What is MDH?



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Form and location refers to the placement and arrangement of dwellings and their surroundings on the site.

The success of a medium-density housing design hinges on carefully considering the interrelationships between surrounding features, individual dwelling units, building location, size and form, and occupant movement patterns. The need for private and communal outdoor spaces also needs to be considered.

Height and bulk

The ratio of a building’s height to its bulk or overall configuration is one of the most important factors that determines the impact it has on its surroundings. The designer should always consider the height and bulk of the development as it helps to ensure the final form is in proportion to its surroundings.

The key design aspects of the bulk of the building include:

  • the size, shape and contour of the site
  • the building’s configuration and orientation relative to adjacent buildings and spaces
  • how smaller sub-elements, such as individual dwelling units, break up larger forms
  • the floor-to-ceiling heights for individual units.

Careful manipulation of the building’s bulk and exterior form can create interest and emphasise desirable features (such as decks) and proportions. For example, it’s possible to use colour or architectural features to give the appearance of an upper, middle and lower horizontal structure in a building that is predominantly vertical.

To break up bulk in an MDH design, consider ways to:

  • recess and project elements of each dwelling
  • vary individual dwelling setbacks
  • create well defined entry points
  • vary the exterior design (both façade and roofline) of each dwelling
  • relate the design of the façade to add to the character of the street.

If not required by the local design rules, consider maintaining a consistent skyline and vertical distribution of dwellings (inter-storey height) with neighbouring buildings. This enhances the symmetry and proportion when compared to the surroundings and helps to integrate a new development into an existing urban setting.

Med dens draft 3 v2

Try to maintain a similar building height and inter-storey height when designing MDH in existing neighbourhoods. (Adapted from Residential design guide, Wellington City Council, 2014)

New developments need to consider:

  • the maximum allowed height for the residential zone
  • the context and character of the site, neighbourhood and community
  • the local climate and prevailing winds
  • the ratio of the building’s height to its width and depth
  • incorporating architectural breaks between storeys and junctions
  • how best to take advantage of desirable views (for all occupants)
  • limiting overshadowing/overlooking of existing buildings
  • optimising sun and daylight access to each unit.

Place taller dwellings and building elements to avoid overshadowing adjacent dwellings and neighbouring developments. Tall elements often present a good opportunity to create shared outdoor spaces that cannot be seen from the street.


Above all, an MDH design should suit its surroundings and serve the needs of its occupants.

Try to orient for daylight and views and emphasise desirable features to make the most of the internal and external spaces within the development. Generally, this means employing a layout that faces north or towards an agreeable view. Services such as stairs and lift shafts should be located towards the least desirable side of the building or enclosed within the building form.

External features can have a strong influence on the orientation of dwellings and on the internal layout of each housing unit. In many cases, the most important consideration is the view, but other factors can influence the location and orientation of buildings on the site. These include sunlight admission, prevailing winds or other climatic conditions, nearby developments, other urban activity and roading, external noise sources, ease of access and planning for future expansion.

Layout should also consider how the buildings and the development as a whole will be seen. Highly visible areas, such as those parts of a building observed by passing pedestrians, should receive more design attention. They are candidates for finer detailing than less visible part of the building, such as tall roofs or obscured walls, where strong forms and coarser detailing may be appropriate.

For larger MDH projects, varying the shape, orientation and form of dwellings can be an effective way to integrate a higher-density development with neighbouring sites that contain lower density or detached dwellings.

Med dens draft 4 v2

Varying the form of a larger development can help it blend with smaller neighbouring sites. (Adapted from Residential design guide, Wellington City Council, 2014)

Consider placing regular separations and spacing, especially those designed to reflect the surrounding buildings, between buildings to break up the bulk of larger developments. This can also help the development scale to its surroundings, provide occupants with views between dwellings and create opportunities for multi-use outdoor spaces.

Med dens draft 5 v2

As much as possible, MDH developments should maintain the rhythm and proportion of existing residential developments and neighbourhoods. This is especially important in special character areas. (Adapted from Residential design guide, Wellington City Council, 2014)

When the development is located between large and small developments, design buildings of different forms and sizes to create a transition between the two scales.

Consider providing setbacks from side and rear boundaries of dwellings to limit the loss of amenity to residents on adjoining sites. This can address potential loss of privacy between housing units and adjacent developments and ensure sunlight to private and communal outdoor areas and usable daylight to living areas within each housing unit.

Open spaces

A mix of private, shared and, where appropriate, public open spaces can help mitigate many of the challenges for occupants that are normally associated with higher-density living. Such spaces create visual separation, add a sense of scale, break up larger developments and promote efficient circulation of people around the site.

Med dens draft 6 v2

Shared outdoor areas should be accessible and usable while maintaining the privacy and amenity of surrounding dwellings. (Adapted from Building multi-unit housing (In Living 3 zones) An Urban Design Guide for Christchurch, Christchurch City Council, 2014)

Open spaces and recreational facilities for MDH must be easily accessible for occupants and, if possible, provide facilities that are lacking or additional facilities for those in high demand. For example, if a development is some distance from the nearest local park, consider providing occupants with a shared garden and green space large enough for some of the same activities.

Open spaces can be used to create shaded or sunny areas, reduce noise, provide privacy and screen views of undesirable features, such as building services, car parks and accessways. It is also an effective means to clearly define public, communal and private areas, especially between ground-floor housing units and units facing the street or other public thoroughfare.

Private spaces

Each dwelling unit in an MDH development should have access to at least one outdoor space (balcony or yard) that may be used for entertaining and social activities. It should be large enough to be functional and usable, accommodate a range of likely leisure activities and oriented to make the most of sunlight and desirable views.

All open spaces – both shared and those directly connected to a unit – should be secure but easily accessible from a normally habitable area of the dwelling.

Many ground-floor MDH apartments include a private outdoor area for this purpose, while housing units on other levels are provided with balconies and terraces. In some cases, the prevailing weather conditions, a poor outlook, lack of privacy or low amenity may make it more appropriate to provide upper-level apartments with high-quality shared open spaces or gardens. These may be at ground level or on the roof.

Where balconies and roof terraces are used, they should be large enough for occupants to sit at a small table, and the design should offer at least some privacy from adjacent units through screening.

Avoid large-scale site excavations to create private spaces. Such spaces are often uninviting, becoming dark and overshadowed and dominated by large retaining structures, making it less likely occupants will use them. In such cases, it may be preferable to create smaller shared spaces that work with the existing contours of the site.

Shared spaces

Research suggests that communal open spaces promote a greater sense of wellbeing for MDH occupants by encouraging social interaction, promoting physical activity, enhancing their urban environment and providing a convenient natural environment.

The design of communal open spaces should reflect the recreational interests of the occupants and practical requirements to ensure occupants can use the space all year round. This could involve orienting for shade in summer and providing windbreaks and a covered area for winter months.

The design of the space should also consider how best to light the space and provide informal security measures and what plants and landscaping would be appropriate for the area. Another important consideration is how to restrict access to hazardous areas, such as pools and barbeques, when children have unsupervised access to the space.

The attributes MDH occupants consider most valuable in on-site open spaces are:

  • a green environment with many plants and trees
  • easy to maintain
  • adaptable (to suit a range of activities and age groups)
  • safe
  • private
  • secure
  • sustainable and ecologically sensitive
  • suitable for socialising
  • accessible
  • designed to manage heat, cold, sun, glare, shade and wind.