Are Compact Housing Developments the Answer to Auckland’s Urban Sprawl?

Sean Wu staff photo
Sean Wu
Architectural Lead - Associate
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Residential development patterns in Auckland need to change. Could compact housing development be the solution?

Recent environmental, economic, and societal changes such as the housing crisis, climate change, and the rise of building material costs have led to a recognition that the current development patterns in Auckland need to change.

Compact housing is an alternative solution to many of these problems, some of which are the consequences of urban sprawl.

What is Compact Housing?

The term compact housing is typically used to describe dwellings with smaller land footprints. Compact housing options can be constructed either as detached, semi-detached, attached, or apartment units. It is a housing type generally recognised for its resource conservation and efficient utilisation of land and space.

Population Growth and Urban Development in Auckland

In the past, a combination of low-density planning, cheap fuel prices, and cheap land prices led to a rise in the suburban lifestyle and a high dependency on cars. The kiwi dream – a single-family detached dwelling on a ‘quarter acre’ (1000m2) section – was alive and real.

However, we have seen a rapid change in Auckland’s population demographics. There are a greater number of individuals, single parents, and couples without children who wish to reside in a smaller dwelling. People are also looking for housing options where they do not have to rely on a car, where they can instead use public transport and local amenities.

Compact housing developments in dense urban areas provides an alternative solution to support Auckland’s population growth and changing needs.

The Benefits of Compact Housing Developments

Compact housing development in dense urban areas can:

  • encourage land-use efficiency
  • keep urban sprawl in check
  • reduce the amount of construction materials required
  • improve energy efficiency
  • improve infrastructure efficiency
  • minimise the carbon footprint (during construction and over its lifetime)
  • minimise traffic congestion
  • preserve open space and agricultural land
  • provide more housing options for a growing population

Compact Housing Design Considerations

Parallel to the need to comprehend the interconnected relationship between the environment and the consequences of human action, architects and land developers must also give more thought on ways to minimise the footprint with limited resources.

Site Layout Design Considerations

Choosing the most suitable type of dwelling for the site is a priority. Then we look at the orientation of the site to see how it can be used to utilise the site’s passive solar energy while still retaining the natural topography to minimise earthworks. Striking a balance between landscape and architecture is important to avoid creating homes that end up feeling they are like a dark alley.

Internal Layout Design Considerations

When you are designing small, compact dwellings, the function and perception of space must be addressed to minimise wasted space.

It is important to study lifestyles and how people use their homes to identify which spaces are important, which are used the most, and which are used the least that can be eliminated.

Creating a compact housing unit that feels quite comfortable rather than feeling quite cramped and suffocating requires finding ways to combine efficiency with a sense of space.

For example:

  • Reduce the number of internal walls to create flexibility
  • Find alternative means of dividing spaces e.g. shelving units which is also an opportunity to create storage.
  • Reduce the number of circulation spaces that can be better utilised e.g. corridors.

However, it is not just about creating floor space; it is about creating volume. A taller space will make a room feel bigger and allow for more natural light which is also better for the internal environment.

Compact Housing Land Development at Woods

We encourage our clients and consultants to think about how they could create a better outcome that extends beyond chasing yield. How can we design for efficient and compact land use? How can we create mixed yield e.g. creating an office or shop on the ground floor that combats urban sprawl?

When we design these spaces, we need to create a rewarding place for future residents to live for them to be successful. In some ways, it is more deliberate than designing a larger suburban house. Well-designed compact housing in dense urban areas requires a very clear strategy beyond just being small and efficient.

It’s a balancing act between landscape and development, but I truly believe compact housing developments are a great solution to the local and global housing crisis.

Sean Wu - Senior Architectural Lead, M.ARCH (Hons), B.ARCH (Hons), BAS