What’s going wrong in Christchurch?

The NZ Government has finally released their plans for a solution to the temporary housing problems affecting residents after the February 22 Earthquake.    The announcement is proof that the Government is successfully doing a miraculous job of delivering housing that is expensive, slow and low quality.  There is a well known management triangle  for project delivery that states that projects can be quick, cheap and good quality, but can only be two of these.  The government is proving innovative in its ability to fail at all three.  Lets look at this in detail.

Low quality design.

The design above is ripped from the article here on stuff is by one of the three official suppliers NZ Transportable Units who normally build cottages for farms and granny flats.   While the proposals will no doubt pass the low requirements on detailing and materials embedded in the NZ Building codes the above 10 x 5 design quickly reveals some peculiar planning.

  • no laundry,
  • it appears that the kitchen is completely walled in,
  • you can’t get to the 2nd bedroom without climbing over the couch,
  • the master bedroom 3/4 the length of the single bed,
  • inefficient separation of kitchen and bathroom plumbing.

Expensive

Each of these units is going to cost $85,00o, which might sound cheap for a house over ones head.  However, this unit is only 50 square metres. That’s a square metre rate of $1,700.   I recently saw an ad in Melbourne for a 456m2 house for $477,000 costing $1056 per square meter.  If we include the dollar difference that means the so called ‘Emergency’ Housing been proposed for Christchurch is twice as expensive as cheap housing in Melbourne suburbs.   The Government has set aside $38 million to cover the construction costs, however families will be charged between $170 and $336 per week to live in the houses, and will have to pay for their own installation costs if on their own land.   In Japan families have been given rent free use of the accommodation for two years.  The median income in New Zealand is around $33,000 per year, or around $667 per week.   Housing Stress or rent related economic pressure is said to become critical when a family spends more than 1/3 of their income on the housing.    So its clear that for many families with multiple dependents living around or below median income in NZ the rental prices being charged by the government for these houses will add to their pressures and problems rather than alleviate them.

Late

In Japan construction of temporary housing had started within two weeks of the disaster, in New Zealand it is now over two months and contractors for the job have only just been announced.   Show homes are promised to be constructed by mid may,  10-12 weeks after the disaster and still weeks and months away from the actual housing.  Japan is heading towards summer and Christchurch is heading towards what promises to be a cold and dark winter.

Problem

The source of this mismanagement is two fold.  Firstly I think the Government and the contractors are missing the crucial difference between Emergency housing and reconstruction. Emergency housing is often expensive but needs to be quick and the requirements are ones of shelter and safety.  Reconstruction is usually quite slow, can be cheaper if well thought out,  but needs to address future community needs and engage with proper planning and community involvement.  The proposed house designs are just low quality versions of what is built for permanent use in NZ and this doesn’t seem to suit anyone much. The second problem is a cultural and leadership one that sees no potential for innovation. It illustrates not only a complete lack of imagination, but also an ideology that is resistant to using expertise and international precedent.  NZ ran a state housing design competition in 2009 with many interesting and well thought through proposals which are now begin ignored. Is a nation with the technological skills to lead the world in movie making and boat design really incapable of producing anything more than the dreary and depressing designs currently proposed?