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…

 

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