Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Friday, November 16, 2007

When is a shoebox not a shoebox?

When it's a corporate crash pad, of course!

Okay, that's a flippant response, but I still believe that a distinction has to be made between well-designed compact living spaces and crappy tiny flats. I said the same thing back when a heated argument ensued about the Q on Taranaki proposal (and it may well remain just a proposal, since the site is being onsold), and now that plans have emerged for a Wellington version of the Columbard "sleeping studios", the debate has been re-ignited.

Proposed Columbard apartments in Victoria StThere's not yet enough detail about the Columbard (though their website is promising more information) to see whether they will really be anything different from the slapdash cut-down flats that Q seemed to be threatening. But the Auckland version did indeed seem to be different. If you can stand the grating presentation style, this clip from My House My Castle interviews some residents and outlines the layout and design features that make a tiny studio apartment liveable. The Auckland Columbard seemed to be ill-fated since it had to be sold and ended up as an Accor hotel, but that may have more to do with the specifics of the business rather than a lack of demand, since they had high levels of occupancy.

It's one thing when architects and politicians object to so-called "shoeboxes" (a term that I hate), but when fellow developers start campaigning against them (as Craig Stewart and Terry Serepisos have done in today's Dominion Post), one doesn't have to be too much of a cynic to suspect that their concerns are not about social or urban damage, but about competition. Which means that they think there is a market for such spaces in Wellington, and perhaps a 16 sq m apartment with decent natural light might be more attractive than a much bigger one built right up against another building. I tend to agree, and would seriously consider a Columbard-style "sleeping studio" myself. However, there are a lot of factors that have to come together to make a micro-flat desirable.

Location: I've always thought that the ideal location for such a "corporate crash pad" would be around the Manners St area. Too far north into the Lambton or Thorndon Quarters, and the lack of nightlife and other amenities would make it a lonely place to go home to. Right on Courtenay Pl would be too noisy, and too far south in Te Aro would become a bit too much of a walk home from the office for much of the target market. That was part of the problem with Q, and the fact that most of upper Taranaki St is lacking in street life, quality urban design and amenities (such as dairies, cafés and drycleaners) would make it less appealing as a place to crash. The proposed Columbard location seems almost perfect, with plenty of shops, cafés, restaurants and public spaces within a minute's walk.

Design: It's easy to design a liveable apartment when you have square metres to burn, but cramming everything into a compact space takes a lot of forethought and ingenuity. Multifunctional furniture, compact appliances and hidden storage are essential, as is a judicious use of light, spatial flow and colour to prevent the walls from mentally closing in on you. It's too early to say how well the Wellington Columbard will do this, though from the looks of things the Auckland one did quite well. To my mind, while I wouldn't want to see small apartments banned outright, I'd like to see extra-rigorous assessment of design quality on any apartment under about 30 sq m.

Facilities: One thing that can make up for not having much private living space is the provision of good shared spaces. If the weather's inclement, having a café on the ground floor that you can access without going outside can be much more appealing than having a café next door. Shared courtyards or roof terraces would also be desirable, as would secure bicycle racks and other storage facilities. Some such developments also include broadband in the price, which could be a big selling point.

Price: This is the big factor. I'd be willing to forgo the extra space if it meant saving $100 per week on rent, but $20? No way! The Auckland ones are advertised as starting at $220 per week, and given the difficulty of finding a decent semi-furnished one-bedroom or studio flat that close to the CBD for under $300, something around that range might have a few people sitting up and taking notice. Of course, the extra design features mentioned above cost much more to implement than a bog-standard apartment design, so it requires some very expensive real estate for the option to stack up economically. Has Wellington reached that point yet?

There's a lot of hyperbole and loaded language used to describe these studios in the press. "Half the size of an average hotel room" - is an average hotel room really 32 sq m? That sounds a bit optimistic to me. "Smaller than a prison cell" - well, perhaps, but they're talking about a double cell, and these are generally aimed at single people. Besides, the whole point of a prison is that you're locked in, but no-one's going to throw away the key to your apartment, and the expectation is that these will appeal to people who spend very little of their waking time in their flat. It's pretty hard to make a "home" in 16 sq m, but for those of us who would consider such a place, "home" is not defined by the rooms that we rent. This is our home:

Wellington panorama at nightWho needs more than a bed and a bathroom when you have all this on your doorstep?


At 1:38 pm, November 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your right about Serepisos, i hardly think he's concerned about quality architecture or urban planning. If he does end up building Wellingtons tallest building i hope it loks better than some of is other stuff.

At 3:51 pm, November 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stayed in the former Columbard in Auckland just a few days ago (trip to the netball), and it's pretty slickly laid out. I imagine it's been run down a bit in becoming a hotel, but it was full-featured and would certainly have been livable. It fits a huge amount into a tiny space.

I would even consider it long-term for that location (in Auckland or in Wellington) at ~$220/week. It was very impressive.

At 4:10 pm, November 16, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Anon: did you see 60 Minutes' profile on Serepisos this week? They were driving around the city talking about his love of beautiful things and quality design, pointing out "his" buildings such as the Prudential and "Renaissance" apartments: funnily enough, they only showed the bottoms of the buildings, not his atrocious additions! But he really seems to believe that he makes good buildings.

Michael: that's encouraging to hear. I'd like to think that they'll bring the same attention to detail to the Wellington one.

At 4:18 pm, November 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom: i might agree with you on this one. Seems to me that there is a world of difference between properly designed and targeted small scale temporary accomodation, aka Columbard, and the plain crassly squashed together living conditions of the propsals such as the execrable Q on Taranaki (now hopefully dead in the water).

At 4:23 pm, November 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael, much as you might think you'd like it long term, i doubt it would be feasible.

Do you have any possessions? Like perhaps more than one book or comic?

Have more than one friend in the world? or do you just plan to use your hand?

Got more than 2 place settings of crockery? or do you like to eat alone, or do you really have breakfast lunch and dinner in a nearby coffee bar?

Spare towel and duvet cover? More than one pair of trousers? Or do you just wash clothes while standing naked in your 16m2 of allotted slotted space?

Ever go outside and smell the forest, listen to the tuis bark, or perhaps go out on your mountain bike? Just where would that bike fit? Or would you like us to just nail the lid of your box shut now?

My point: please don't view this as a place to live long term. Believe me, it'll do your head in...

At 4:32 pm, November 16, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

I think you're right to emphasise the "temporary" aspect: this will mostly suit people looking for 1-12 month's accommodation. New graduates or recent immigrants without a lot of possessions; people going through a life change; people with homes in other cities on fixed-term contracts in Wellington: that sort of thing. There might be some people willing to live this way for longer, but it requires a disciplined approach to life and certainly won't suit a hoarder.

For myself, I could imagine being 90% happy with this sort of place. The only downside would be storage: I'd have to pare my library back to essential reference books and collectables, and sell off most of my artworks. Even more of a problem would be the clothes storage: the wardrobe in the Auckland one would be just big enough for my shoes, hats and cravats!

It all comes down to price, in the end. For a saving of $100 or more a week, one could easily eat out an extra two or three times a week. In that case, I could live with even less of a kitchenette than they provide in Columbard: sink, bar-fridge and maybe a microwave. I've done that sort of thing on 1-3 month stints in London, and it really focusses your life on the bare essentials.

At 4:42 pm, November 16, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Nobby: I covered the possessions thing in my previous comment, but a couple of square metres can make all the difference for storage. They just need to make good use of the vertical space, and most places I've seen could do much better with just a few hundred dollars of better wardrobe fittings.

"Got more than 2 place settings of crockery? or do you like to eat alone, or do you really have breakfast lunch and dinner in a nearby coffee bar?"

I eat weekday breakfast at home, normally standing up while doing the rest of my morning routine. But for every other meal: yes, I eat out 95% of the time, and when I do eat dinner at home it's because I'm after something quick & cheap anyway, so I'm hardly going to need a full kitchen.

"Ever go outside and smell the forest, listen to the tuis bark..."

Not really. Except for the fact that from my 8th floor flat I can hear the tuis & other birds quite clearly from the flax bushes beside the road. Bloody noisy buggers they are too.

"... or perhaps go out on your mountain bike? Just where would that bike fit?"

Um, no, I have not need of a bike. Besides, I mentioned that a shared bike space would help.

"Or would you like us to just nail the lid of your box shut now?"

Or just ... go outside and enjoy the city?

At 5:26 pm, November 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nobby: I'm not sure how much room you think a book takes up, but I could certainly fit all of mine there nicely. You're not limited to working in two dimensions, you know. Intelligent use of shelving and vertical space deals with that problem perfectly well.

Crockery also takes up relatively little space; in fact, the provided cupboards for it were largely empty. I certainly don't need enough of it even to fill them up. Clothing is much the same. My trousers just aren't that big... I don't see the possessions issue as overly problematic. I can certainly have everything I need and then some. What's provided is exceptionally efficiently laid out.

As for going outside... I don't quite follow your argument that a) it's a crappy place to be, and that therefore b) I wouldn't ever go outside of it. So I'll leave that one be for now. I'd have the entire Southern Walkway fifteen minutes away, or the Botanic Garden about the same in the other direction if I wanted it.

Also: wow, you're a real dick. The tone of that post was wholly unwarranted.

At 7:27 pm, November 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No i missed 60 minutes but i would have liked to have seen that. Your right about those terrible additions though. I really hate the addition on that lovely Manners Mall building(renaissance i think). I think that looks much worse than his addition on Lambton Quay, but that's just my opinion.

At 9:56 pm, November 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Micro living certainly generates a very visceral gut reaction in some people. It's almost as if at some basic level they feel that if it is allowed to be built they will personally be forced live in it.

Well this isn't some stalinist state and if you can't imagine yourself living in it then you obviously aren't the target market.

I find it hard now to imagine living in 16m2, but 6 years ago when I first moved to Wellington it would have been perfect.

Some burbies find it hard to imagine living in my current 50m2. "You have no where for visitors to stay?". No I rent a serviced apartment in the same building when family decide to hit Wellington.

"Doesn't that cost a lot". A hell of a lot less then the extra 100k to have bought a larger two bedroom apartment.

At 1:54 pm, November 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with lx, the product is fit for it's purpose.

It reminds me of investors saying I wouldn't buy "that" house because I wouldn't live there.
The simple truth is your not going to live there but there's still a market for it.

At 10:05 am, November 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, wow, commentary that is based on research not emotion, not often found when it comes to discussions on small spaces. People, people, we need to realise here that no one is forcing YOU to live in a Columbard Sleeping Studio. This is an option some people a stage or situation sometime in their life. Generally speaking most of our Columbard customers stay for 4-6 weeks. Some only for a week (which is our minimum), very few stay for more than 3 months.

We go to great pains to tell everyone we meet that Sleeping Studios are very, very small. But they are fully self contained, eg Kitchen, Laundry, Wardrobe, Decks, under bed draws, (in fact about 300% more storage space than your average sized studio apartment). The bottom line is that most of Columbard’s customers spend less than 9 hours a day in the Sleeping Studio. Columbard always provides a large onsite Café space that is available to our customers 24/7 to use as a lounge (even when it is not open to the public). Sleeping Studios offer a 250% increase in the amount of glazing over a normal studio apartment, plus Columbard always provides a deck for every sleeping studio (of course it is tiny, as you would imagine). Our floor to ceiling heights are always well above the normal 2.4m, this is another important consideration in design of interior spaces. We at Columbard have a volume calculation that we have to comply with in all our Sleeping Studios.

All Columbard buildings are managed 24/7. This is not just an on site live in manager, but a dedicated person who is in the office 24 hours a day and is awake! We stay involved running our Columbard buildings for at least 25 years, find another developer that will stand behind their design and product for more than 3 months! Did we make mistakes with our first Columbard building, absolutely, too many to list here. Will we make mistakes again, yes, have we learnt a lot, yes.

For the record, Columbard in AK had 144 Sleeping Studios and took 3 months to go from a cold start (empty) to 95% full. During the 2.5 years we operated (and owned) it we averaged 95.4% (including Xmas). The building was sold because it became apparent to us that the NZ Banks just could not get there head around such a new concept where the OWNER was the OPERATOR, plus the building was just too small for the management overhead. The next Columbard in AK (Scotia Place) is 219 Sleeping Studios with the same management overhead as the first building. We are now selling the Sleeping Studios with a 15 + 15 Management agreement in place. Wellington (hopefully) will be sold on the same basis.
Please remember, no one is forcing you to live in a Columbard Sleeping Studio (after all, how could anyone live in a space that small!! Yeah right) just give someone else a chance to try it out.

We will be releasing the full design soon, if you have comments to send us or would like to receive copies, email me on pchevin@columbard.com

Thanks Peter Chevin, Director, Columbard NZ

At 11:46 am, November 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good comments, thanks. Perhaps while you're reading this blog, could you comment on the report in the paper that said the building was to be 22 floors tall? Is that correct? I'm not sure what the height limit is around that part of town, although the neighbouring buildings appear to be about 8-12 stories tall.

Are you through the height plane?
If so, by how much?
Is it really about 10 floors through?
What is the justification for that ?

I don't really have a problem with you building small, properly designed units, for short term use. But i am really against height limits being breached unless for a really good reason, and after a fully notified Resource Consent application....

At 12:40 pm, November 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The building complies with the height limits for WCC in that zoning. We are not over height. The confusion may be that the maximum height changes for sites to the east and reduces. But yes we do comply, we are generally predisposed to consent applications that are 100% compliant with the district scheme controls. Which this application is.

I think that answers your questions. Thanks PLC

At 12:49 pm, November 19, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Peter: thanks for the detailed response. I'll reply at more length soon, but it will be good to see the full details of the facilities, design features and amenities. Without those, it's hard to tell whether this Wellington proposal will indeed have all the redeeming features necessary to make such small studios liveable.

Maximus: it's definitely in the "high city", and as far as I can work out (the height limit map from the Central Area Review is illegibly pixellated, so I'm looking at the old one) the height limit there is 75m. Take off 5m for a very generous ground floor, and the remaining 21 floors would get over 3.3m each, which sounds like a very comfortable fit within the district plan, even if you allow for the fact that the ground is a few metres above MSL. Of course, under the new rules it should only use 75% of the volume, and it's hard to tell from a single small render whether it does that, but from what I've heard the pocket park north of where Ed's Juice Bar used to be is set to be expanded, so that might be where some of the total volume has gone.

At 3:42 pm, November 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well thats good news - thanks for the answer. Could you possibly confirm that you've done sun studies, and that the building won't shade Manners Mall at all? Its one of the more popular outdoor spaces in Wellington, and although only officially protected for sunlight between 12 and 2, it tends to be heavily populated all day long. I'm presuming that you won't be casting a big 22 story shadow over the Mall?

At 1:06 pm, November 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello again,

yes we can confirm that we have completed the shading studies and we do not shade Manners Mall area as is required in the WCC controls.


Peter Chevin


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