An Otago engineer and designer, who has been working on affordable, efficient homes for decades, believes they offer solutions to New Zealand’s housing crisis.
Modular housing in the Australian outback influenced Bruce Partridge, of Ecohex Design, who suggests such units offer the flexibility to build whatever size home people want.
The Dunedin engineer’s meticulous and thoughtful hexagonal designs use a construction system he says is cheap, fast, affordable and easily replicable.
Our design is probably the most stable and strongest that you could possibly build.”
These six-sided forms are strong and clustering modules together means different ages can live together.
“The beauty of a hexagon is that you get one third extra floor space for the same length of external wall.” He gives mathematical evidence of this.
A 120 sq m two-bedroom home Bruce built in Chertsey, Canterbury, showcases his construction system.
Engineered timber frames made of structural-grade laminated veneer posts and beams, with steel joints, provide a light, stable frame that doesn’t twist or bend.
The walls and roofs aren’t structural and are filled with insulated panels. Technology has advanced and Bruce now uses fire-rated polyisocyanurate (PIR) foam panels, which have twice the insulating value of polystyrene.
His ideas have contributed to the popular tiny homes the Skillsec training centre is constructing, to increasing demand.
While acknowledging that finding land is a problem for those entering the housing market, Bruce says building costs are reduced by his designs, by repurposing materials and using the owner’s labour.
“This is the only way that young people can get started, is to do things themselves.”
Started in the 1970s
Bruce began designing houses in the 1970s when, as a 21-year-old, he built a two-storey home in Waitati for his young family.
After he and his wife, Jean, bought land on the Otago Peninsula, he rebuilt a cottage using recycled materials and the family lived there for about 12 years.
In 2000, Bruce built a new house there, recycling second-hand demolition materials, including Canadian Oregon pine for the windows, beams and joinery.
His Spanish-influenced two-storey home features large bay windows, which give the rooms extra space and seating.
When Jean got a nursing job at a health clinic in the Australian outback, Bruce worked there as an administrative assistant and was exposed to local people and their ideas.
Aboriginal elders ran this remote health centre in the Utopia area of the Northern Territories. Nursing accommodation was being constructed and Bruce’s knowledge increased as he managed contractors and the installation of off-grid solar energy systems.
In his spare time, he taught himself to do 3D computer aided design.
“In 2010, we went back to Dunedin. I could see that there was a future in affordable housing. Young people were struggling, house prices were rising.”
A desire to help others
Bruce met Central Otago farmers, Norm and Leisa Roos, who later became the Owner/Managers of the Skillsec training centre in Dunedin.
They were eager to help others, including via funding. The trio leased a warehouse and constructed their first hexagonal building prototype.
A single module has a 42 sq m floor area with an 8 m diameter; accommodates one or two people and may be open plan or divided into smaller rooms.
Modules can be used for smart housing, separate flats, business premises and retirement or extended family units.
The 2006 Chertsey home has double-glazed windows and doors with UVPC frames which don’t allow any thermal pathway from the inside to the outside, thus stopping condensation.
A passive solar insulating base with hot water heating coils enables occupants to choose what rooms to heat.
The house is so well insulated that they don’t need a fire.”
At that time, people wouldn’t have contemplated using a post and beam structure for large-scale buildings; however, in 2018, the Otago Polytechnic opened student accommodation, which has a laminated timber frame.
Bruce didn’t play any part in this but says it reflected a surge of interest in using engineered timber for larger buildings rather than steel.
For those interested in affordable housing, he recommends reading The Human House by Tony Watkins.
This book says such housing will always be owner-built because few people can afford to pay somebody to do all the physical work and organisation.
According to the book, on the other hand, commercial builders can’t afford to construct affordable homes because of the labour cost.
“That’s the key to it all,” Bruce says.
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