Housing crisis: Too many rules could lead to badly-designed housing - expert

An expert in medium-density housing is warning Parliament not to get too prescriptive in its new housing rules, saying that could backfire.

The bi-partisan Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill backed by both Labour and National has undergone some evolution in its short time in front of lawmakers and the public. 

It passed its second reading on Tuesday night with backing from all parties in Parliament except ACT. Though Labour has an outright majority, it's teamed up with rivals National to find a lasting solution to the housing crisis. 

The Bill would make it possible to build three-storey medium-density housing without having to bother jumping through the hoops that currently hinder development. 

Labour and National this week said they'd water down the Bill to make it more palatable to existing homeowners, by reducing the height a building can reach at the property boundary. The environment select committee earlier this week said the Bill should also prescribe larger outdoor living areas and bigger windows for each room.

Medium-density housing architect James Solari told The AM Show on Wednesday having too many rules can make it difficult to design attractive homes.

"From our perspective, design quality is fundamentally the most important aspect of medium-density housing. Numerical rules, we find, aren't necessarily the best facilitator of good outcomes.

"Skilled designers are best-placed to create good relationships of indoor and outdoor space and how they relate to neighbours, and those things are important in a medium-density environment. So we'd rather see a better framework that empowers good designers to do a good job, rather than a prescriptive framework which is really designed to control the lower-end of people undertaking the work." 

In other words, the rules are there to stop developers building homes unfit to live in. Solari says good designers don't need to be told how to do their jobs, but even they need some guidelines to work within.

"Every room should have windows - I guess the controls should be more enabling. I'd like to see more incentivisation for the right sort of designers who are good at this to be at the table. 

"Rules that allow too much freedom for a lack of design probably are asking for poor outcomes… there's a careful balance."

Asked for an example of good medium-density design, Solari said Auckland's Hobsonville Pt was a good case study in both good and bad.

"When you see the stuff that has been undertaken well and executed well you can feel it, you can see it, you can appreciate it - you can go around the corner and see some that's not done so well. It's quite a noticeable difference. 

"Places that have got a cohesion to their design solution, there's an understanding of balancing people's amenity, which is access to light, access to some sort of outlook, balancing privacy relative to each other. 

"Those aspects are what make medium-density living really important to get right. You can see when it's been done well, and you can also see when it's done poorly. " 

The stricter rules in the watered-down Bill will only marginally reduce the number of homes, the Bill's sponsor David Parker said, but lowering the boundary height limit any further - to 3m, for example - will severely weaken its ability to increase supply. 

The Bill is expected to become law before Parliament rises on December 15.