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20 May 2021

Cabin Fever

Like all the best ideas, the concept behind this backyard cabin start-up is so, so simple: take discarded building materials bound for landfill, and up-cycle them into eco-friendly cabins. Genius.


Just over 2500 years ago, in Ancient Greece, a very clever chap called Plato sat down and concluded that ‘necessity was the mother of invention’… or words to that effect.

Fast forward a couple of millennia to a small backyard in suburban Auckland, where the same bolt of inspiration was about to hit Andrew Sorenson as he listened to Radio New Zealand while painting his house.

“The news item said that building regulations were changing, allowing for minor dwellings of up to 30sqm to be built without consent,” recalls Andrew. “This re-ignited my dream of building a small cabin at home, so I set about looking for a green and affordable option. However, I struggled to find a company that would meet my requirements, so I decided to build my own multi-purpose cabin on the back of my section.

“Once I started looking into it, I discovered that Auckland has a huge construction waste problem. From there it seemed obvious to marry the two together. Why not build cabins that addressed the growing national housing shortage and, at the same time, tackled the issue of excessive building waste?”

And so Re-Fab Cabins came into being.

Auckland’s construction industry is responsible for approximately half of the waste that ends up in landfill – that adds up to around 800,000 tonnes per year. As our population and the demand on housing grows, this figure will continue to rise.

Andrew’s goal is to divert unwanted building material from ending up in landfill by recognising its salvageable value and using it to build new cabins. “In future, I would also like to work with local councils to help address the waste problem and set up the infrastructure to manage and up-cycle the waste flow. With government support, we hope to create a closed-loop system.

“I’d like to get rid of skips to change the way the waste is being collected. At the moment, builders can ‘waste’ as much material as they like. I want to change that. Let’s have some respect for the materials that are not used on a building site.” In the same breath, however, Andrew says he has some sympathy for builders. “Talking to them, the majority [of builders] don’t want to throw stuff in the skip, but there are no options or incentives not to.”

While the original concept for his cabin was his own, the design process has grown quickly over the past six months, and is now a collaboration between his new-found clients and his recently formed team at Re-Fab Cabins. Some clients, he says, come armed with Pinterest boards, or a pile of napkin sketches – and once he understands what a client is after, he can tailor one of his standard designs to suit.

Andrew and his team have tried to simplify what he considers the overly complex design and building process. “Someone can simply select the size of the cabin they are after from one of our floor plans and then make the modifications desired. We can then guide them through the process over the phone, or they can come into our Grey Lynn showroom to meet our Re-Fab team and tour one of our show cabins,” he says. “For anyone with an unusually shaped or difficult-to-access site, we recommend a site visit, so we can find the solution that will work best.”

Re-Fab’s pre-approved plans bypass the need to draw up custom plans, and the process needed to get them approved by councils, which can save tens of thousands of dollars, even for the smallest of extensions.

Once a design has been signed off by the client, Re-Fab’s team of builders gets to work constructing the cabin, adhering to the NZ Building Code 3604. Every cabin comes with a materials and workmanship guarantee locked in for 10 years, which sets them apart from competitors, says Andrew.

The added beauty of a Re-Fab cabin is that because each one is built from a variety of materials from different sources, they all tell their own unique story – whether it be of restored windows that once hung in a school, native timber floorboards salvaged from a demolition site, or commercial-grade office carpet that was superfluous to requirements. The end result is a cabin that is not only bespoke and individual, but is also good for the planet.

When it comes to connecting a cabin to utilities – water and electricity, etc – there are restrictions if you want to avoid having to apply for consent. For instance, if you want a bathroom or an ensuite, the waste-water connections need to be approved, as do any fixed cooking appliances, because the building will then need to be fire rated and potentially sited further away from your boundary. However, for electricity, other than cooking, you can run a simple ‘caravan cable’ from your home, or install solar panels, or both.

To address any issues with neighbouring properties, you need to look at the rules governing height to boundary. In essence, you cannot build within two metres of your site’s boundary. To find out whether your proposed structure comes below the height restriction, pick a point on the boundary that’s two-and-a-half metres from ground level, then draw an imaginary line at a 45-degree angle back into your property from that point. If the proposed structure doesn’t intersect that line, then, in theory, you should be OK. It has to be said, however, that a small, single-storey cabin is unlikely to infringe any height-to-boundary rules.

Andrew’s latest project has been to convert his showroom lot – formerly a car yard on Great North Road in Grey Lynn – into a green, thriving space where the local community can gather. He plans to host eco-markets and other events in the hope of raising awareness and having a positive impact in the local community. He has also recently partnered with Habitat for Humanity, donating one cabin for every 10 that he sells for use as emergency shelters for those who need them.

There’s little doubt that, done well, the addition of a small cabin in your backyard will add value to your property. Over and above this, however, is the added utility of having a ‘spare room’ that can be used as a teenage sleep-out or hang-out space, a home office or studio – all for the cost of an average second-hand car. In addition, there is an opportunity to offset some or all of the cost of building it by renting it out. And once it’s paid off, it can provide years of passive income.

Take advantage

Auckland’s Unitary Plan, which, in a nutshell, determines what can be built and where, is turning out to be a game changer for many homeowners. In many instances, it frees up homeowners to take charge of their backyards by building a decent-sized spare bedroom, sleep-out, home office or gym, usually without the need to go through an expensive design and consenting processes. There are, however, some caveats, as mentioned in the article.

All building work must comply with the NZ Building Code, even if no building consent is needed. Also, you have to ensure projects do not damage public service drains if the foundations are close to underground pipes.

Kitchen and bathroom facilities cannot be not included, and all electrical work requires a registered electrician. Auckland Council requires smoke alarms to be installed in sleeping areas. Any plumbing work needs a building consent.

For more information, take a look at Auckland Council’s website.


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