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On a former school site in central Dunedin, one of New Zealand’s most ambitious housing experiments has finally come to fruition.
The 24 houses, built around a central green space, are now almost fully occupied.
The project is thought to be only the second cohousing development in New Zealand and the first multi-unit development designed to the passivhaus standard — a model that delivers healthy, comfortable buildings while needing very little energy for heating or cooling.
Lead architect Tim Ross, of Architype, lives with his wife, Philippa, their four boys and dog in one of the bigger apartments — a three-storey, five-bedroom unit with a bright yellow front door and a pale, pared back interior.
"We were in a draughty old villa before this so it’s made quite a difference coming here," he explains.
"A lot of people were attracted by the warm house aspect. A lot weren’t so worried about that and were more interested in the social connections."
The repurposed school building that serves as a common house has hosted several pot luck dinners and overnight guests. A trampoline the Ross family brought with them has been popular with the dozen children living on site. Others have been happy to share their concrete mixer, trailer and workshop tools.
Ross says it has been "really cool" to see the project go from building site to neighbourhood.
The communities are built in a way that creates opportunities for interactions. In some ways, they hark back to earlier times, when neighbours kept an eye on each other’s kids and loaned out lawnmowers and cups of sugar.
"In New Zealand we find it quite foreign because we’re used to quarter-acre sections," Ross says.
"But we’ve got a number of people here who’ve lived in Europe and for them ... [townhouses, terrace houses and cohousing] are not unusual at all."
The homes have been designed with kitchens facing the common area and the more private living areas behind.
There is also a small courtyard behind and in front of each unit for individual use and planting.
Higher density housing like this is one way to address urban sprawl, Ross believes.
But legal structures are not set up for co-operative housing and residents struggled to get mortgages.
"The major banks are incredibly conservative and because they hadn’t seen [cohousing] before, they couldn’t say that there’s demand for it ... They wanted to know that if it all fell over, they could sell the units to other people ... "
Delayed by soft ground and Covid-19 restrictions, the build took two years. This ate into their contingency but there were economies of scale to be had by building 24 homes together and sharing walls. Everything from windows to kitchen appliances could be bought in bulk and there was no developer "clipping the ticket".
The efficiencies meant the square metre rate was "comparable" to a conventional build, costs ranging from $240,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $800,000 for a five-bedroom one. Having designed nearly 100 passivhaus properties for clients, Ross adds it is great to finally experience a dry interior and stable temperatures first-hand.
The University of Otago is monitoring the temperature, energy consumption, CO2 levels and humidity in some units — data Ross hopes can be used to "push the building code a bit harder".
"We’d also obviously like to prove that doing this sort of construction is affordable and the return on investment is well worth any extra cost," he says.
"I’d love to see the [passivhaus] standard rolled out for social housing ... "
Although the Dunedin City Council bought one of the High St units for that purpose, rising costs meant it exceeded its budget and it may end up selling the house.
University of Otago lecturer Sander Zwanenburg and his wife, Karen Or, a procurement officer at the university, say their power bills since moving in have been less than $100.
The couple moved to New Zealand from Hong Kong five years ago and were attracted to the community partly because they do not have family here.
"I’d never heard of cohousing at all until I read about it in the Otago Daily Times in early 2018 but it clicked immediately," Zwanenburg says.
"I felt that this is such a great idea — the sharing of resources and embracing village life where you know your neighbours and you can share your know-how ... "
Expecting their first child this month, the couple are excited to have a "welcoming, social environment" around them. The other residents have already organised a baby shower.
Zwanenburg was initially concerned about how much work they would be expected to do around the site and whether they would have time for other things. However, even mundane tasks like moving bricks have proved enjoyable: "There’s a lot of very friendly people who are keen to have a conversation and there’s a lot of laughter going on."
The diverse range of skills, knowledge and ages makes for an interesting dynamic, and they appreciate being able to learn from others.
Pot luck dinners, held every four days, have also been fun.
The main difference compared with their former apartment block is that there is always people around and it is easy to strike up a conversation, he says.
"I ride to work on my bike every morning and typically I bump into someone. It’s just a simple ‘good morning’ but it’s kind of a nice way to start the day."
Residents plan to have an official opening in a month or two and an open day for the public once initial landscaping has been completed.