Urban housing discussion by Pete Bossley

Architect Pete Bossley

Architect Pete Bossley, Vinegar Lane concept

Auckland architect Pete Bossley looks at several common urban housing typologies for New Zealand cities, and comments on how denser cities can become more efficient and sustainable. Photo Simon Devitt.

It may not seem so, but New Zealand is relatively highly urbanised. Over 50 per cent of us live in cities. Admittedly, our cities are more suburban and low density than medium- or high-density; but as our population increases and the demographics change, enthusiasm for how we live may also change. The dreams that fed the suburban proliferation are still alive, if perhaps not so vivid as they once were. The suburbs promise openness, space, freedom and the possibility of individual identity, and these are important. But suburbs often fail to provide (at least without extensive use of the car) the wealth of social facilities and cultural infrastructures that enable people to create local communities.

We should expect more of our suburbs, and, in time, we will get more. Cars will become more fuel-efficient, and I believe if we focus on small-scale, convenient cross-town public transport, and electronic advances in driving and parking aids, we will need less roading per head of population and congestion will reduce. Environmental services, such as a vast expansion of the suburban areas devoted to stormwater treatment, and use of our roads as solar collectors, will enable the suburbs to become more active contributors to the overall sustainability of the city.

At the same time, however, higher-density alternatives are becoming desired, and more desirable. We are recognising that rich and varied cities require the full spectrum of residential possibilities if they are to become more vibrant, satisfying and interesting. And interesting cities feed their residents and foster diversity. It would be nice to think they also encourage tolerance.

Although our cities are beginning to offer varied contemporary options for residential living, they pale when compared with cities that have been developing in the medium-density direction for much longer, such as Melbourne or Amsterdam. Rather than try to replicate such examples, however, we should work to develop models that expand upon the qualities already on offer in this country.

Urban house types

Urban house types

So what is the range of possibilities? There are a number of well-tested archetypes, and hopefully as our cities mature we will develop more. In simplistic terms, the range from low to higher density goes something like this:

Detached – Courtyard – Duplex – ‘Sausage’ Flats – Terraced Housing – Terraced Apartments – Low-rise Apartment Buildings – Apartment Block – Apartment Tower.

Overlaid on all of the above are opportunities for Mixed Use (shops, offices and apartments, for example, in the same building) or Adaptive Reuse (conversion of old buildings). Also increasing in consideration is Intergenerational Housing, where it is possible to cater for maybe three or four generations and extended families.

Detached house

This is basically the suburban house. These homes can range from traditional (quarter-acre dreamers) to villas on 400 square metres on the city fringe, to the detached-but-only-just, as in some of the new developments, where the houses seem so close one wonders why they don’t just get on with it, join up with the neighbours and become a Terrace.

Detached and semi-detached house

Courtyard house

This is an interesting version of the Detached House that utilises ‘zero lot line’ thinking, positing that outdoor space on a property is more useful if concentrated in one area rather than spread thinly all around the house. Traditional Asian examples are like square doughnuts, and more recently the U form has been developed. The house Marsh Cook designed for his extended family in Ponsonby is a brilliant example of a contemporary building sitting very comfortably amongst Edwardian villas, offering multiple living areas and shared spaces for flexible use by the family (or families).

Courtyard house sketch, Marshall Cook's courtyard house


Two houses are joined together either side by side (a.k.a. ‘Semi-Detached’ or ‘Semi’) or one above the other.

Duplex house

‘Sausage’ Flats

Endemic around New Zealand, redolent of its 1960s heyday, this archetype offered linked townhouses running perpendicular to the street, utilised our deep sections, and catered for the car. Often it did little more; private open space was usually minimal. There are, however, some fine examples, and it is a useful model for long, thin sections.

'Sausage' flats

Terraced Housing

This is the core archetype of which streets throughout European and Asian cities and villages are composed. They range from elegant (the Royal Crescent at Bath) to prosaic (Coronation Street), and of course the Sydney Terrace is a famous example. They vary in scale: two-storey houses are the most common, but merchant houses of up to three or four stories line the canals of Amsterdam.

Traditionally in Terraced Housing, each slice of the building comprises a single house, with the front door facing the street and private outdoor space at the back. Apart from the increased density these offer, the greatest advantage they confer is the continuity of façades, which creates a defining wall: immediately the street becomes an urban space that can be designed for trees, footpaths, shelter, vehicles and pedestrians.

In 2009, while involved in the testing of the guidelines as they were being developed for Hobsonville Point in Auckland, Bossley Architects designed a terrace of six houses, which combined the Courtyard approach with the Terrace model.

Terrace housing sketch

Terraced Apartments

This is essentially the Terrace writ large, in which apartments are layered up from street level; four stories is usually the maximum before lifts are required. Wonderful examples of these create the beautiful streets of Paris and Barcelona. The new Vinegar Lane development in Auckland, where sections range from five to nine metres wide with a 15-metre height limit, is a promising exploration of possibilities offered by this archetype. Each section is designed by a different architect within an overall set of design guidelines, producing some adventurous combinations of mixed-use apartment types.

Terraced apartments sketch

Low-rise Apartment Buildings

These are common around the world and, given the strictures of land ownership, will proliferate in New Zealand cities as individual sites are developed to provide greater density. Good examples in Auckland include Arena in Parnell by RTA Studio, and the L-shaped Trinity Apartments by

These are common around the world and, given the strictures of land ownership, will proliferate in New Zealand cities as individual sites are developed to provide greater density. Good examples in Auckland include Arena in Parnell by RTA Studio, and the L-shaped Trinity Apartments by Architectus, also in Parnell. A recent example is the Akepiro apartment building, the result of an adventurous competition run by the Auckland Council, the New Zealand Institute of Architects, and developers Okham. The winning scheme, designed by S3 Architects, is a six-storey timber-framed building containing 25 apartments, three commercial spaces, and underground car parks on a small inner-city site.


Our cities are on the move, heading towards higher density and more vibrancy. Auckland in particular is working hard to transform itself into a more liveable city, and the archetypes mentioned above are being tested. There are glimpses of new forms arising to satisfy changing needs and to offer more options. Let’s hope more appear as the exploration continues!

About the writer

Pete Bossley is a registered architect and the director of Bossley Architects in Auckland. He was the NZIA Gold Medallist in 2012 and has been involved in a number of medium-density master planning and architectural projects in Auckland. His office is currently working on apartment buildings, a seven-storey scientific facility, two museums, many houses and a hotel. He is perhaps best known for his bespoke house designs and is the architect of several of New Zealand’s most iconic homes. His portfolio includes many cultural, civic and commercial buildings around New Zealand, including Voyager Maritime Museum. www.bossleyarchitects.co.nz