At a ground-breaking Dunedin co-housing development both the veggie garden and community spirit are flourishing, but the electricity bills aren’t.
Co-designer, Tim Ross, confirms that Toiora Co-housing is the first certified passive house multi-unit housing development in New Zealand.
With its strong community and environmentally-friendly approach, this urban complex could be a forerunner solution to the housing crisis.
The 5000 sq m former High Street School site lies at the intersection of Dunedin’s green belt and the High St Heritage Precinct.
Between 50 and 60 people live in Toiora’s mixture of new, freehold town houses and apartments. Each unit is well equipped and has a small garden; however, residents also share some facilities and eat together twice a week.
“It’s designed to be a great place to live,” Tim says.
It’s also designed to have a smaller footprint than regular houses because of the shared amenities, and green spaces taking priority over car parks.
The 24 units have triple-glazing, are super insulated and have significantly low energy use. These householders spend 20 per cent of what a conventional home spends on energy a month to heat it to the same level.
During a stroll with Tim and Co-designer, Maria Callau, they point out the abundant vegetables a gardening group grows, and the pleasant common grassy area bordered by plants.
“We’re creating a community really,” she says.
Almost all the units’ kitchens face toward this green space, with a patio or balcony to aid the transition between each kitchen and the lawn.
This is an intentional aspect of co-housing:
Everybody has their own little private area before they connect with the common area.”
Maria says community is valuable in an era of increased social isolation.
Both the co-designers are Toiora residents and they point out the car park’s electric vehicle chargers. One-third of the residents have electric vehicles and another third have hybrids.
Although all homes have space for a washing machine, some people don’t want one and use the common laundry.
The school library has been transformed into a boldly-coloured, multi-purpose shared space with a commercial-grade kitchen, two guest bedrooms and a popular workshop.
Remnants of the historic school remain, such as bike shed bricks, which will be recycled into a new bike shed.
The housing blocks have 300 mm-thick external walls. Walls and floors are timber-framed and the ground floors are built on insulated concrete slabs. Very little concrete was used in construction.
The units range from one to five bedrooms. Residents also vary; Maria says that their nine nationalities include individuals, couples and families, who are aged from babies to those in their seventies.
“We wanted to have a good variety of people,” she explains.
The development began in 2013 when some members bought the site. The co-designers and future home owners then spent two or three years designing and re-designing, with everyone contributing.
“There was a big input from everybody about how they wanted to do things,” she says.
Leading the standards in passive housing
The eHaus company’s local builders, Stevenson & Williams, constructed Toiora. Homes had been pre-sold off the plans, and people started moving in during April this year.
A passive house is energy efficient and the Passivhaus Standard is the leading international standard for this.
Tim says innovations include a boxed hot water heat pump at the end of one housing block. This serves the entire block and residents pay per litre. This is three times more energy efficient than a conventional electric cylinder, plus saves space.
Ventilation systems provide fresh air all the time so people don’t need to open windows and lose energy. One single person’s winter electricity bill was a mere $25 a month.
Maria adds that the homes are airtight and very functional, so there is no wasted space.
All the units are placed to gain the most sunlight possible.
The Toiora complex cost almost $12 million to build. Tim observes that paying their mortgages is easier because energy costs are so low.
Under the co-housing model, householders share the responsibility for running their community, both through voluntary work and collaborative decision-making.
He says more co-housing is being built or planned throughout New Zealand. Some is rural, some caters for the elderly and one venture centres on permaculture.
“Ours is just urban and there’s an intention to be sustainable,” he says.
Tim and Maria consider co-housing could be a solution for the housing crisis and note that the houses don’t need to be passive.
However, they say the financial sector’s rules will need to change to accommodate co-housing.
Even though Toiora Co-housing had pre-sold all the units, it took a long time to convince bankers, valuers and insurance agents of the development’s intrinsic value.
Kāti Huirapa Rūnaka ki Puketeraki gifted the name, which refers to the nearby Toitū stream. One meaning of toi is the pinnacle and toiora as a word also means well-being.
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