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How housing could go from clumsy to savvy

Megan Woods has a chance to move away from KiwiBuild’s clumsy foray into the middle-class housing market towards workable, 21st century solutions, writes Shane Te Pou 

I have no reason to doubt Megan Woods’ capability or aptitude, but even an abundance of both won’t save KiwiBuild - a public policy disaster that threatens to define the coalition’s legacy.

That’s why I hope the analysts are wrong when they cast Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s reshuffle as an attempt to save KiwiBuild, as if Phil Twyford’s stewardship was the scheme’s fatal flaw.

For all of his shortcomings, it’s an unfair burden for the Te Atatu MP to bear on his own. KiwiBuild was flawed from inception, sketched as a public relations stunt, and never properly thought through. The Government faces major challenges with building social housing in Aotearoa because of cost inflation in the construction sector. 

These same cost pressures make it impossible for young Kiwis to own their own homes, making the dream of home ownership impossible. It has also caused the failure of several New Zealand construction companies in the last five years. 

Rather than remaining hostage to a handful of major construction firms that drive costs ever upwards, a holistic approach to housing would include investing in NZ’s wood supply chains. 

That means planting forests, managing forests better and having value-added processing in NZ, not exporting raw logs for others to process overseas. 

Because of the over-logging of NZ’s national forestry resources over the past two decades (predominantly exporting raw logs to China and India), experts warn of a “gap” coming in NZ forestry where there is less high-grade timber for conventional structural purposes.

As a country, we have the opportunity to become the major exporter of engineered timber products to meet growing population needs of the Asia-Pacific region, while at the same time being the leader in commitment to Zero Carbon, by revolutionising the global construction industry. New Zealand radiata pine happens to be one of the best source woods for our technology ... again, making use of New Zealand’s natural advantages in growing the right type of softwoods faster than anyone else and then turning them into high-value export products to be shipped to their final destination - to fulfil a global social/affordable housing need. 

This is a green, sustainable technology in that it will turn cities into carbon storage, rather than the high carbon footprint of existing construction methods. I spoke with David Henry of NZ Future Forest Products Ltd, a wood technology company now transitioning from R&D to operations in New Zealand. 

They are among the innovators looking for more cost-effective approaches to the social housing shortfall in the country. “We offer a modular engineered timber building solution that uses New Zealand radiata to replace the use of steel and reduce the use of concrete in mid/high-rising buildings,” Henry said. 

“Our technology puts New Zealand at the confluence of the green technology, as well as social and affordable housing trends." Engineered timber has the potential to surpass conventional steel and concrete methods for mid-rise residential construction in the next five years and for high-rise construction within the next decade. Henry calls this “the IKEA-isation of the construction industry”. Housing NZ is already using some engineered timber components in recent blocks of flats built in Clayton Ave, Otara and Lake Rd, Takapuna. N Modular, flat-packed engineered timber buildings can be built faster, with fewer truck movements in urban areas, and are safer than steel and concrete buildings of the same size.

“These buildings are healthier for people to live in,” Henry explains, safer in fires and earthquakes, quicker to build and, by our calculations, our modular system is 15 percent cheaper than conventional steel and concrete structures of the same size." 

There is obvious export potential for this kind of sustainable, low-cost alternative to traditional building methods. Green supply chains like rail that connect directly to port infrastructure will be crucial to get New Zealand’s wood fibre from forests in the central North Island to regional centres for manufacturing. Finished containerised products from those manufacturing centres will then be sent to ports with capacity to export efficiently to Asia-Pacific markets. Iwi will be keen to leverage off this model and no doubt will be a key stakeholder. 

 This is the kind of innovative thinking we need to apply to the housing sector. 

 Rather than KiwiBuild’s clumsy foray into the middle-class housing market, low-cost sustainable housing promises to far more effectively address problems at both the supply and demand ends. 

 Here’s hoping that, as the new Minister, Megan Woods looks far beyond her Government’s failing model towards workable, 21st century solutions. 

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