Rethinking the design & build industry for great community outcomes

GreenBridge is engaged in an ongoing conversation about how we can raise the bar of our buildings, landscapes and supporting infrastructure. Our aim is to create communities in which people are connected with each other and connected with their environment, and to create buildings and infrastructure that are healthy for people and the planet..… writes Daniel Woolley, director of GreenBridge.

 

This article summarises a recent conversation that I had with Malcolm Rands - founder and CEO of Ecostore, and also of Fairground Foundation

 

Fairground’s latest project is to develop a successful model of an urban eco-village in central Auckland, alongside development partner Ockham Residential.  I’m fortunate to be one of the people involved in the conversation of what’s needed to take this idea from vision to reality.

 

Above: The central green outside the community lounge at Ockham's Bernoulli Apartments - GreenBridge did the landscape design for this project.

 

FINDING THE RIGHT APPROACH

In order to achieve people being connected with each other and with the landscape, the architecture needs to be designed in concert with the landscape and the landscape design. It is crucial that the designers have an understanding of the various aspects and principles that contribute to a resilient and connected community….

 

It is also important that as designers, we critically assess the design processes we use to achieve holistic outcomes. Often the standard processes for landscape and architectural design don’t recognise or deal with some of the inherent limiting paradigms that they came from…

 

“We cannot solve our problems, with the same thinking we used when we created them” - Albert Einstein

 

HUMAN-SCALED & HUMAN-CENTRED

The Bernoulli Apartments by Ockham Residential, which GreenBridge completed the landscape design for, exhibits some of the key requirements needed to create a human-scaled & human-centred community. These include: corralling and reducing car access & parking; building up instead of out; and creating green space and community-supporting bumpspace at key junctions such as play areas, letterbox areas, pocket parks, & bicycle parking areas.

 

Above: the clustering of medium density housing at Bernoulli Apartments means that there is lots of green space for everyone to enjoy. Here, the fruit trees are in full blossom.

 

ONE SHOE SIZE…

It is clear that a single approach to housing and to the physical & invisible infrastructure that forms a community, will not provide an outcome that fits all people. 

 

Our solutions need to take into account the varying density, from rural to suburban to urban. There are also cultural and financial demographics that need to be considered. Standard subdivisions, papakainga housing, social housing, retirement villages, medium density housing, and apartments all need to be overhauled with the holistic design lens. 

 

Several models will need to be developed in order to transform the way we are creating and living in our various communities. These models will need to be scaleable & replicable.

 

REDUCING HOUSING COSTS

The primary cost of developing housing in New Zealand is generally the purchase price of the land, with this directly affecting the approach taken to design and development.  The second aspect driving house prices is the current speculative feeding frenzy, with over 80% of all house purchases currently made in the Auckland market being made by speculative investors, rather than occupying home owners.  The third major driver of housing prices is the method and process of construction being applied…  In NZ our residential building industry could be described as a cottage industry, with our two largest building companies building less that 100 homes each year.

 

The building industry looks likely to be the next profession to be transformed by disruptive technology.  Like the telecommunication dinosaurs of a few years back, technology has the potential to completely change how we plan and build homes.  Most homes are currently built onsite, which is slow, expensive, and weather dependant.  The old model of prefabrication has moved to the current model of mass duplication, but the future is a model of mass customisation. This is possible through technology that connects our building planning through to its construction, in the same way that CNC technology changed the way we build cabinetry with design programs that automatically optimise cutting patterns, directly controlling the machinery that selects, cuts and labels the various pieces for construction. 

 

Paraphrasing architect and critic Tommy Honey from his talk at the Sustainable Housing Summit a couple of years back, the New Zealand building industry could learn a lot from smart phones… Smart phones have only been around for about 8 years, but in that time they have revolutionised the way we communicate, do business and socialize.  The physical structure of smart phones are essentially all the same – a touch screen, with a microphone, camera, a motion sensor, mobile phone capabilities, and computer hardware.  Customisation  is rampant though - not from a reinvention of the hardware, but through easily interchanged apps and a plethora of external covers to match tastes & requirements.

 

High performance, healthy, and affordable homes could also be based on a standard design and construction that allows for mass duplication to achieve these objectives. And like the smart phone that relies on internal apps and external covers for customization, the new “smart home” could rely on interior fit-out and changes in cladding materials and detailing… to customize the look and feel, to meet different parts of the market and style preferences.

 

While it might seem that this contradicts my earlier statement that a single approach will not provide an outcome that fits all people, I think there is need for both: a diversity of models; and standardised, modular buildings (with customisation)….. working together.

 

Above: Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood, a cohousing project in Auckland, uses repeated building design which is also customisable.

 

LEGAL STRUCTURES & FINANCIAL MODELS

The final and possibly most critical aspect of creating a successful new model for property and community development, is the invisible structures that support the objectives of the project.  These invisible structures include the legal structures, financial models, and community commitments made. 

 

The formats and specifics of each of these structures potentially have more impact on the success of the model than all of the physical structures combined.

 

Some models, ideas, and examples worth considering (or learning from) include pocket neighbourhoods, co-housing, rent-to-buy, community land trusts, long term leases, shared equity, savings pools, Hypatia, Nightingale, Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood, body corps, companies etc…

 

Which trees for your Lifestyle Block or Farm?

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.  The second best time is now.”  This most fabulous quote never fails to galvanise me into action and order my priorities…writes Bena Denton.
 

With winter upon us, its time to plant trees - to both increase the aesthetic appeal of our landscapes and with some clever choices, also increase land value and/or generate income.  If you have a lifestyle block or farm, there are many options: specimen trees for beauty and legacy; treecrops for fruit, nuts, and income; woodlots for firewood; high value forestry; manuka for the honey; riparian strips or wetlands for ecological restoration; and shelterbelts for animal wellbeing and diversity.
 
But where to start and why?  Lets take a step back and examine the condition of our rural landscapes…we may see reason for concern.  With a mere 11% of forest cover remaining in New Zealand, our landscape is vastly different from what it was 100 years ago and anything less than 15% forest cover, critically affects long term diversity.  This scenario begs us to re-examine our role as guardians of the land.  As a general rule when regenerating land, we should aim for 30% coverage and of this, 30% is ideally pioneer or nitrogen fixing species to speed up the process.

Above: Taranaki's landscape has been largely denuded of tree cover.

 
Let's start with shelter, as it’s the backbone of a healthy landscape.  I will be brief as earlier blogs have covered this area.  Planting ridges and hilltops soaks water into the ground, high in the landscape, which recharges aquifers and creates higher water resilience in times of drought. Plant the tallest shelter on the south boundary to buffer cold southerlies, and plant lower shelter to the east and west.  Orient internal shelterbelts north-south so as not to block winter sun.  Animal health increases with shade and wind protection, and the same shelter (with clever selection) can also provide additional high mineral fodder, as well as emergency fodder for times of feed deficit.  Mix nitrogen fixing trees into your shelter, such as tagasaste and alder and you are growing fertiliser on site.
 
Most wetlands in Taranaki have been drained and our water table severely lowered (hence we experience ‘drought’ despite our high rainfall).  Far too many rivers in Taranaki are testing unsuitable for consumption even for livestock.  Rivers and streams require a riparian strip at least twenty metres from any waterway, allowing the water to soak in and re-emerge clean.  Fortunately for both wetland and riparian areas, trees offer multiple solutions. 

Above: Riparian margins must be at least 20m wide to clean up run-off.

 

High-value forestry may be a good choice for your land block: generating a long-term financial return and (if harvested sensitively) becoming a major contributor to river health.  High-value forestry species worth considering are; Acacia melanoxylon, Alder, Eucalyptus, Black Walnut, Totara, and Californian Redwood - have your site assessed for species suitability.
 
Woodlots are a relatively new addition to the New Zealand psyche but are actually an ancient and sensible approach to sustainable firewood.  If you have a wood burner and a spare corner, you will require only 40-100sqm meters of land to grow all the firewood you need.  Suitable firewood species in Taranaki include: Poplar, Alder (N), Eucalyptus, Ash, Acacia (N), Chestnut, and Japanese Cedar.  A diversity of firewood species is desirable (an insurance if you will) as is grouping a nitrogen fixer (N) with another species, as the N-fixer aids the growth of the second.   After seven to nine years, trees are selectively coppiced (cut below knee height, which produces continual multi-stems that are harvested for wood products.  Growth from a coppice is faster from the original seedling, because the root system is vigorous and well established.  Harvested at the right size, all you need is a chainsaw, so coppicing is a practical and economical way to produce firewood, right at your doorstep.

Above: A recently coppiced tree, which will re-grow.

 
Let’s end with specimen trees, as I find these often capture people's imagination and give the "wow factor" to any large block of land.  The first consideration is the site itself.  If your land is like most in Taranaki it’s probably bare pasture, and herein lies the problem: what speciman trees will thrive in wind?  Obvious natives include; Pohutakawa, Cabbage Tree, Karaka or Kowhai.  With spacing 3-10m apart, these trees are a sure bet and look great framing a driveway.  Exotic species that are more likely to do well in exposed conditions include; Alder, Elm, Poplar, Willow, and Japanese Cedar.  Why not try something edible like Chestnut or Walnut?  Most deciduous trees that offer desirable autumn colour are also tender wee things but you could try Maple Acer freemanii ‘jeffers red’ or Oak ‘Quercus rubra’ where it is more sheltered.

Above: Magnificent autumn colour.

 
For those spots that are fully sheltered and you are looking for something special, my favourites are Gleditsia, Ginkgo, Maple, Silver Birch, and for its flowers Chinese Dogwood.  The key in selecting a specimen tree is its suitability to site conditions. And go for scale: with a large bit of land you have the luxury of planting big.

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Bena Denton is an Ecological Landscape Designer and is part of the GreenBridge team.  She lives with her family in Omata and is enjoying regenerating their 10acre property.
 

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