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Designing affordable homes – a multidisciplinary approach needed

Guest blog by Silke and Ian Macdiarmid

Affordable homes are the talking point. The Department of Building and Housing is calling for entries in a design competition to showcase the idea.

We have been living in an “affordable home” for four years. It is 50 square metres, in essence only one bedroom. We built it ourselves over several years, learning as we went. Originally it was to be our holiday cottage, but we are now here full time. We decided our business would have a better chance if we started small, with low overheads and debt-free. These days the cottage houses our architectural practice. All without being connected to the grid.

We talk to a lot of people about housing. We are passionate about people owning their own home. A place of belonging promotes a calm existence and a society we all want to be part of.

Affordable housing solutions can be found in an inter-disciplinary approach. We need financial planning and clever building designs, but the question arises – what is an affordable home. It cannot be answered by simply reducing square metre dollar rates.

Affordable house design must extend beyond the technical to a mind shift, away from our current expectations, sold to us in glossy brochures featuring happily ever after couples. Many subscribe to the illusion that bigger is better.

Everybody has particular needs, but we are well advised to hesitate before entering lifelong mortgage obligations. Rather than building based on perceived future needs and mortgaging ourselves heavily, we could build up the lay-out. For example, a childless couple could save more cash before building additional space. Houses should be designed for specific locations. It is not desirable to have a nationwide approach because of differences in climate.

Resources can be drawn from a variety of places. Presently the labour cost component in building is around 50%. A community effort could greatly reduce this. Labour can be found in the tertiary sector (building, architecture, engineering), secondary schools (life skills). Voluntary organisations, neighbours and family could become involved. Working together, practical skills and self-esteem will grow along with a compassionate community. It may also alleviate some social problems – poverty, disconnection, homelessness.

This mind shift must also generate ideas about how to live together happily and respectfully in smaller spaces, encouraging communication, organisation and conflict resolution. We must learn to create positive social dynamics.

We also need to trace low-cost land. Marginal rural land could be unlocked, using recent innovations to create a more independent infrastructure – rainwater harvesting, solar power and water heating and intelligent effluent disposal.

Changes to land-use rules may permit several dwellings where only one was permitted previously. Changing from land ownership to long- term leaseholds could provide financial relief. Exceptions in the building and compliance regimes with special case applications for use of recycled materials could be considered. Collective ownership rights in property and company law could be further developed.

To design truly affordable housing a multi-disciplinary approach is needed, drawing on architecture, law, psychology, sociology, ecology and other disciplines. May we create a new Earth, a friendlier place for our children’s children.

Full article in Village Knowledge

Your comments?


  1. Meliors says:

    All good points. I would add that changing the mindset around rental market would be useful as well: I can’t even afford to rent, let alone buy, a home of my own. The current obsession with investing in rental properties to make a quick and large profit for an individual is at odds with the needs of the community.

  2. village idiot says:

    I think “affordable” has become somewhat of a buzz word. What is “affordable”? In advertising apparently everything is “affordable”? Is it a subliminal trick, designed to make us think we can afford something we cannot? Something maybe be “cheaper” but still out of reach for many who literally cannot afford it. It’s a bit like buying something from an Informercial for ONLY 5 “easy” payments of 99.99. “Easy”, like “affordable” is a relative term, and as such should, in certain contexts, be used sparingly.

  3. Margaret says:

    I think to address affordable housing one has to address the financial aspect more strongly. I went up to the recent EcoShow in Taupo to find out more.
    I have been looking at the Swedish JAK bank for some time and am pleased that Bryan Innes has been over to study this interest free bank – used a lot for housing. He has developed the system for NZ conditions and called it the Genuine Wealth System. This is based on reciprocity and a person’s word. It works with concurrent loan repayment and savings. It has already started with a family group in the Taupo area.
    Then there is the idea of putting land in trusts. Getting together with like minded people to work out what things are important – getting that into a trust document and then basically developing the land acoordingly, like any other developer, but with your values in tact.

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