Residential architecture is often associated with grand retreats on the coast or high-end town houses in the city. But the reality is that many architects are involved in general housing, designing houses suited to a specific site, client and budget.

The Design Guide spoke with New Zealand architects and a solar engineer, to find out some of their strategies for finding economy in building design.


“Building is expensive, so no matter what the budget, it pays to have a plan. We counter the unknowns by designing elementally – working with each building element so it contributes to more than one outcome to earn its keep. A wall might support the roof, but it might also be a bookshelf; a window can give a view but also throw light onto a place to sit. Economising isn’t so much doing less as doing more with the bits you have.

offSET Shed House, Gisborne.
Photo Patrick Reynolds.

“This elemental approach also lets us discuss withour clients where the priorities are right from the start. We can talk about which parts might drop off if something unexpected happens, be it a change in circumstance, or finding bad ground during excavation. We then design these elements as Christmas presents, so they can be simply clipped on and gifted in the future . . . ‘Happy Christmas darling, here’s that pergola!’

“Mostly such presents aren’t needed and, like theoffSET Shed House pergolas, you get all the bits at the outset; but it pays to have a plan.” Jeremy Smith, Irving Smith Jack Architects, Nelson


 The best thing about being an architect is sharing the excitement of creating new spaces for people. The hardest thing is trying to match their desires with their budget. We’re optimistic creatures: there is inevitably a mismatch. What to do? Increasing the budget isn’t always an option – and, ironically, may not be the best solution.

House for Trees, by Min Hall
and Arthouse Architecture, Nelson.
Photo Paul McCredie.

“Floor area can be reduced by designing flexible spaces that can be configured for different uses, or by using one space for two functions, guest room and office being the obvious example. Circulation areas can be made to work hard – accommodating storage, a seat in the sun, or a home hot desk.

“Outdoor areas are much cheaper to construct than fully insulated weathertight ones, so smart indoor – outdoor planning is another way to keep size down. Can the laundry be under a veranda, for instance? Often these space-saving solutions, arrived at by designing to a tight budget, result in some of the most enjoyable and appreciated spaces in a finished project. Min Hall, Min Hall Architect, Auckland


“When we look at the cost of a house, we need to think about not just the build cost, but also the running cost over its lifetime. Ten or 20 years of power and water bills add up to a significant sum, and we’re seeing a growing awareness from homeowners of the potential here. And they’re not just interested in saving on running costs; they also want to create a more comfortable home with less of an impact on the environment.

The Zero Energy House,
Auckland, A Studio Architects.
Photo Todd Eyre.

“We approach house efficiency by setting a long term budget for the home, which then sets targets for the home’s performance and its likely running costs. In some ways it’s like designing a very large product, and you only need to look at appliance and car designers to find examples of continual product improvement and efficiency. Being focused on performance doesn’t dull down a building design, either. We have a great variety of projects through our office in which good design is required to get a smarter operating building.” Marcia Garcia, Building Performance Consultant at Evident, Auckland


“We look at multiple dimensions when putting together a lean building design. Starting with the floor plan, we optimise the floor area and bulk of a building so there is no unnecessary space, and so that each square metre works to create a greater whole. After size, we consider simplicity in construction methods and detailing – the simpler we can make both of these aspects, the bigger the opportunity for savings.

Albert Street Studio,
Wellington. Photo Melling

“Off-the-shelf materials and working with standard sizes also create efficiency and help minimise highly bespoke detailing. We find this approach leads to a very coherent design, as well as making a smoother construction process.

“The Albert Street Studio at Island Bay is a goodexample of this approach. While small in plan, the modular proportions add rhythm, and the double height space is a smart way to add volume and thus create a high-quality space.” David Telling, Melling Architects, Wellington


“Budgets are real, and one of our roles as architects is to manage the reality of construction costs versus expectations.Understanding our client’s key outcomes helps us find the focus in a project. For a family this might be balancing space requirements; for a retired couple it might be maximising lifestyle opportunities. And thus a house is a collaborative work between the client and architect, developed through a robust and ongoing discussion.

Wanaka bach
Photo Patrick Reynolds

“When designing the best outcome for the budget, we always remember that spaces do not have to be large to be amazing. Quirkiness in design can make a room unexpected, a pleasure, can instigate a smile.

“Different spaces evoke differing feelings – repose,comfort, or a sense of fun. When you add emotional dimensions like this, design can add more value to a home than size alone. For example, a bookcase off a circulation space creates a library and reading area; contrasts in height and size add greater character and variety; and in a child’s bedroom a small hideout can create a sense of wonder.” Anna-Marie Chin, Anna-Marie Chin Architects, Arrowtown


“House design incites us to find new solutions to the specific constraints of the site, the design brief and the construction options. Minimising earthworks is always key, and not just to reduce costs, but to find a close connection between the house and the land. In the Lloyd House pictured, by locating the new house where the original house stood, we could simply use timber piles and avoid excavation altogether. This house also features a dual-purpose internal ‘veranda’, which acts as a passive solar collector, increasing comfort levels and extending the living area for a relatively low cost.

Lloyd House, Paekakariki,
Kapiti Coast. Photo Paul McCredie.

“To achieve construction efficiency, we work closely with builders and suppliers to find a natural economy in design, all the while maximising the possibilities of form and space. We engage with builders early on in the design, and they essentially peer-review solutions; this is key to reducing unexpected variations during the construction phase of a project.” Cecile Bonnifait and  William Giesen, BONNIFAIT + GIESEN Atelierworkshop, Wellington