NZ: The opportunities and barriers for sustainable housing

Alex Cutler

Prefabrication and engineered timber are the major opportunities to improve the performance of New Zealand housing, the NZ Green Building Council’s Sustainable Housing Summit has heard.

Held in both Auckland and Christchurch, the summit brought together sustainability experts and property and construction industry players from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Norway.

Speakers included Adam Beck, director of Brisbane’s Centre for Urban Innovation; James Legge, director of Six Degrees Architects; Richard Palmer, WSP Sydney’s associate director sustainability; Viv Heslop, sustainability director for Panuku Development Auckland; and Steve Evans, chief executive residential and land development at Fletcher Building.

“For me, the summit illustrated how we’ve reaching a tipping point in the residential sector,” NZGBC chief executive Alex Cutler said.

“As at mid-June [2016], the NZGBC had nearly 5000 Homestar registrations on its books, and at the summit we also heard exciting evidence of technology and models that are successfully creating more liveable, resilient homes and communities – both here in New Zealand and internationally.”

Ms Cutler said that while the level of commitment to sustainability was inspiring, NZ still had many challenges around housing health and affordability.

“What we need now is for individuals and companies to take the knowledge that’s available and apply it on a larger scale, embracing thoughtful density and truly collaborative consultation to create more connected communities with lower carbon footprints.

“As Andrea Reimer from the City of Vancouver said, ‘You need to put your credibility on the line and be prepared to lead.’ We must act boldly to create the change we want to see in our country.”

Positivity and frustration

Daiman Otto

Daiman Otto

Chair of Prefab NZ and chief executive of Tall Wood Daiman Otto said that while there was a lot of positivity regarding the NZGBC, there was also a sense of frustration among attendees.

The sense was that while all the possibilities and initiatives were great, there was still a question of “how do we make it happen?”, Mr Otto told The Fifth Estate.

There was a clear realisation of a systemic problem with affordable housing, he said.

“You can have it all – all the knowledge and technologies, they are all there – but it’s putting it together and having it streamlined and funded and having clients understand.”

Mr Otto said the roadblocks existed mainly around the supply chain for housing.

He said that while there were some ready to engage in different ways of building, there has been a slow uptake from the NZ construction industry. Part of this relates to concerns around scale, as the market is not as large as Sydney or Melbourne, for example.

So changing the way things are built to include more prefab is sometimes seen as a design constraint and a business problem.

There needs to be companies and organisations for the sector to work with that can affect change at the manufacturing and construction end, he said.

A growing appetite for timber

Mr Otto said there was a growing appetite for timber, including both engineered timbers and more traditional timber products.

“People are getting it.”

The timber products allow for the pre-planning of buildings, using highly engineered materials and a high level of precision.

“It’s an optimal construction system.”

He said social housing was one of the funding sources looking to get onboard the prefabricated timber approach.

“It presents them with a whole lot of certainty.”

His company is currently working on three major projects in the sustainable building space, including a four-storey timber mixed-use building on the Auckland city fringe, and a six-storey design for workers accommodation in Queenstown.

Some of the local government players are also looking to the NZ prefab sector. Auckland Council is no longer giving building permits to manufactured buildings from offshore, Mr Otto said, due to concerns around quality and compliance.

He said the big drivers were firs the health of NZ buildings, particularly housing. The country has the world’s second highest asthma rate, which makes improving the quality of housing crucial.

The second driver is reliable energy lifecycle costs.

The carbon footprint aspect, Mr Otto said, was not so key, and there was a lack of understanding and information around the topic.

Overall, Mr Otto said the NZ construction sector was a “low innovation, low productivity” industry. The NZ Building Code was also not driving change, as it simply sets minimum performance standards.

One of the reasons for the high level of defects in NZ houses comes down to variations during construction, he said. This is another issue prefab can address, as buildings can be fully modelled and tested in BIM at the design stage before proceeding to fabrication.

Mr Otto said there were private developers starting to look at prefab as a way of speeding up construction, which could help with what he labelled “ridiculous” house prices in Auckland.

The government is pushing for increased supply to counter this, however there is “no way” conventional construction can create the kind of housing supply that needed, he said.

Prefab offers certainty

The element of certainty prefab can deliver is a major attraction for both private developers and the social housing sector, Mr Otto said.

“It’s the smart people coming in with the money.”

These are the people looking at the conventional industry and identifying the level of waste and saying, “This is not a good use of my money.”

“They start asking questions, and are looking for who’s got the answers,” Mr Otto said, meaning there has never been a better time to be an innovator.

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