Spacecraft Architects create a co-housing compound with community in mind for six friends in Southgate, Te Whanganui-a-Tara.

Co Op

Co Op

It seems to be a tricky business, co-housing does: so much optimism for better ways of living, so many realities of banks and building. The idea seems to suffer from strange fits and starts, too. One year there are numerous stories about new co-housing projects popping up across the country (okay, mainly in Auckland and Wellington, where the pressures of affordability have been greatest), then there’s silence, brought about presumably by those aforementioned realities. So, when a co-housing project works – in all its built glory – we should pay attention. And the central question we should be asking, of course, is: just how did they do it?

This project in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Southgate is one of those projects I remember reading about years ago. There were some news stories, but mostly I remember reading the co-housing group’s Tumblr blog that documented the process. 

January 9, 2018, 10:36pm: “in the beginning, a group of friends in wellington despaired of ever finding a house that wasn’t damp, very far away, or very very expensive. they convened over a series of lengthy dinners to consider the alternative: a medium density build that would solve the affordability problem by pooling costs, and make economical use of land close to the city. 5 months later they found themselves the unexpected owners of a little corner of paradise in southgate, wellington. now the fun bit begins.” (Lack of caps original. It was Tumblr in the heady 2010s, after all.)

“The fun bit”. One could worry, slightly, at the optimism of building an ambitious co-housing project in a country like Aotearoa New Zealand and a city like Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, where ever-increasing building costs meet less-than-flat topography. But the truth is, speaking with at least a few of those six people (all still friends and now living in their new homes), the following four years genuinely do sound like fun. What were the problems, I ask, expecting at least a few of the usual stories: cost overruns, delays, disagreements, tense conversations with builders. I get variations on: not many, really, and look at this place! It all sounds like a dream run, and when I visit, on a sunny pre-Christmas afternoon, there’s a scene of happy co-living with a barbecue planned for the evening. 

The group chose Caro Robertson and Tim Gittos of Spacecraft Architects to design these four identical two-bedroom-plus-mezzanine terraced homes. The pair looked at a few sites with the group and Robertson remembers thinking that some of them would have been tricky. “This site was obvious: it’s roughly 600 square metres and borders a park to the north, with access from the west. This meant the houses could be sited on the east-to-west axis giving them all equal access to sun.” More than that, there would be room for an enclosed common area closest to the road, and a terraced area to the far east of the site. Both the east and west common spaces have dramatic sea views, while all the homes look north to the park.

From the street it’s that common room that’s most visible: a polycarbonate-clad box with distinctive cross bracing that lights up like a lantern. There’s a wood burner here, a deck, and an attached room contains communal laundry facilities. Beneath are bike sheds and council-mandated carparks, the latter hardly used. You access the homes by walking up a few steps from the street and down a lane along the east-west axis with the homes’ entryways to your left. 

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Each plan is almost identical, but for the placement of the stairs. At the lane end, a sheltered entry and kitchen with a double-height, raking ceiling and high-level windows catch the late-afternoon sun. In between, a lower-ceilinged dining and circulation area. Beyond that, a living area with a matching raking ceiling and a small deck cut into the plan. Upstairs there’s a small mezzanine, used in some of the homes as an office or guest accommodation and in one as a harakeke-weaving space. Downstairs are the two bedrooms, the bathroom, and a covered outdoor area.

These are compact homes: two people couldn’t pass in the stairways, for instance, and I imagine they are most comfortable for two or three people at most. To some eyes, too, the interiors might feel a little rustic, with raw concrete and timber-board ceilings downstairs, and electrical ducts left exposed against the concrete block. (Robertson jokes that they are “New York loft style”.) But really, these details are beside the point – the comparison was never to a larger home or to a house with a bit more polish to it. The goal was set clearly in that Tumblr post: “a medium density build that would solve the affordability problem by pooling costs, and make economical use of land close to the city”.

Not only did the co-housers and their architects achieve those goals, they have created four homes with real humanity. The spaces encourage a kind of daily life that is so very different to other mixed-housing developments. Whether it’s the simple things, such as orientation to sun and having private decks in useful places, or the double-height volumes, or the common areas that provide space to be present with others – these are humane homes. (They seem like obvious things, but how rarely are they achieved?) Money has gone towards the most important aspects of the design, the spaces, which can’t be changed easily later. Add some polish, if that’s your thing.

So how did it all work out so well? “Six people was a good number,” says Gittos. “Too many more and you can end up with too many processes. Six people meant they could make decisions on WhatsApp and keep things moving.” Robertson adds, “Everyone was committed to getting the project done, so the group quickly found ways around problems.” I also get the sense that the co-housers’ friendship and optimism played a big part in seeing the project to a happy completion.

Lessons, then? Find the right group of the right number of co-housers. Commit to getting it done with as humane a design as you can afford. And stay unfailingly optimistic through mortgage hassles, changes of plan, and a few pandemic lockdowns. Not easy, but clearly, undoubtedly, obviously, after seeing these homes, we know it can be done.

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1. Entry
2. Living
3. Kitchen
4. Laundry
5. Dining
6. Deck
7. Bedroom
8. Bathroom
9. Patio
10. Mezzanine
11. Storage

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