It’s become something of a holy grail in Aotearoa: how do you produce housing that is architecturally designed but standardised, without being generic? So we’ve set out to design one. It’ll never be built, but hopefully it’ll show what’s possible.
Working with architectural designer Laura McLeod and project manager Amelia Wilson of Artis, we’ll use their playful system of blocks to plan an affordable, hard-working home on a real site in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. It’s in the inner eastern suburbs, an area graced with large flat sections and older wooden houses. It’s a corner site of 900 square metres. There’s an ex-state house on the front, plus a garage and a big driveway. We’ll keep the old house, and densify around it, making better use of the site as we do so. “I really like the idea of keeping the existing dwelling,” says Wilson. “I don’t think demolition is the answer to everything.”
Our imagined clients are in their early 30s. They’ve bought the land with some mates, and they want to subdivide and build a house for themselves. They could even add a third structure for rental since, under both the Auckland Unitary Plan and the new Medium Density Residential Standards, it’s a three-unit site. They want something practical and hard-wearing, with some nice volumes, and they’re open to the idea of building in stages as their circumstances change. Their budget for the house is $500,000.
But first, some background. Artis launched late last year, an off-shoot of the design-build company BoxTM, which has been working on streamlining building for the better part of two decades. For years, McLeod and Wilson met people who wanted something architecturally designed, but lacked the budget.
Eventually, they realised there was an even more streamlined way of doing things, and that became Artis: a set of design principles with considered components and details that could be arranged in a variety of configurations. Rather than a set of predetermined floor plans – which will inevitably be changed and pulled, sometimes beyond recognition – the Artis approach offers considered elements that fit together to suit each brief and site.
The designs are fun, made from hard-wearing materials, with a sense of beautiful simplicity and a minimum of circulation spaces. The result is compact, highly efficient housing built to a set specification and system. “Building a house can be stressful and complex,” says McLeod. “This really speeds up the process – it’s just that much more efficient.”
The programme starts with a feasibility study, which takes in the broad-brush challenges and opportunities of each project and moves to concept design. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Along the way, the pair have conceived of a system of “blocks”, built to scale, which allow an intuitive, collaborative design process – there’s a standard-sized bedroom, bathroom and a couple of options for living spaces, along with a choice of roof forms. “We realised we need flexibility,” says McLeod. “So where do you allow that and where do you constrain it to keep it efficient and keep the costs down?”
Together with their clients, they haul out to-scale modules and arrange them, pushing them about to find the right layouts before proceeding to detailed plans that involve a standard building system and a choice of predesigned material palettes. “It’s kind of like we’ve made 80 percent of the decisions,” says Wilson, “and then we let you have a go with 20 percent.”
Put it this way: we were intrigued, and a little excited by the idea, so we thought we’d put a challenge to McLeod and Wilson: can you design us a house? Stay tuned.