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Debating density

Akepiro Street Design Comp shortlisted finalist by Matthews & Matthews Architects

Architects

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Chris Barton discovers how the Akepiro Street Design Competition gives architects a chance to add their voices to Auckland’s density debate.

Auckland: a city faced with contested urban blight in the midst of a brawl about how we live in it. When the winner of the Akepiro Street “exemplary apartment building” competition was announced, reaction was predictably knee-jerk. Herald property editor Anne Gibson went to that bastion of good taste, councillor Mike Lee, for comment. Lee, who once described the sheds on Queen’s Wharf as “old and cheap and nasty” but later flip flopped when others fought for their heritage protection, gave his trademark appraisal of the winning design. “Cheap and shoddy”, Lee said, adding that such apartments were not big enough for families and that the building’s exterior was ugly. “I can just see this getting mouldy,” pronounced Lee. “If we’re going to have high-rise, they need to make it durable.”

To be fair, while he was correct in that this is to be a six-floor timber apartment building, he didn’t know it would be clad in copper, zinc or titanium.

Adding insult to injury, Gibson sought further balanced comment from Richard Burton of anti-intensification lobby group Auckland 2040. The competition, which attracted 65 entries and was briefly on display at the Auckland Art Gallery in August, was organised by the New Zealand Institute of Architects and developer Ockham Residential with the support of Auckland Council. Predictably, Burton put the boot into the Council’s involvement, saying it was an attempt to mitigate the public backlash against the Unitary Plan. Burton was “worried about widespread apartment development throughout suburban Auckland, particularly on sites which are inappropriate for intensification.” No mention that Akepiro Street is a cul-de-sac beside the rail line near the Dominion Road flyover, with no other residential buildings in the street and eminently appropriate for intensification. Or, for example, that solo parents with one or two kids constitute a significant number of families in New Zealand and that some of them might find living so close to the city with public transport easily accessible quite a good option. Or that the building has unimpeded views across the city on three sides and a small reserve adjacent with 25-metre-high Norfolk pine trees. 

The derision kept coming. The Herald’s Facebook page featuring the five competition finalists was bombarded with about 200 mostly disparaging comments. “Bloody hideous,” said Donna. “Pigeons wouldn’t live in it. They have better taste,” opined Helen.  “Looks like cardboard boxes,” said Tash. “All are ugly, hate them,” pronounced Bill. “Dull,” said Hugh “Wtf aaarrrggghhh,” exclaimed Estelle. Running counter were a few who liked what they saw: “great”, “cool”, “brilliant”. 

Then came the letters to the editor. “The Herald report on the finalists in the apartment design contest intended to reassure Aucklanders wary of intensification plans,” wrote Cathryn of New Lynn. “The finalists unfortunately have done nothing to put my mind at rest, apart from being lower than the previously mentioned block of black cheese.” The black cheese was a reference to the new apartment building in New Lynn’s regenerated town centre which Cathryn also disapproved of. “Have none of them considered irregular lines, beautiful colours?” asked Cathryn. “We have so many architects. How about they get more innovative.” 

Dear oh dear. This is what passes for architectural debate in Auckland. To be fair, the city suffers from a sort of post-traumatic apartment disorder thanks to the Hobson Street examples, so that whenever the word density is mentioned all hell breaks loose. Who would want to be an architect? 

Architects often let their drawings do the talking which may have been some of the problem. The nature of apartments – floors stacked vertically – and the small site, the planning rules and the tight brief requiring 25 units, tended to dictate a six floor box. But among the 65 entries it was remarkable to see how hard the architects had worked to break the monotony and provide visual variation in the façades. 

Cathryn called for irregular lines, beautiful colours and innovation. She might have noticed the array of coloured glass in the winning design by S3 Architects’ Stephen Smith, an architect passionate about sustainability, prefabrication and smarter building methods. The innovation may have been harder to see, but the apartment’s construction in cross-laminated timber wall and floor panels – roughly 150mm thick sandwiches of crisscrossed tightly glued timber boards – is likely to make it the tallest timber building in the country. Construction with timber materials, as opposed to concrete, embodies carbon, giving the building strong sustainability credentials. Coupled with other green features including photovoltaic panels on the roof for electricity generation, a heat recovery unit in the basement and highly insulated  air-tight construction, the building is likely to get an unheard of eight-star rating. 

But probably the most innovative aspect is the parking – or rather the lack of it. The building is in a Special Housing Area which means it gets fast-tracked to Unitary Plan regulations which in mixed-use zones don’t have a minimum requirement for apartment parking. Ockham developer Mark Todd intends to provide just 10 parking spaces in the building’s basement. Three of those will be for shared cars, owned by the building’s body corporate, which can be booked by residents. While the new parking rules make sites like Akepiro St much more economically viable, the competition highlighted how some Unitary Plan rules – such the minimum studio apartment size of 40m2 and minimum balcony sizes of 8m2 – are overly restrictive. New York-style lofts and European examples show smaller can still be beautiful and balconies, especially when they open onto busy roads, aren’t always necessary. 

Then there’s the cost. Special Housing Area affordability requirements demand that 10% of the units have to sell for less than 75% of the median house price in Auckland. With Auckland prices that’s an ever rising condition, but Todd expects the one-bedroom units to start at around $350,000 and up to around $600,000 for the largest 68m2 two bedroom units. With lower cost construction and fewer carparks, he expects the units to be selling at around $8000 per square metre, significantly less than the $10,000-$12,000 per square metre apartments are currently selling for. “I’m going to really cater to the young urban generation, people who are struggling to get on the property ladder, couples with one or no car who both work in the city,” says Todd. “We want to design this as one of the coolest, most progressive green buildings in the city.” 

Architects clearly have more to do to win the debate about city apartment living, but as seen in the competition entries their willingness to climb into the density ferment has spurred an admirable creative response. Now, instead of presuming their drawings will do the talking, they need to speak out about what they’re aiming to achieve. 

Chris Barton is the architecture columnist for Metro, and teaches at the University of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning.

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