre and transport links so that living without a car is possible; big enough to accommodate multiple units, with ample space for an outdoor courtyard; and affordable – meaning a two-bed, 70sqm unit will cost around $750,000 once completed.
All residents would jointly own and have shared access to the common facilities. "The basic model is that all the costs get put together – the land, the interest, all the professional services, the building – and then, if you're buying, say, a 100sqm apartment and that's five percent of the total floor area, then you pay five percent of the total cost," says Welch.
CoHaus would likely be cheaper to buy into than other nearby apartment blocks because its developers would also be residents, so there wouldn't be any profit margin, he says.
“The site currently has an old villa and a sprawl of newer annexes and extensions,” says Gill. “We plan to remove the modern additions and move the villa onto its own site on Browning Street. The villa will then be sold, leaving CoHaus with the remaining 2000sqm site.”
Gill’s plans propose a three-storey building on Surrey Crescent, with a two-storey building behind. The buildings are arranged around a shared north-facing courtyard, and will house units ranging in size from one to five bedrooms.
"We're also looking at having a common room that will act as a flexible space for parties or dinners,” says Gill. “There will be a big bike shed, because lots of people are keen on cycling, with charging points for electric bikes. We're also interested in a pair of shared cars that would be owned by the body corporate, so people can ditch their own cars.”
Aside from the practicalities of housing families, the complex is designed to subtly encourage people to run into each other – quite a different approach from some of the neighbouring apartments, where privacy is first and foremost. "In our case, there's a common pathway around the inside of a courtyard leading to most of the units, which is how you get to your front door. You pass other people's doors and run into people,” he says. "Fundamentally it's more sociable.”
Understandably, the uptake on CoHaus has been brisk with all of the units already snapped up, leaving over 100 hopefuls on the waiting list. Households span every generation and range from families of five to single people. Some within the group have known each other for many years, while others have only just met through CoHaus in the last year.
Despite the different ages and diverse backgrounds, members of this new group share a common goal – a commitment to a strong community and living in a way that cares for our environment. And that’s something to be encouraged and applauded.