BRANZ Build (October 2013) Onwards & Upwards

08 Oct 2013

Rob Gaimster
Cement & Concrete Association (CCANZ)

New Zealand is undergoing a demographic transformation. The population is aging, immigration patterns are changing, and couple and single person households are increasing.

Add to this rising property prices - particularly in Auckland and Christchurch - the scarcity of land for development, and the relatively slow rate of residential construction and one solution could be a requirement for urban, rather than suburban, living.


As we know, this has not always been the case. As a country where land and timber was plentiful, post-war New Zealand witnessed a burst of activity in the construction of standalone dwellings. The state house became common, and from the late 1960s every car needed a separate garage. The result was your own slice of paradise - a spacious home on a generous section.

Yet, for many, the quarter acre dream did not live up to expectations. Homes were often too cold in winter and too hot in summer, required continual maintenance, and were isolated from infrastructure and places of work, as well as leisure and recreational facilities.


As current social trends and economic conditions combine they seem to be leading us towards more sustainable, medium density multi-storey residential developments. However, there is much to consider, especially our comparative lack of experience in good apartment design.

Wholesale adoption of international practice without a thorough understanding of our own unique demands would be a mistake. While we can take inspiration from exemplar apartment complexes elsewhere, we must first identify and accommodate our own distinctive New Zealand traits. These can be as subtle as our strong connection with the outdoors, and the resulting need for storage for bulky leisure equipment.

More immediate design considerations stem from concerns around construction materials following the leaky building crisis and the heightened awareness of structural requirements since the Canterbury earthquakes. These may initially be obstacles to the uptake of apartment living but will ultimately enhance the fit-for-purpose, long-term outcome.


Medium density developments need durable construction materials used in a design suited to the climate, with correct detailing and brought to life by skilled trade professionals. The scale of an apartment development magnifies the consequences of any shortcuts in quality materials. In particular, there is a premium on fire safety with materials offering enhanced resistance at no additional cost.

Protection from sound intrusion is similarly important. Recent CCANZ research on the acoustic performance of different construction typologies shows heavyweight construction is well-suited to managing noise control issues in apartments, particularly at low frequencies.


With the increased emphasis on earthquake resilience, we are seeing a new low damage approach to seismic structural design - embracing life safety as a priority, while enabling continuity post-earthquake through damage minimisation.

Base isolation is experiencing a renaissance, while damage resistant design techniques, primarily PREcast Seismic Structural Systems (PRESSS), are gaining uptake among commercial building developers, and are also ideally suited for multi-storey apartment complexes.


The Christchurch City Council-led Breathe design competition is one example of the mature realisation that medium- and high-density multi-storey apartments are crucial to New Zealand's future housing needs.

Many of the concept designs demonstrate the exhilarating possibilities for residential developments delivering sustainability, innovation and a sense of community.

This new era in residential construction will be one that reflects changing attitudes about how and where we live our lives. It has to be enthusiastically embraced, and the structures that emerge have to be uncompromising.

Article appeared in BRANZ Build (Oct / Nov 2013).