“This was the opportunity for us and others to build a family home,” says architect Helle Westergaard of the co-housing development in Grey Lynn, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland that she, husband Thom Gill and another couple kick-started back in 2018. “Which some people find completely tortuous – we ended up building 20.”
Gill was born in Aotearoa and Westergaard is Danish: they met in London and then moved to Copenhagen, where their three children were born and where they lived in an airy rented apartment in the centre of the city. Returning to Tāmaki Makaurau in 2012, they bought a house and settled into life in a pleasant inner-city suburb, but still had a hankering to build their own home. “As architects, the conventional way of building yourselves a house would be to buy a piece of land and build the dream place,” says Gill. “But we spent a long time living in Europe, where that is not the norm at all.”
Instead, over years, they assembled a group who felt the same way about building a community of like-minded people, committed to living close together around a shared garden, making decisions collaboratively and sharing assets, including cars and laundry facilities, and the accoutrements of suburban life: pizza oven, barbecue, outdoor furniture. The oldest were retirees; the youngest were buying their first home.
None of them had large amounts of capital, but none of them felt like moving to cheaper far-flung suburbs, and existing medium-density housing with its lack of outdoor space didn’t fit the bill. Now, after five years of working together, the group’s idea of what constitutes home extends past their own four walls. “The process of getting the group together was running into people who felt the same way,” says Gill, “and who had time, energy, skills and wish to help create a community that could provide all the benefits that standalone housing couldn’t provide.”
They wanted to be based in central Auckland, close to the city, public transport and bike paths. More than anything, the idea of a shared central garden was key to the whole enterprise: while they might all end up living in modestly scaled spaces, they would have a large green lung to look out on, spend time in and, critically, grow food in. “From the start, we agreed as a total principle that we wouldn’t have any fences in the common areas,” says Gill. “We wanted the undivided, full expanse of a shared area that we could all enjoy.”
The finished buildings take up an oddly shaped block between two streets on Surrey Crescent in Grey Lynn. The side streets are quiet and leafy. Surrey Crescent is busy, not quite arterial: Grey Lynn School is over the road. From the road, you get the sense of plastered brick and a domestic scale – a series of front doors giving onto concrete-block stairways. It’s somehow Scandinavian in its low-key approach.
From the start, the idea behind the Cohaus was to make decisions collaboratively: weekly meetings were common for a long time, as the group secured financing and set up a holding company that would act as developer. (Each household owned shares via a trust.) And as a group, they endured some of the frustrations and costs, writ large, that all house-builders endure. Costs escalated by 20 percent between the initial quantity survey and putting the plans out for tender; they worked to “value manage” the project but ultimately they all ended up putting in more money. Some families dropped out; others came in.
Writer Leonie Kapea Hayden and partner Harry Cundy came in at that point, taking over another couple’s trust. “It was quite a high-emotion meeting,” she says of their first discussion. “And I just liked that in a high-stress environment, everyone was still communicating excellently and being honest about what was challenging – you were allowed to be who you are in that space.”
For Hayden, who had previously lived in housing owned by Ngāti Whātua across town in Ōrakei, the appeal was of something approaching a papakāinga. There are babies in the place, and 80-somethings; the older kids look after the younger ones and word goes around when someone is sick. “I feel so safe that I could fall down in my apartment and pass out, and someone would find me,” she says. “There’s always someone to help out, which I love.”
Westergaard and Gill’s design, as noted, is humble in materials and approach. It’s also subtle, and clever. The buildings sit on a crank in Surrey Crescent, with the two side streets fanning out, and occupies three former sections with a gentle slope away from the street. There are single-level 19th-century houses on both sides. The site also had a character villa on it which they were keen to preserve.
Developers would have demolished the villa, ignored the wonks, and built straight lines, with parking in the middle and maybe one or two access points. Studio Nord did the opposite, moving the villa to a corner and pushing the new buildings as far to the edges of the site as they were allowed, following the contour and shape of the land. They created pathways and multiple entry points around the site: it’s porous, village-like, with no swipe-card access.
At the front, buffering the garden from the street, there’s a three-storey block clad in white-painted brick with a series of big front doors that lead onto concrete and timber stairwells – two apartments per floor share a landing. It’s intimate, human-scaled: each apartment has a different-coloured front door and the landings have been taken over by everything from prams to plants and places to store shoes. To the rear, a three-story steel verandah provides generous outdoor space to each apartment. Behind it, running down one side of the garden, there’s a two-storey, timber-framed terrace block, again with a bend about halfway along.
There are nine onsite carparks, tucked into a corner of the site off one of the side streets, including six car stackers for the electric or hybrid cars shared between the group. While owners don’t have to give up their private vehicle, they’re encouraged to – a move that was particularly contentious with Auckland Council and led to the architects developing a traffic plan for the project (a first for an apartment development in the city).
There are few identical units – apartments and terrace houses are defined by the unusual shape. “All the plans were negotiated and worked out by everyone,” says Westergaard. “It was very late in the process that we actually assigned which apartment was for whom.” The first families moved into the Cohaus just before the first lockdowns of 2020 and at that point, the shared space was bare. Unlike a development, there were things to resolve and work through as a group. “We aimed to get things 90 percent finished, then work things out on the ground,” says Westergaard. (The capacious bike garage, for instance, is still something of a work in progress.)
It takes time, but much of what the group has achieved is ground-breaking. The buildings feature an integrated billing system for utilities based on smart meters (and GPS for the shared cars) feeding data to a customised online platform – an added expense, but worthwhile – that calculates the use of common facilities. Two massive central heat pumps provide continuous hot water for the entire site at a fraction of the energy of conventional domestic hot water systems; solar photovoltaic panels on the roof feed directly into the system. There’s a small studio owned by all for guest use, which reduces the need to have space set aside for visitors in the individual homes. Most radically, the residents purchase utilities wholesale, including power and internet: it meant more in hardware costs and smart meters, but saves each of them literally thousands of dollars a year. For Gill and Westergaard’s household of five, sharing 190 square metres of house and running a business from home, they pay a remarkable $350 a month for utilities.
Cinematographer Adam Luxton and ceramicist Lucy McMillan moved from Piha on Tāmaki’s west coast to a two-bedroom terrace facing into the garden with their two children, and initially found the exposure a little confronting. “The problem with a new building is that you’ve got a scarred-earth space around you, and it was amplified by being shared,” says Luxton. “It took some getting used to.”
The group enlisted Resilio Studio to lay the groundwork for streetscape planting and some interior garden beds, with a focus on enhancing biodiversity. After that, they largely worked it through themselves. In the middle, there’s a huge productive garden, a shared space with a communal building for meetings and gatherings, and native planting around the buildings. Stacked rock walls create a level change between this area and the spaces outside the terrace houses. While all land – and even balconies – are owned in common, there’s an acceptance that the space outside your home is semi-private. Three years and two rainy summers in, it’s a lush, green, almost wild oasis. “We’ve created a green cave at either end,” says McMillan. “And the white noise has massively reduced as the garden grows.”
Internally, the courtyard building apartments are no-nonsense, with concrete, cork or timber overlay flooring and CLT ceilings that also function as the floor above. The three-storey Surrey building has intertenancy ceilings lined in white plasterboard. Bathrooms feature cork flooring, which is highly insulating, and standard white tiles in wet areas, which some opted to swap out for a personal touch. It’s good quality, well made. Yet each apartment is subtly different – partly because they’re all different shapes, and partly because owners have worked quickly to make them feel like home. Is it thanks to the fact that they didn’t buy them off the shelf that they have the confidence to do so?
Westergaard’s design for the kitchen, for instance, featured four different colour schemes, two different appliance levels and the option to choose your own tiles. McMillan, of course, chose to make her own – which, delightfully, has turned into a new range of bespoke tiles for others. They sit beautifully with rehabbed rimu handles the couple found on Trade Me, and an eclectic array of vintage lighting. Westergaard and Gill installed a wood burner and an attic loft into their apartment, along with a separate laundry – with three teenagers, theirs is the largest. (Being architects, they also installed a classic Vola tap designed by Arne Jacobsen.) Cundy and Hayden’s collection of contemporary art gives their airy apartment a distinctive feel, down to the neon orange screen by Qianye Lin and Qianhe ‘AL’ Lin that helps define their outdoor space.
When you walk around, the thing that strikes you immediately is how friendly it is. Neighbours catch your eye and say good morning – security that is better than any keypad gate – and if you seem lost, they ask you who you’re looking for. On the weekend and after school, the 20-odd kids of varying ages drift around the place in small gangs, in and out of the houses with nary a device in sight. “I often wonder if our experience of living here is sharpened by our kids’ experience,” says Luxton. “They live in this loose, open, social kind of space where they just roam in and out.”
That’s not to say they’re in each other’s faces all the time. “One of the misconceptions is that you need to be really extroverted,” says Hayden. “For us, when we’re in our home, that’s all that exists for us.”