Amid all this talk of housing affordability (or
unaffordability), do we need to regard our homes in a
different light? A renovation of the mind perhaps? Shane
Michael O'Sullivan has designed all sorts of houses over the
years, both big and small.
In the latter category is his own home, a 112sq m dwelling he
completed in 2008 in the less-than-trendy South Auckland
suburb of Mangere Bridge, where Sullivan live with his wife
and their four children.
A partner in Auckland architecture firm Bull/O'Sullivan and
lecturer at the University of Auckland's School of
Architecture, O'Sullivan is also about to start a similarly
small-home project for a friend in Arrowtown.
''My home is pretty tight and doesn't probably meet the bill
of a large percentage of New Zealanders,'' O'Sullivan says,
alluding to the fact our average house size has almost
doubled since 1940, according to Quotable Value statistics.
Back then, the average new house in New Zealand had a floor
area of 112sq m. By 1950 that figure stood at 117sq m,
growing by roughly 10sq m per decade until 2010, when it
reached 205sq m before scaling back to 192sq m in 2011.
Though three-bedroomed houses were the most popular
configuration several years ago (according to the 2006
Census) the proportion of one, two and three-bedroom houses
actually fell almost 5% in the decade up to that report and
the number of houses with four or more bedrooms rose 5.3%.
''We can never get enough four-bedroomed houses to sell,''
Liz Nidd, Real Estate Institute of New Zealand director for
the lower South Island, says.
''Now, people with two children want a four-bedroomed home
with two bathrooms, so they'll have a spare room or a study,
an ensuite for them and a bathroom for the kids.
''It has become the norm. People want space, sometimes far
more than they actually need.''
Ms Nidd says people buy big houses for lots of reasons. Some
do need the space; others believe such a dwelling will give
''The aspirational purchaser is always going to exist. People
will often buy beyond what they need - and beyond what they
can comfortably afford - because they have an idea they need
that type of house. This is in all markets, not just the
current market. This relates to house buying full-stop.''
Yet this demand for size comes at a time when houses are,
In 1949, the average house cost 2.1 times the average annual
salary. By 1989 that ratio was about 4.2. Now, according to
the recently released ninth Annual Demographia International
Housing Affordability Survey, median house prices are 5.3
times the median income. Historically, housing has been
regarded as affordable when the average house costs about
three times the median income.
Auckland continues to be the least affordable market, with a
median multiple of 6.7, followed by Christchurch (6.6),
Tauranga-Western Bay of Plenty (5.9), Wellington (5.4) and
Dunedin (5.1) all severely unaffordable.
According to Real Estate Institute of New Zealand data
released this week, the national median price rose 4.2%
compared to January 2012 to $370,000, but eased 4.9% from the
record $389,000 set in December 2012. One way to lessen or
avoid the financial burden of buying a house is to see that
configuration of walls and roof in a different light.
Ms Nidd suggests house tenure could be envisaged over a
shorter time frame. Think in terms of five years, rather
than, say, 10 or more. That way, people are more likely to
address current needs - or those of the immediate future -
rather than shelling out money for contingencies (i.e. all
those extra bedrooms) that might not occur.
''That way people might not affect their cash-flow as badly
as if they purchased, or built, something bigger than they
need at the time.
''I've suggested to people who are looking at building to
talk to their architect or designer about doing it in a
modular fashion: build something now that meets your needs
but has the ability to be extended. As long as the site has
been developed with that in mind, it can be a really good way
of doing it.''
However, she acknowledges ''future-proofing'' is a popular
concept among those looking to buy or build. And if someone
asks her advice as to what size home they should build, she
often suggests - ''as long as they can afford it'' - a
dwelling comprising four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a double
''Also make sure the living space, main bedroom, bathroom and
a second toilet are all on ground level. That immediately
opens the market to families and those in retirement, who can
have their own living but also have room upstairs for the
wider family when they come to stay.''
O'Sullivan's grander designs have graced more than a few
glossy pages of architecture magazines over the years, yet he
is no less proud of his more humble abode.
''If you are on an average income*, you're going to struggle
to build something like a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house.
That's where I was coming from with the idea for my own
(*According to Statistics New Zealand figures for June 2012,
the average annual household income from wages and salaries
was $82,029.) O'Sullivan says there was a subversive aspect
to his desire to create a 112sq m space for himself and his
five family members.
''I didn't expect everyone would `listen' to the idea. A lot
of the motivation was to do with the fact you don't need to
give every kid their own space. In many respects, kids are
better adjusted if they are introduced to the need to share
from an early age.
''If I came from a rich family, would I have done anything
different on that same piece of land? Probably not. It is all
about balance and expectation.
''A super-size-me approach permeates our society. Just
because the option to build big is there, it doesn't mean you
have to. It is societal conditioning.
''Quite often, a well-designed, efficient home is more
rewarding than one that is suffering from obesity. You could
walk into any home in New Zealand and consider
O'Sullivan is bringing both his design and building skills to
the South in a couple of weeks, when he will begin work on a
friend's new home in Arrowtown. Again, at 130sq m-140sq m,
it's a relatively small house.
''I'm bringing down a trailer with an assortment of tools. I
said he can have the gear for a year and I'll come down
periodically to help him with the more difficult components.
''My friend has a young family. It is a very humble home and
is based on similar principles to what we used on my home in
Mangere Bridge. A lot of care and thought have gone into
In Queenstown, where the median house price is $562,500, up
from $499,000 a year ago, according to Real Estate Institute
of New Zealand data released this week, there has been a
swing towards renovating, says David Grieve, organiser of the
Queenstown Home Show, which is being held at Frankton this
''In the past, people didn't really renovate in Queenstown.
But now, particularly in suburbs that were tidy in the 1980s,
a property can still be worth $500,000 to $600,000 even if it
has a very sad bathroom and kitchen. So people aren't selling
but renovating, which is a completely new thing for this
Mr Grieve, of Excel Exhibitions, established the Queenstown
Home Show three years ago despite some quizzical responses.
''People, for many years, suggested there shouldn't be a home
show in Queenstown because no one actually lives there. They
said it's not a real place; it's full of transient people,
absentee landlords, very wealthy people who have houses there
but might only come for a month a year.
''A lot has changed in the past couple of decades. There are
new subdivisions where ma and pa are living and putting their
kids through school. That's why we started the home show.
''That demographic normally opts for a company-made house -
it could be A1, Landmark, David Reid Homes or whoever; there
are 15 or so companies and people can have their drawings
''It is a matter of affordability, really,'' Mr Grieve says,
alluding to the group builder concept, popular because it
offers apparent value for money. (Though prices vary
depending on company and the quality of each house fit-out,
$1600 to $1800 per square metre is a rough indication of such
The price of land can also have an effect on the eventual
footprint of a house. If a section is more expensive, people
might be more tempted to build a larger house to maximise
''People definitely try to get it right from the get-go,'' Mr
However, high land prices can work the other way, too,
forcing people to tighten their belts when it comes to
Bronwen Kerr, of Queentown-based Kerr Ritchie Architects,
says it is a double-edged sword.
''If land is expensive then the budget for a house can be
reduced. Maybe clients then try to save on costs, such as not
employing an architect.
They may go to a group home builder, who produce plenty of
square metres for your dollar, but often these square metres
are not well-considered. ''Often, resale and future owners'
needs are considered rather than clients having the
confidence to build only what they need.''
Size has wider implications, too.
''It definitely has a huge impact on energy usage - both that
involved in the initial embodied energy of the materials and
the energy used to heat a larger house,'' Ms Kerr says.
''Smaller buildings require fewer resources to build and
fewer resources over a lifetime. A smaller-scale home also
allows for more garden space.''
Architect John Walsh, editor of the voluminous recent
publication Big House, Small House: new homes by New Zealand
architects, believes it is better to have a well-thought-out
design on a more modest footprint ''than a sprawling mess''.
''A lot of space in many big houses is not much used - it
doesn't really pay its way. It's costly to maintain, to heat
and to cool, to repaint and resurface and to fit out. There
are also wider questions of sustainability; planetary
wellbeing is something we might all bear in mind.''
Perhaps the most obvious reason the girth of our houses is
expanding, is the fact we have more possessions these days,
Mr Walsh says, referring to a ''comparative affluence'' that
makes it possible to demand more space and amenity in our
''We have more stuff than we used to. Kids have bigger rooms;
houses now have `entertainment centres' with huge TVs; there
is garaging for families with two or three cars, not the
single family car of years past.
''And given much of what we see on our TV is an idealised
portrayal of middle-class life in America it's no surprise we
think that more is more. Could it also be that as we get
bigger - or more obese - we want our houses to follow suit?''
Mr Walsh asks.
''Ultimately, in our larger cities, this model of
development, quite apart from its aesthetic shortcomings,
will not be sustainable. I think this is becoming widely
recognised, although the model still has cultural appeal in
our society, and developers and land-bankers will keep
pushing it for as long as they can,'' Mr Walsh says.
''They wouldn't do it if there wasn't a market for it ... But
super-sizing isn't always good for us.''