Mantaining Auckland’s Fine-Grain Residential Character

4 Jun

Submissions on the Draft Unitary Plan closed last week with “more than 10,000 Aucklanders” giving feedback. While Isthmus support the emphasis on intensification to create a more compact and liveable city, we consider the Unitary Plan could be refined to better promote fine-grain innovative housing that would build on Auckland’s character. Our submission – authored by Gavin Lister – focused on how the  Residential rules could better support this.


Auckland’s Character

Auckland’s suburbs have a fine-grain, low-rise and varied character that is a consequence of its historical development. That is, they have been developed lot-by-lot, by individual owners, and small-scale builders. Such characteristics are common to new housing and renovation of existing houses alike. As well as visual character, such a pattern of development also reflects underlying characteristics such as creative engagement by residents in designing their house and a sense of ownership (proprietorship) in their suburb.

The Unitary Plan

The Unitary Plan, on the other hand, is widely perceived as promoting intensification that would be contrary to these characteristics. It is perceived as promoting forms of apartments and terrace housing that depend on aggregation of lots, greater capital and larger-scale developers. Such developments typically have a coarser grain, often horizontal proportions, and individual dwellings are subsumed within a corporate identity. The inhabitants are consumers rather than active agents.

Such perceptions are partly the result of examples highlighted in the media but they are also partly warranted to the extent that the Unitary Plan (and accompanying material) does not promote the fine-grain intensification that would be more in keeping with the characteristics described above.

For instance, intensification around centres is predicated on concepts of apartment buildings and terrace housing. At the same time the development controls for these areas, and also in the remaining ‘mixed-housing’ and ‘single-home’ residential zones, do not facilitate the types of fine grain intensification that could take place.

Fine Grain Intensification

The characteristics of such fine-grain intensification include the following:

  • Individual free-hold lots;
  • Free-standing buildings (even where the gap may be as little as 50mm or ‘zero lot aligned’);
  • Individually designed and constructed (typically by small building firms);
  • Funded by owners (typically through mortgages);
  • Active input by the owners to the design (perhaps through architects);

Scale-able (one lot at a time); and

  • Fine grain (typically with vertical rather than horizontal proportions).

Such characteristics are not tied to a specific typology, but can be applied to a range of typologies:

  • Free-standing suburban houses;
  • ‘Small homes’;
  • Free-standing terrace houses;
  • Free-standing ‘urban houses’ and narrow apartments;

Free-standing Suburban Houses

Hobsonville Point illustrates examples of free-standing houses on lots typically of 250m2 – 270m2, with all the attributes of suburban typology (garaging, front garden, rear yard, separate houses). Intensification is achieved by reducing the depth of the front garden, reducing lot width, limiting side yards to one side of the house (through zero lot lines), and maximising the usefulness of a reduced rear yard by integrating yard and living space.

Such houses would not satisfy the minimum lot size, yard requirements or height-in-relation-to-boundary rules for the mixed housing and single house zones.


Free-standing Small Homes

The ‘Small Homes’ project at Hobsonville Point provides examples of new homes with footprints in the order of 60m2-70m2, both one and two storeys, on lots between 110m2 and 180m2. They depend on quality design including the internal layout, the relationship of the house to outdoor space, the lot layout (so that the homes have privacy, outlook and sun), and aesthetic appearance. The lot size is what’s left after the other parameters have been met rather than providing the starting point.

Such houses address both affordability and intensity. However, they would be difficult to consent under the current Unitary Plan standards relating to minimum lot size, height in relation to boundary, and side yards. Their success depends on the design process (which lends itself to a restricted discretionary approach) rather than generic rules. It also depends on variety, with such development integrated amongst other housing forms and a range of lot sizes to avoid the issues that arise with over-repetitive use of any housing type.


Free-standing Terraces

While terrace housing is a useful typology, rows of identical units have a different scale to the fine grain of traditional suburbs
(they are perceived as a row rather than as individual homes). However, there are historical and modern examples of terraces in which units are individually designed and/or are free-standing (e.g. with 50mm gaps between side walls). Borneo Sporenburg in the Netherlands is a well-known example of such an approach to the terrace typology. C19th terraces in parts of Sydney similarly illustrate the same approach where each terrace was built by separate owners in a similar but not identical style to its neighbours with narrow gaps between boundary walls. There are examples in early parts of Auckland of ‘almost terraces’ comprising narrow homes with a blank side wall close to the boundary on one side, and a narrow path down the opposite side of the house.


Free-standing ‘Urban Homes’ and Narrow Apartments

Vinegar Lane illustrates an example of apartments and ‘urban houses’ with 100% site coverage on separate free-hold lots as small as 80m2. In that case the site is suitable for four storey buildings incorporating outdoor living within the building footprint (balconies, courtyards, roof terraces). Each building may be a single urban home, or subdivided into walk-up apartments. The development will have a fine grain with buildings of various widths between 6m – 12m. Each one is to be individually designed.

There are examples of similar free-standing apartments or urban homes in areas such as Parnell and the Victoria Quarter. Such intensification is particularly suited to the centres where the Unitary Plan places greatest emphasis – around centres and along corridors. It would lend itself as readily to limits of 2 or 3 storeys. Two-storey examples, for instance, could provide for significant fine-grain intensification around centres (and provide affordable housing) and a distinctive urban lifestyle without changing the predominant height of suburbs.

To summarise, intensification using a range of housing typologies (including apartments and terraces but also including free-standing urban homes and ‘small homes’) can be achieved using fine-grain processes that underpin the existing characteristics valued in Auckland’s suburbs. In fact, we consider intensification is more likely to be achieved in this way.

Such an approach would provide the variety and fine texture that is important to provide for the range of affordability, life stages and life style within individual suburbs. It is more likely to contribute to the qualities that make Auckland special. Suburbs become monotonous and one-dimensional in both appearance and socially when any house typology becomes overly repetitive or there are overly standardised lot sizes and site controls. This approach suggested in this submission is more likely to contribute to the qualities that make Auckland special.


Need for Design

Fine-grained intensification, however, does depend on good design applied to each specific site. It also requires adaptability in controls. Standards and formulaic design approaches applied across the city are blunt tools that are often contrary to the best answer for individual sites. A better approach is greater use of ‘restricted discretionary’ mechanisms and design review. In short, the smaller things get the more they have to be designed.

Promoting good examples is also important. Cities such as Auckland have developed by individuals copying and refining existing examples. In a sense it is ‘viral’ in nature. Better design will be achieved by promoting the best examples and raising the bar one project at a time.

For those reasons we recommend the following:

  • Refining the rules to provide greater flexibility;
  • Design review for all intensification projects through use of ‘restricted discretionary’ mechanisms and a streamlined urban design review; and
  • Promotion of concepts and examples of fine-grain intensification.


1. More flexible development controls to enable better use of individual lots:

  • Height-in-relation to boundary controls should be liberalised so that dwellings can be located closer to the southern part of the site to maximise use of the lot. Perversely, current controls effectively push all homes to the wrong part of the site reducing the potential relationship between home and outdoor space;
  • Enable subdivision to create narrow lots fronting the street. For instance 6m-7m wide lots would enable conventional lots to be subdivided to create (say) 3 x 150m2- 200m2 lots suitable for either terraces, or narrow free-standing houses.
  • Do not protect outlook to side boundaries. Enabling blank walls up to at least one storey on side boundaries would increase the ability to increase density. Such controls might at least be relaxed in the front parts of sites to encourage houses to be built closer together and close to the street while maintaining outlook and sun to gardens.
  • Limit the maximum number of storeys rather than height. The number of storeys is more significant in terms
  • of character than actual height. Roof forms in keeping with neighbourhoods can also be promoted by allowing additional living space within roof-space (e.g. maximum 2 or 3 storey, with additional living space permitted in roof)
  • Similarly, limiting storeys rather than height encourages rooms with taller stud heights which are better as density increases – such rooms feel more spacious, allow for taller windows that provide better light and sun access, and enable lower sections of windows to be shuttered while retaining light and outlook. Any controls might focus on minimum floor heights. Taller studs also create more flexibility for a range of activities (especially at ground floor).
  • Remove requirements for minimum lot size. The lot size should be the consequence of other parameters such as outdoor space, sun access, outlook and privacy, rather than the determining factor. It is also important for a variety of lot sizes within each of the residential zones to provide for the variety of affordability, life stage and lifestyle to be found in vital suburbs.

2. Promote ‘restricted discretionary’ mechanisms along with design review to promote good design for all intensification. Limit the scope of permitted activities. For instance, we suggest that beyond a low threshold all applications for intensification should be reviewed by an Urban Design Panel  (perhaps pared down from the current format).

3. Promote examples of good design. Promote concepts and good examples of fine-grain intensification as benchmarks. For instance through guidelines, web-sites, exemplars that can be used through the design review process, and annual awards. Cities evolve by individuals tailoring typical designs to individual sites. Good examples raise the bar for those that follow.


31 May 2013


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