OPINION: When Donna Holmes planned her holiday home, she had one stipulation: it should be quite small, so that her family were forced to rub along together.
In her job as a nurse in the Wairarapa, Holmes sees lots of high-needs people: people who are sick and lack real home and community connections. And she reckons the Kiwi propensity to build big houses isn’t helping. At an average of 218 square metres our homes are the third largest in the Western world, after America (249.5sqm) and Australia (231sqm).
“Our houses have got so big we’re not even crossing paths with our own family sometimes. Even a shared bathroom makes us engage,” she says.
With this in mind, the Herbertville home designed by her architect son, Michael, to be holiday central for Donna, husband Tim, their four kids and seven grandkids – is determinedly modest. There are no en suite bathrooms, separate living rooms, or get-away spaces.
During the day, says Donna, “we’re all together and juggling the kids needs.” At night the kids throw a row of mattresses on the mezzanine floor and go off to sleep listening to the adults below – which is pretty much what Donna remembers doing as a child, on trips to her family marae, Tākitimu, near Gisborne.
“We all slept in close proximity on the marae and I remember lying on the floor and listening to the adults talking. It was a nice way to drift off to sleep.”
In general, Kiwis would do well to embrace a bit more of the marae model of living – modest whare around a central marae, Holmes believes. “They don’t live on top of one another, but they’re connected. It’s a healthy way of living.”
It’s the sort of thinking I’m hearing a lot these days. As editor of NZ House & Garden, I talk to a lot of house-proud homeowners – and in recent times the talk is less about privacy and space and luxury, and more about cosiness and community connectedness.
Ask “what’s the best thing about your place?” and very often you get a rave about the great neighbours.
So what’s driving this? There’s no doubt that the scary housing market is shaking things up, and making us rethink the Kiwi dream of owning a spacious home on a section large enough for backyard cricket, but there is, I would argue, another equally important driver of change: the fact that we are feeling lonely.
Statistics NZ tells us that a million Kiwis feel lonely every month – and, surprisingly, younger people are the most affected, with almost one in five saying they feel forlorn some of the time.
Commentators speculate this is because we’re online more, talking to one another less, and because our social media feeds make us all too aware of every party we miss.
Whatever the reason, we feel more isolated. And that single, rather sad fact is I believe an under-recognised theme behind a whole raft of changes – big and little – that are affecting our homes.
Like Holmes, many of us are choosing to build modest homes with multi-use spaces that throw us together more.
Catherine Foster, author of Small House Living, says the small home trend is most pronounced among “beginners and enders” – first home buyers and downsizers. Right now we’re in an interim phase with many big homes being built, but she predicts that will change.
“It’s a zeitgeist thing. There’s a whole groundswell sweeping up.”
She says small homes in themselves are not the whole answer: good design is important. “We all crave connectedness, but we’re busy and we want the human contact to be on our own terms,” she says.
BROKEN SPACE LIVING
UK architect Mary Duggan came up with the term broken space living to describe a new trend in home design that is all about creating connected living spaces for the family: areas that may be linked visually but that are still a bit separate. Frequently this involves a change of levels, and sometimes sliding doors.
The concept has caught on here, among clients who want to keep the family close but still have quiet spaces for online time or office work. “The children may be doing their homework in a quiet space, or gaming, and be close to the family for interaction and supervision, but not in the same room,” says Wellington architect Simon Novak, of Novak + Middleton Architects.
He says living areas are also becoming more intimate and cosy – and that the telly is often banished, to encourage talk and human connection.
KITCHENS AS A SOCIAL HUB
If you’re designing a home to connect people, the kitchen is the always going to be the star.
For years now, Kiwis have been spending big money on their kitchens to re-invent them as a social hub. It’s not enough for the kitchen to work for the chief cook – it needs to work for several people cooking together, and for kids doing their homework as well as friends who drop by for a drink.
A new, more recent twist to the social kitchen is to do away with the kitchen island altogether, and to replace it with a generous table – so that dining and cooking and a handy work surface are all in together, and anyone who happens by can just pull up a chair in the part of the home where it is all happening.
More and more Kiwis are choosing apartments over houses and, while cheaper prices are a drawcard, Foster is in no doubt that residents are also attracted by the idea of being connected to a community. Just because many of us can’t afford a big house she says, “doesn’t mean we want smaller, meaner lives”.
Some well-appointed apartment complexes include communal facilities like libraries, pools, parks, or dining areas. But a lot of the connections happen organically, just because you live close by.
Designer Daniella Norling, of Trove Interior Design, lives in an an apartment complex in the Auckland suburb of Freemans Bay, and counts her neighbours among her closest friends.
Five years ago she and a neighbour started The Gin Club – a neighbourly get together for gin and cheese and chat. Today it meets monthly and includes 30 members aged from 26 to 88.
“You know that if you ever need anything then somebody’s got your back, she says. “It’s a very supportive environment filled with the kindest people.”
Connections outside the complex are important too. A happy apartment dweller herself, Foster says a vibrant community can make apartment living a much richer option than a big house in the suburbs where the footpaths ae empty and the houses, she says, are “like blank eyes onto the road”.
She’s a fan of developments like Auckland’s Hobsonville Point, with a mix of stand-alone houses, apartments and townhouses, with cafes and parks within walking distance and generous pavements: “You almost can’t help but bump into your neighbour.”
Co-housing communities, which are a cluster of private homes around a shared space, are also having a day. A new Dunedin project – High Street Cohousing – is selling well and a similar project is planned for Nelson.
WIDER COMMUNITY CONNECTION
Young people particularly seem to me to be valuing neighbourhood connections more than previous generations. On a run with a 28-year- old friend, Ashleigh McEnaney, the other day, I asked what sort of house she would ultimately like to live in.
I expected her to talk about Scandi-style, or about mid-city apartments. Nope, she just wanted to stay in Mount Albert because, she says “we’ve got this thing going on”.
The “thing” is a close group of 10 friends, all living in close proximity and happy to pop in on one another, connected via WhatsApp, and revelling in the Mount Albert cafes, market and the Jacinda vibe.
“It feels like a place of the future,” she says. “We’d be utterly gutted if we had to move away. We just love it. “
Ash and her partner, Ollie Margetts, are renting and can’t afford to buy a home yet. But as we ran that morning, you could tell she felt happy and privileged about where she was living.
She spoke as if she had won the housing lottery. And if, as Kiwis are increasingly doing, we choose to define home in terms of human warmth and connectedness rather than bricks and mortar, perhaps she has.