The future of NZ housing is prefabs, and 180,000 ‘tiny’ homes

Mar 5, 2018 | News

On Thursday, Prefab NZ, an industry association of housing prefabricators, will release a report into the industry’s capacity to turn out houses for Kiwibuild.

It will also launch a nationwide competition seeking a design for a tiny one to two bedroom house plan that could be “pre-consented” by Auckland Council, and any other councils wishing to follow suit, which homeowners with big enough gardens could simply parachute onto their land.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford needs prefab housing if he is going to deliver the affordable housing Auckland needs.

The tiny house would be called “The Snug”, said Pamela Bell, Prefab NZ’s chief executive.

Bell would not share the report’s detailed conclusions, but said for prefabrication to achieve scale under Kiwibuild, the government would have to look at measures to give prefab companies the confidence to invest.

This could include low interest or no-interest loans, as well as guarantees of volumes on which their investment in new factories could be planned.

“Part of the directive with Kiwibuild is around longer term transformation in the construction sector,” Bell said, and engagement with ministers, who would be at the launch of the report at AUT, had left Prefab NZ encouraged.

The government was elected on a platform of poverty reduction and delivering affordable housing, but the opposition National Party has called its ability to build houses fast into question after releasing estimates from MBIE which indicate it’s going to take “years to ramp up” building.

But Bell said the estimates were based on the traditional method of building, which was suffering under a skills shortage, not factory-made homes assembled on site far more rapidly.

For eight years the prefab industry had been working on a plan to achieve scale, Bell said.

“If it is going to happen, it’s going to happen under Kiwibuild, but it is going to need close alignment with the government and MBIE,” she said.

The “Tiny Home” movement is a global phenomenon driven by high house and land prices. Christchurch’s Kyle Sutherland, whown here in his tiny home, is spearheading a movement to introduce tiny houses.

Gary Caulfield, chief executive of XLam, a high-tech prefabricator based in Nelson, said guarantees of volume were needed for companies to invest in expanding their manufacturing capacity.

XLam’s cross laminated timber (CLT) panels were already used in Housing New Zealand new builds, but the country was lagging the rest of the world in adopting more efficient, and higher-quality building methods, he said.

“Though New Zealand is behind Europe in the use of cross laminated timber (CLT), one significant advantage we already have is the type of wood we use in construction – radiata pine and Douglas fir – compared with the spruce that is widespread in Europe, which has properties that make it difficult to treat.

There’s a long history of prefabrication in New Zealand stretchiung back to colonial times. Havelock’s former Post Office was prefabricated in England as a church.

“There is also, given our well-established forestry sector, no difficulty in expanding the production base for CLT from the running start we already have, which would lend a time and cost boost to the construction industry that is tasked with pushing forward the massive housing programme.”

Fletcher Residential, the home-building arm of NZX-listed Fletcher Building, is also eyeing the opportunities for its prefab business.

It’s chief executive Steve Evans said: “In order for panelisation to be commercially viable for businesses like ours you need to have the surety of volume in the pipeline, in order to justify the capital investment in the manufacturing facility.”

“Kiwibuild offers an opportunity for developers to get this kind of visibility and surety over future pipelines, and we are excited to see the Government is looking at a range of delivery options for the initiative over the next decade.”

Bell could not reveal details of the report to be released on Thursday, but said the results were “very heartening”, including on how much manufacturers were willing to cut margin, if they were guaranteed scale.

Tiny homes were part of the solution too, Bell said.

“Our demographics mean we need more one and two bedroom houses,” Bell said, both for youngsters starting out in life, as well as older people looking for smaller, more manageable dwellings.

Architects, designers, and students were expected to be the people putting their ideas forward, Bell said.

CRESA, the Centre for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment, estimated that as many as 180,000 homes could be made quickly on existing back yards, she said.

Prefab NZ says New Zealand has a long, and successful, history of housing people in prefabs.
* New Zealand’s much-loved historic villas and bungalows were from pattern-books and prefabricated parts, as was the 1833 Treaty House in Waitangi.
* The Railways housing scheme began in the 1920s and used a combination of prefabricated components and standardised planning through pattern-books.
* Much of the state housing built in the 1930s to 1950s was prefabricated.
* So was much of the hydro scheme housing of the 1940s to 1970s.

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