Is housing really an issue for architects?

Life in the outer suburbs has never been so tight. Despite the District Plan stating that (in the Outer Residential Area – where this photo was taken) a minimum of 50 sqm of open outside space per household unit must be provided (, with a maximum site coverage of 35% (, clearly not everyone is prioritising these in their building.

While the rules for infill housing (5.3.4) are clearly different to, or at least bend and break the mainstream residential rules, there are examples around town which raise the question – Why do these people live in the suburbs?  Wouldn’t almost any apartment deliver better living conditions than this?

Suburbia (children playing on freshly mown lawns, clothing blowing on the lines, neighbours chatting over fences, everyone happy and smiling and on valium) is an image which has never been universally attainable – but it was one dependent on a specific relationship between indoor and outdoor space.  But saying this assumes that the underlying premise of suburbia is/was one reliant on the physicality of architecture and design to deliver it.

Clearly aspirations for good design are no longer prevalent, and it’s possible they never were really that important to the majority.  More obvious now, and no doubt always critical to the suburban dream, is the aspiration for home ownership as an abstract ideal, rather than an architecturally desirable thing.  Suburbia is underpinned by the communal assumption that houses (as an investment) is – well “safe as houses.”  The ability to get better living accommodation for everyone, and to increase the percentage of well-designed medium and high density housing in order to better use the planet’s environmental resources, is hence not an issue that architects have any power or ability to determine.  The shift is one that has to happen in financial literacy and education, and in undoing the dominant reliance on home ownership as investment, and perhaps home ownership.  It was the propgandists following the war – the political fight between  renting and the perception of home ownership in the suburb as guaranteeing more security – which has determined our cultural dependency on owning the places we live in.

If we believe that in order to support better city design, access to urban infrastructure (transportation etc), long term resilience (given peak oil etc), community building, pedestrianisation etc. that high and medium density housing is critical to the future city, then perhaps our energies should not go exclusively into the good design of these.  There are already excellent examples of good inner city living.  Instead the link between financial security and home ownership needs to be rethought, and the propagandic use of aspirational images of suburbia (which probably didn’t even materially exist for most in the 1950s) need undermining.  If city councils and government really think more intelligently about “affordable housing” they really need to stop using the term.  Instead the shift that should be supported should be increasing the viability and appeal of long term tenancy, and the financial literacy of the population.


16 responses to “Is housing really an issue for architects?”

  1. All well and good, and I don’t disagree, but now is hardly a good time to redirect financial investments to, say the stockmarket, or financial institutions for that matter, and banks don’t really offer much in terms of return either.

    While we are all well aware that we should diversify, it is difficult to have diverse enough knowledge to operate in this manner – without having to trust your friendly smiling financial investment broker (who it appears after recent events, knows even less than the rest of us, and is most likely not in it for your benefit… – to generalise a little).

    Property, even despite a recent plateau-ing is still really the safest form of slef-managed (or perhaps any managed) investment (unless yours is leaky that is).

    So, what to do?

  2. richard Avatar

    I guess it’s as much something for designers/architects to understand as homeowners. The strategy I think many architects have taken in the past is that to address this issue (of needing to make higher density housing appealing) as if it is one of design. If it’s not then we have to rethink how we raise issues in a way that makes them plausible for homeowners, policy makers, general NZ etc.

  3. time to get political then huh?

  4. Barry D Avatar
    Barry D

    Hindsight is a great thing really, isn’t it. As you may have noticed, the stock markets have been on a bull run all over the world, since Feb this year, and are continuing at present.
    Why so?
    Simple answer is: there is no faith in housing. Bottom (and faith) has dropped out of the housing market. While (2000-2007) there was massive investment in housing, because, well, everyone else is making money from it, so why shouldn’t I too, since the horrendous loss in value of housing in UK, US, and around the world, the stock markets are getting full of cash from people who want a safe place to stick their money.
    Housing clearly isn’t cutting it any more.

    So: when will this happen in NZ? The market has been a bit stagnant, but has not yet plummetted downwards as yet.

    Answer: using Foresight, I’d hazard a guess: its just around the corner. There’s no particular reason for NZ house prices to be high. The stock markets overseas are doing well – the smart money is not in property, its in shares, and NZ will follow the US into massive housing crash. Soon. Sell now !

  5. Yuck, what a horrible thought. I hope you’re not right.

    On a separate, but possibly related note, the following may be of interest – a conference on housing:

  6. Nice – it seems we still haven’t realised what happens after a bull run on the stock market…

    What are some realistic and safe alternatives? Medium yield Government Infrastructure Bonds perhaps? i dunno, and I guess that most everyone else is in the same boat of not knowing – hence reliance on traditional (and possibly fragile) investment vehicles…

  7. M-D I think it’s rather conservative knowledge that the stock market returns the greatest returns over the long term. There’s a graph showing historical performance in the US on this webpage, for example,

  8. And here is an article reporting on a study which found that home ownership does not contribute to one’s happiness:

    Is it further proof that we should not buy property to live in?

    But I swear that I read recently of another study which suggested that home ownership was a very significant factor contributing to lowering social problems such as crime and even improving health. I’ll see if I can find it.


  9. I’m not so sure – I’d rather see a graph of the NZ situation thanks, and one that also takes into account the return on investment after tax (seeing as the current tax regime overwhelmingly advantages the latter – but then there are rates of course…).

    For example:
    “Research undertaken by the University of Auckland Real Estate Research Unit shows that, in a comparison of capital growth in housing versus investment returns during the period 1965 to December 1997, residential property (based on the Valuation New Zealand residential price index) outperformed the share market (based on the New Zealand Stock Exchange NZSE 40 index), 10 year Government bonds, and returns achievable by putting money in the bank.
    For every dollar invested in the residential housing market in New Zealand in 1965, the value in 1997 was $20.92. This means that a $10,000 house purchased in 1965 would be worth $209,200 in December 1997. In other words, over 32 year period the residential property increased in value an average of just under 10% compounding every year.
    By comparison, the Stock Exchange SE40 index indicated returns during this 32 year period of just over 7% compounding per annum (almost 3% behind the residential investment).
    The $10,000 investment in 1965 would have resulted in a return of just $97,300 by 1997.
    As yet another alternative investment had anyone invested this same $10,000 on deposit with their bank in 1965, reinvesting it six monthly until the end of 1997, they would now have $143,600 _ providing them with an 8.44% compounding return per annum.
    Comparing the Real Estate market to the 10 year Government Bond market, bonds show a return during the same period of 9.25% compounding per annum which equates to an amount of $179,000 for the same $10,000 originally invested in 1965.
    Inflation during this same period as indicated by the Consumer Price Index equates to 8.35% compounding per annum. That is, to be able to maintain the same$10,000 level of purchasing power in 1965 would require $30,100 by the end of 1997.”

    Sure – it’s out of date, but it does indicate that there is a rational reason for our property preference – it isn’t all about sentimentality…

  10. Enough of all the financial claptrap, i’m more interested un the last paragraph of the actual post: which smacks of the profession washing its hands before the multitudes…

    Unless, as m-d and Richard point out, the profession begins to take a political interest… But regardless, the issue at stake is one that can probably only be resolved by a heap of social engineering – there is an area that architects have excelled in past…

  11. I wonder if the whole property investment home-ownership thing is also very specific to household types. I’m thinking of the “traditional” cycle of ownership which might be 1) get married, buy a house and get a mortgage 2) pay off mortgage and raise happy nuclear family 3) kids leave home, sell house and buy a smaller one: get $. The whole financial benefit might be different in extended family situations and for the child-less. It would be interesting to know how much the financial benefit is due to the assumption of downsizing at the point of retirement etc.

  12. Surely housing is THE most important thing for most architects? Just as Housing is THE most important thing for most people, with most small practices being 1-2 person teams concentrating on housing, then the provision of well-designed houses for people is just about the most crucial thing for architects.

  13. Barry D Avatar
    Barry D

    No point in getting all dewey eyed about housing. Its a commodity, same as everything else you buy. Only thing is, it is not as readily tradeable, if you happen to live in it.

    Look, its all about supply and demand. If there is not enough supply, and there is more demand, then prices will go up.

    That’s pretty simple, right? Now, if we take it as read that there is a fixed amount of housing in NZ, available for Sale, or for Rent, then if people outside the country buy properties, this will undoubtably push up prices in NZ. Consequently, more people can’t afford to buy, and so more have to rent.

    But there is another part of the equation to figure out as well. If an economy is based on just one person with a job, earning money, then it will stabilise around the figure that one such typical earner can afford. In the 1950s therefore, one average earner could afford one average house on one average wage.

    However, as women became liberated, and took up their right to have a job as well, and couples bought houses based on 2 wages, you now have the situation where one average wage can no longer afford to buy an average house. This is a hugely important point that most people forget. Hence, single persons can typically only afford a half a house, ie a tiny apartment.

  14. Robin Skinner made an important observation in an architectural history lecture this morning, which seems pertinent in this context, insofar as I think that you are confusing “Housing” for “Houses”; Housing hasn’t been important to architects for decades… (especially if local Arch mags are anything to go by)…

    Current Local Body policies which try to aim at the best qualities of housing, but relying upon the indivdual house as the basic unit, are always going to be fundamentally flawed… (look for Rodney, Pavletich and co to sort that one out for us…)

    And, the buying public do, for the most part, want houses – not housing – irrespective of the financial incentives presented by homeownership…

  15. Barry D Avatar
    Barry D

    Don’t know who this Skinner woman is. However: how do you mean a difference between houses and housing ? Are you talking single house vs multi-unit housing, or is it even more obtuse?

  16. Actually – my comment was in response to guy’s above… also, Robin is not a woman, and the issue of housing is more obtuse than single vs multi-unit dwellings…

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