Why don't we have affordable barn houses in New Zealand? A plan to beat the housing emergency

February 19, 2019
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ACCORDING to a recent Yale University study, a New Zealand that once led the world in social reform has, lately, led the OECD in homelessness. At the time of the Yale report, the New Zealand Government had no real plan to do anything about the problem either. So the revelation of how far we had fallen, both in terms of social idealism and in terms of the effectiveness of our systems to meet the needs of the people, was doubly embarrassing.

‘Housing in New Zealand’, a short 1946 NZ National Film Unit Documentary (Part 2 of 2)

That was then — And this is now:

Truncated version of graph in Joseph Chamie, 'As Cities Grow Worldwide, So Do the Numbers of Homeless’, YaleGlobal, 13 July 2017. Original data source OECD. Right-most edge of graph equates to 1% of the national population. Blue bars refer to countries with an active official national strategy to limit homelessness, red to countries without such a strategy. Reproduced with permission.

The cause of the crisis lies in the so-called ‘rolling back of the state’ that took place in the 1980s, whereby central government abdicated many responsibilities and left them to local communities and the free market to fix.

For instance, Queenstown, where I live, gets half of New Zealand’s overseas visitors. Roughly two million tourists come through Queenstown every year.

Yet, Queenstown, with only just over 20,000 inhabitants, is expected to supply the necessary public infrastructure for half the tourism industry and its workforce out of local property taxes.

In May 2016, a newspaper article reported that there were nearly ten thousand vacant lots in Queenstown: vacant lots fully permitted to have houses built on them. The backlog in construction was partly because the local council didn’t have the money to provide the necessary roads, water, sewage and electric power itself, and was in a squabble with would-be developers as to who should pay.

And so Queenstown has the most expensive housing in New Zealand even though it has one vacant lot for every two inhabitants.

In the same month that the number of vacant lots was revealed, the Labour opposition spokesperson on housing, Phil Twyford, visited Queenstown and declared that:

“I don’t think council or the [Queenstown Community Housing] trust have the balance sheet or assets to do this on their own. It needs central Government to be part of the solution.”

Queenstown’s housing crisis was a national emergency, part of a wider national housing emergency which was also bound up with a national tourist-industry organisation emergency.

Many of New Zealand’s other boomtowns, including the big city of Auckland, suffered from similar problems that only the Government could fix; problems that added up to a huge national crisis.

In the 2017 elections, a Labour-dominated coalition, led by the energetic young Jacinda Ardern, was elected to fix the national crisis of homeless and the other crises that had come to grip the country. The rolling back of the state was now over. It was going to roll forward again, in the shape of a bulldozer.

Well, that was the theory at any rate. In practice, it soon turned out that most of the new Government’s schemes were long-term. The average voter wasn’t going to see much change by the time the next election rolled around.

My search for an affordable small-house design

Meanwhile, I was trying to build a 70 square metre (753 square foot) flat behind my house in Queenstown.

In New Zealand the word ‘flat’ means apartment, as in Britain, but it can also mean a small freestanding house. Such a small house can generally be erected without formal subdivision consents in New Zealand, whether to cater for aged relatives, or for anyone else who is looking for somewhere modest to live.

If every eligible New Zealand property-owner availed themselves of these permissive laws, we probably wouldn’t have a housing crisis at all.

A 70-square-metre house was what I had decided to build, with a view to renting it out or living in it myself while I rented out the main house.

Small house is the architectural term for a house over fifty square metres or so, up to a full size house around ninety square metres (a square metre is just under eleven square feet).

As such, the small house is not the same as the currently-fashionable sub-50 square metre tiny house, but, rather, the next size up. It’s a less extreme idea, and has a much longer and more extensive architectural pedigree dating back to the 1920s or thereabouts. Architects in those days saw it as a challenge to try and solve the social problems of the day by coming up with clever, but affordable, designs for small houses that had two or even three bedrooms. Frankly, it’s the more practical option for lot of people.

Small houses could stand alone, or be joined to others to make flats in the British sense of the word. It was easy to group houses or flats of this size into really clever two-and three-dimensional clusters. For instance, on a hillside, the roof of one small house could serve as the patio of the next one above.

As that example suggests, rambling clusters of small houses, hugging the terrain, could make good use of difficult sites. Such clusters could also achieve a high density of development without being obviously ‘intensive’ or overshadowing in the way that taller buildings were.

For these reasons, small houses often lay at the heart of government-led social housing developments in the twentieth century. They were widely seen as a better option than tower blocks, which generated a lot of negative publicity.

Here’s an aerial photo of a cluster of English 1960s small houses, built at a locality called Sunny Blunts by a public agency called the Peterlee Development Corporation under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Victor Pasmore. The small houses went in after an earlier scheme for tower blocks was rejected. Clearly, the planners got it right that time.

Small-house development at Sunny Blunts, Peterlee, England. This is widely regarded as one of the most positive examples of 1960s British social housing. Project architect Victor Pasmore’s modernist, 1969–1970 Apollo Pavilion spans one end of the small, bright-green ornamental lake at the heart of the development, a structure intended to serve as a “a symbol of adventure, hope and optimism” for the surrounding community, of which only a part is shown here. Compact clusters of houses are embedded in a bosky green belt. Such comparative success stories get less publicity than negative, but more newsworthy, accounts of tower-block alienation. Imagery ©2019 DigitalGlobe, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Map data ©2019 Google.

Of course, it’s also possible to build small houses one at a time on existing suburban back gardens, which is what I was planning to do.

Indeed, I did wonder why New Zealand’s homelessness crisis had not been solved through ubiquitous construction of small houses by public and private enterprise alike.

I soon got my answer. The answer was that in 21st century New Zealand, everything in this size range seemed to be really expensive for what you actually got.

Converted containers looked cheap, but, only because they were so tiny. I liked one 40 square metre design using two containers — a bit smaller than what I was after — but the NZ $200,000 pricetag for the finished product put me off.

It seemed that, these days, the New Zealand building industry was geared up to build large, luxurious houses — which was where the profit now lay — and was no longer into producing anything small and cheap.

In fact, smaller houses seemed to be more expensive to build on a size for size basis. Once finished, furnished, plumbed and everything else, you were constantly looking at four or five thousand New Zealand dollars per square meter, or more, in the smaller size ranges.

(The local minimum wage here will be NZ $17.70 an hour from April 2019. A lot of New Zealand workers don’t get much more than that.)

Neither the small house, nor even the tiny house, seemed to be a particularly affordable proposition in New Zealand unless you went and did the minimum to an old bus or garage, already in existence, to render it habitable for one person.

This was probably why there weren’t enough small houses being erected to make a dent in the housing crisis.

One ray of hope was the fact that steel barns seemed to be really cheap in New Zealand. I knew that people often made steel barns into houses, though usually in larger sizes. Anyhow, I found a barn that could be made in a 70 square metre house and got a friend of mine to draw up some initial plans, here.

It didn’t take my friend too long, and this is what he came up with. His plans are quite ingenious, with a corner staircase and two upstairs decks. Though only 70 sq m. in total, the house has two bedrooms upstairs with private decks, and the downstairs lounge can be turned into a bedsit too if desired. And it has a small footprint of only 35 square metres, and would be easy to keep warm as well.

The basic idea, realised in Sketchup and Paint. The detailed drawings below flesh it out.

But then came a slip twixt cup and lip.

A draughtsman I knew refused to finish the detailing for me, arguing that there were too many non-standard features such as the sliding gull wing doors on the roof, and that that would be a big hassle to get past the local council.

Building firms I contacted either weren’t interested or wanted ten thousand dollars or more to revise the plans, after which they would talk about the cost of the physical conversion. Another firm told me that it would cost NZ $370,000 to completely finish the job.

Why can’t we be like Estonia?

By this stage I was starting to get frustrated. In some countries overseas such as Estonia, Europe’s largest exporter of kitset buildings, they are able to produce kitset wooden houses made out of interlocking pieces of wood, for delivered prices of less than NZ $1,000 per square metre in markets such as the UK. The kitsets are quick to erect and don’t have much in the way of hidden construction costs, as the solid wood walls don’t need lining, insulation or exterior cladding.

The wood consists of machined whole logs, trimmed to make them squarish, with a tongue-and-groove system so that the logs slot together. The product is called a log house, though because the logs are squared off it looks modern and conventional, not like the Daniel Boone sort of log cabin.

(Though you can have that style too, if you want; a style used to illustrate an Irish newspaper story about affordable Estonian housing kitsets.)

So I thought I might give this system a go. Garden sheds made this way are imported from Estonia and sold in New Zealand, though I noticed that nobody seemed to import the house-sized products.

A couple of experts I spoke to said that it was hard to seal log houses against New Zealand’s driving winter rains. Also, I found out that while there was no problem in theory with machining logs of New Zealand’s abundant, soft pine in the same way, nobody was doing so.

There were too many doubts about its durability for this application, compared to the slow-grown Nordic spruce that the Estonians use. New Zealand pine grows quickly and is normally harvested after less than 30 years, which means that it is softer and more susceptible to rot.

While there are houses built on a modern log-cabin principle in New Zealand, the interlocking pieces are quite complicated, made up of insulation, sealing materials, and multiple strips of wood. The final product is more expensive than the Estonian equivalent and not produced in the same numbers.

Although New Zealand’s pine forests cover an area almost as great as the forests of Estonia, they do not support a similarly innovative cluster of downstream industries.

Indeed, most of New Zealand’s timber exports consist of raw logs, destined for low-value uses such as concrete boxing. One of the most significant reasons for this is the limited durability of New Zealand pine in outdoor conditions.

A Simple Solution

At this point my friend, who designed the flat, had a brainwave. Why doesn’t New Zealand invest in systems for producing low-cost pine interiors, on the same Lego-like principle as the Estonians, while using steel sheds (or any other system desired) to shield these interiors from the elements?

A system focused only on interiors, from machined logs, could use smaller logs than the heavy sixty-year old Estonian ones, ones that perhaps only took fourteen years to grow in the warmer parts of New Zealand such as the economically depressed Northland region.

While I got an estimate of $370,000 to turn my friend’s design into a finished flat, it’s obvious that if a steel shed was combined with a kitset interior that was pre-designed and mass-produced from small, fast-grown pine logs, it would come in at a heck of a lot less than that: probably under NZ $100,000.

As well as enabling the houses to be built quickly, a system based on the combination of steel barns and Lego-like interior kitsets made of machined pine logs would also enable New Zealand to get around the shortage of suitably trained workers in the conventional building trades. This skills shortage is supposed to be a show-stopper otherwise.

Over the longer term, once the housing crisis is solved locally, nterior kitsets could be exported, with or without their outer shells.

I think this could be the way ahead: to tackle New Zealand’s housing crisis in the short run, add value to New Zealand timber exports, create jobs in places like Northland, and help the Government to say that they really do have an emergency plan.

Over to you, Phil!

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