So the Bill of Three Houses, Three Storeys, has passed. Parliament gave it the most unsexy title of all: Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill.

But I think the title of Three 3 Bill would have been more interesting. Certainly, the aftermath of this extraordinarily rushed legislation will be interesting. It will enable intensification to a considerable degree, but probably not where local and central Govt intended, in the centre. Instead, almost certainly, there will be considerable intensification right out on the edge of town. I took a trip to the Upper parts of the Hutt to find some vacant sections ready for intensification. Certainly, this site, remaining on a nameless street, looks primed and ready for a tripling of housing stock, possible with very little effort.

I like the staunchness of this facade, not giving a stuff about addressing the street, or opening out to the sun

So too would this one, just down the next street, similarly unloved (my apologies to the owner if they ever see it and really do love it). But the materials are tired, the lawn is neatly mowed, the spare hub caps neatly displayed. And now they can, without any great difficulty, by putting two more houses on the site – or possibly knocking the existing one down and building three new.

Realistically, knock this down and build three new dwellings

That’s what is happening just a little further down the street, somewhere in the Hutt, where (no doubt after long discussions with the Council planners) they are building many conjoined townhouses, as shown here. There’s many more of these – what feels to me like the middle of nowhere, and I have no idea whether they are even remotely affordable or not. I’d like to think that these are somewhere under $600k each, but really, who knows? Each new townhouse has at least one car parked outside: this is not Density Done Well in my books. Maybe there is a train station nearby, although I didn’t spot one. It’s car city out here.

Cars on the street out the front, and more cars in the parking out the back: everyone has a car or two!

Interestingly, the Bill was opposed by an unholy duo of ACT getting into bed with the Green Party, while famously the Nats are in bed with Labour. ACT says:

The committee was advised that the bill will actually reduce the supply of new homes in the immediate term. Many master-planned developments with the potential to deliver tens of thousands of homes in the next three to four years are likely to be effectively sterilised by the bill.

That is because the bill requires master planned developments to up-zone single house zones to the MDRS zone, which allows for three homes at three storeys.

Developers raised the risk that the MDRS zone is totally incompatible with the size, scale, and location of their developments, which already provide a high average density through apartment and terraced zones.

Infrastructure in master-planned developments such as Stonefields in Auckland is designed to handle exactly the number and configuration of homes inside the development, to minimise the risk of sewer overflows and stormwater contamination and effects on local ecosystems.

Developers contend they will be forced to abandon many years of work costing millions of dollars on land development engineering, specialist ecology and environmental reports for the current plans and designs.”

“Needs work”

So the next thing to need to happen is how to replace run-down old buildings closer in to the centre of Wellington (above, in Lyall Bay) with more developments like the new one below (also in Lyall Bay). The new Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) will enable this building below to also be made higher, as the final report from the Select Committee now recommends a 5m high HIRB and then 60º (changed very slightly down from 6m and 60º). This development below looks as though it would fit neatly into the new 5m and 60º regime, but possibly struggle to fit a third floor within

Seriously, how long do you give it before red car reverses into the street light? I give it a month…

Something, I guess, like this:

I’m guessing that in high-net-value locations like Lyall Bay we are going to see a lot more of developments like this brand new one below. A triplex I presume – 3 units each 3 storeys high. And another set of (identical?) units behind. Both of these developments look to me like they are highly expensive units – they would certainly need to be built well to stand up to the Southerly storms and the abrasive nature of the infamous Lyall Bay sand. Will they withstand a Lyall Bay tsunami as well? Perhaps it is rude to ask….

Note: monster US-style pick-up truck too big to fit in the garage…

While in Lyall Bay I got distracted, as did this lady’s dog…

“Also needs work”

Moving on away from Lyall and back towards Kilbirnie, there is certainly room for improvement in the building stock. These two aged dwellings were ugly to start with and age has not served them well. Personally I would love to see them replaced with a well built bright shiny new development of many townhouses – but this land is subject to liquefaction and so unlikely to be intensively developed. Land condition under sites like these is likely to be soggy. Please note: I have no knowledge of actual site conditions here, except for generalised GNS report.

Fell out of the Ugly tree and hit all the branches on the way down…

But moving back into the city, say, to somewhere in Newtown, we can see what the issues are with sites to develop round here. Some of the properties are already quite tall on their site, and I have no idea what is behind the white box. A mirror image, perhaps? A new extension? An existing semi-detached? But where is the spare land that another two houses could be built on? As can be seen, site coverage is already quite high. The front yard is not much larger than the 2.5m minimum mandated under the new rules. I’m not sure how big the back yard is, if any.

But this picture below is what I’m going to leave you with. No doubt these are dearly loved Newtown doer-uppers, purchased probably for many hundreds of thousands – average Wellington house prices are nearing a million – but this is what the Three3 Bill is aimed at. This is the sort of site that somehow, Wellington needs to seize the chance to redevelop comprehensively, and do it well, with buildings up to 6 storeys high. Newtown is Inner-City and the old 3 storey story really won’t mix it here. I want to come back in a year’s time and see this (below) replaced with the image at bottom.

And if we haven’t done that, then are we wasting our time?

To finish up, here’s the comment I made to Conor the other day:

“In general, to help avoid sprawl, we need to densify, and the most effective place to densify is when it is closest to the centre, right? If you densify in the outer regions, then you’ve almost got a worse problem – more people further out will ultimately just cause more congestion over the whole area. Bus networks are harder to control and run effectively on the outer edges, more people out there on the fringe mean more people will take cars to get into work, and those extra cars will just clog everything in general. 

That was the whole reason why WCC and other Councils spent the time to craft their District Plans in ways that gave a bonus to people living on inner urban spine routes, by allowing them to intensify and densify. No encouragement to people on the outer fringes, but lots of encouragement for people clustered around inner routes and centres. You can build taller and denser and with less questions asked, and one day in the distant future there may be something more substantive than a bus to help with that. Even though your inner city site is probably smaller and probably already quite full of buildings, ie 1 or 2 houses, there was the vague hope of being able to build a third house, or to build taller on your existing properties.

The Gov’s change to that has been, as we know, to now allow those 3 story houses, three per property, everywhere from Kapiti to Upper Hutt, as well as in Wellington. Where we really want more housing is in Wellington – but if I had the cash to buy property at the moment I’d buy a large quarter acre section in Upper Hutt with an old rundown home on it, and build three new houses – a far cheaper and simpler proposition than spending 2-3 times as much for a section on Mt Vic with an existing tiny villa, and no room for 2 more. Of course, if I did densify in Mt Vic then no one would need a car, as all residents on Mt Vic just walk to work (when I lived there in a flat of 5, none of us ever drove). But those three houses on a section in the Hutt, or Kapiti, or wherever? Every single person will need to own a car. Some of them will walk or drive to the train station, while others will train all the way in, but everyone I know in the Hutt has at least one car, sometimes two. So, densifying the outer far-flung suburbs is a sort-of dumb idea.

In terms of those actual houses, the removal of any need to get Resource Consent may sound great, but it could unleash a wave of issues in terms of liveability. For those of us that design things like houses every day it is not too much of a problem – we’re clever people and can make some clever design decisions, but most houses are not designed by architects, and often builders will just roll out a standard plan and plonk it on a site, perhaps with a different colour, or mirrored on the site, no matter where the sun is, or the view etc. Builders are great at building, but they’re generally not so good at design. 

When you’re sticking three houses on one site and still keeping 50% of the site free from buildings, there is very little room to be creative or to fiddle with orientation and views. Often, the easiest thing may be to just have windows looking out to the side boundaries, rather than as usually done, towards the street or towards the back yard. Obviously, with more time and more creativity, it may be possible to develop a style of Courtyard housing suitable for NZ, but in the short term future we face having more houses, potentially looking straight into other people’s windows only 2m apart (2 x 1m side boundaries) as there will be no co-ordination between properties. There will be no ability for the Council to say “Hold on, that’s not such a good idea because Mr Kumar at number 42 is building his house there, but if you moved yours 2m south, that might work better.” None of that. So we risk, as a country, getting some shitty results. 

Now, no doubt over time we will get people pushing to have perimeter housing along street frontages – again, something that may make more sense closer to the urban centres, but less sense further out. But it will not work if just Mr Kumar does that at number 42, and then Dr Ropata does it at number 36, but in between, at numbers 38 and 40, they don’t want to do that. All you’re going to get then is a really crap townscape, for everyone.”