As the cost of entry to the housing market rises almost as fast as the size of the new houses we build, some people are looking in the other direction for solutions, advocating for smaller cheaper, more flexible housing.
In March, PrefabNZ held their CoLab conference in Auckland attracting experts, global and local, to look at how to use off-site construction (essentially prefabrication) to make houses more affordable. Keynote speaker, Mark Farmer, from the UK, and author of the report “Modernise or Die”, noted that their house-building industry is in crisis with up to 25% of construction workers due to retire soon with nowhere near enough new trainees to replace them. His solution: rapidly increase the use of off-site construction, which has the advantage of building quicker and under-cover mitigating delays due to weather.
Of course, kitset builders and large-scale home building companies have been doing a version of this for some time; however, they tend to mimic the market with standard three-bedroom (plus garage) houses. The current move is to smaller houses, known internationally as ADUs (Additional Dwelling Units). Our councils have fickle and inconsistent rules around what we generally term, Minor Dwelling Units. Or, in the past – and in some areas, still – granny flats. Decades ago when the rules were written, and long before the growth of retirement villages, councils would reluctantly allow granny flats so people could house an ageing parent close by. But the councils were nervous that homeowners would simply build one and rent it out to anyone. To avoid this, they made the rules so draconian, and the prescribed dimensions so tight, that no able-bodied person would dream of being a tenant – but we were expected to house a dearly loved family member in them.
Thank goodness these attitudes to older people are no longer acceptable. Now we simply sneer at the young, labelling them ‘millennials’, and blaming their inability to buy a house on their profligate approach to smashed avocado.
Yet the solution lies in the hands of those of us who are homeowners with underutilised land in our backyards. Late in 2017 a research report by the Centre of Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment was published that looked into ADU potential, asking “Have we the potential to use the existing housing stock of homes to create a bigger stock of affordable, fit for purpose homes?” The answer was a cautious yes, with caveats. The authors identified that almost 11% of the country’s housing stock could be partitioned (either internally or with an ADU on spare land), delivering over 340,000 dwellings. This would amount to 180,000 additional dwellings without impinging on greenfield sites or unutilised vacant residential land. The only barrier is the plethora of local rules around ADUs, with a “fundamental failure to articulate a coherent logic around partitioning and ADU policies”. The report glumly states, “opportunities for developing low-cost, high performance ADU solutions through pre-fabrication are largely lost”.
Never fear, PrefabNZ is here! They are the industry group for the prefab construction industry and are leading the conversation around innovation. At the CoLab conference they announced a nationwide competition for a ‘Snug’, a prefabricated ADU that could go on many of those 180,000 available sites. Auckland Council has indicated that they will give ‘pre-consent’ to the finalists meaning that within 12 months, we could start to see smart, modern prefabs popping up, providing additional housing on existing land.
The council is to be applauded for taking a national leadership role in this area. This could be a small but vital way to address issues of affordable housing; they won’t be for everyone, or forever, but they will meet a need. Instead of bewailing the out-of-reach property ladder, we need to add another rung to the bottom. ADUs just might be that rung.