What is MDH?



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It’s not possible to provide a design guide to suit every site or type of development.

Like form and location, good medium-density housing site design depends a great deal on the characteristics of a particular location and its surroundings.

Designers should focus on aspects such as setbacks, demarcation building spacing, different uses of space and landscaping and how it relates to adjacent sites. They should also consider how to maximise any desirable features such as views or unique characteristics of the site. Natural topographical features, in particular, contribute to the character of a site, and the development should attempt to incorporate these into the design rather than remove them entirely.

Med dens draft 12 v2

Provide interest and differentiation with the use of setbacks and articulation. (Adapted from Building multi-unit housing (In Living 3 zones) An Urban Design Guide for Christchurch, Christchurch City Council, 2014)


Where fencing is used, it can be designed to define the boundary between dwellings, open spaces and the perimeter of the development, control access to the site and provide occupants with a degree of privacy.

Where fencing is used at the boundary and frontages, it should be at least partially transparent and designed to enhance the character of the site and street. Limit the use of high, solid fencing in these locations, as it can appear imposing or uninviting. Fencing is also useful to protect occupants and children from hazardous areas, such as busy roads and swimming pools.

Consider making street-facing fencing lower and more transparent than rear and off-street fencing or removing it entirely if the design favours more open access to the street.


Planting and landscaping should maximise the ecological value of the site. In many cases, it is possible to establish a diverse ecosystem by planting a variety of complementary species in different environments, including traditional gardens, outdoor spaces and even purpose-built habitats. It’s also possible to increase biodiversity by incorporating more exotic features such as green walls, green roofs or roof gardens into the development.

Med dens draft 13 v2

It’s important to use landscaping that complements the development and the surrounding area. (Adapted from Good solutions guide for medium density housing, North Shore City Council, 2007)

When planting trees and larger plant species, always ensure there is sufficient room between dwellings for the chosen species to mature.

Balcony and terrace planting is usually more difficult due to space restrictions and may be exposed to high winds and harsh weather conditions at higher storeys. However, well chosen plant species can flourish in these environments.

Using permeable ground surfaces in open spaces allows rainwater to penetrate the soil, supporting plant growth, reducing run-off and aiding absorption of rainwater into the water table.

It is a good idea to choose drought-resistant plant species in arid areas. Alternatively, landscape irrigation can be used, but it is not recommended. Such systems typically consume large volumes of water, which is not in keeping with the character of the surroundings in such areas and may even run foul of water conservation efforts.

Med dens draft 14 v2

Elements of good landscaping in a larger multi-storey MDH development. (Adapted from Building multi-unit housing (In Living 3 zones) An Urban Design Guide for Christchurch, Christchurch City Council, 2014)

Visual privacy

Maintaining privacy for individual dwelling units and their outside spaces is one of the biggest challenges of MDH. There are two types of privacy designers should be concerned with – visual privacy and acoustic privacy. It is important that developments make efforts to maximise both these forms of privacy.

Fortunately, several design techniques can enhance privacy. In most instances, a design that avoids or eliminates privacy issues achieves better results than one that mitigates privacy issues by relying solely on screening.

One of the most common privacy complaints in MDH is overlooking or the ability of one occupant to see into the home of another. It’s especially important to reduce overlooking into adjacent habitable spaces such as living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, balconies and other frequently occupied spaces. This can be achieved by:

  • facing windows, balconies and decks away from neighbouring units
  • providing a large separation with large setbacks
  • offsetting adjacent housing units or using an alternating window design to obstruct the line of sight
  • obstructing the line of sight of upper storeys with screening.
Med dens draft 15 v2

Enhance visual privacy by orienting units and placing screening to prevent overlook. (Adapted from Residential design guide, Wellington City Council, 2014)

Screening usually consists of purpose-built elements such as fencing, balustrades, louvres or opaque windows. Evergreen vegetation can also serve as an excellent privacy screen, but it can take time to grow, requires regular maintenance and has a limited lifespan.

Overlook from adjacent sites can be reduced by using larger setback distances, increasing fence heights or offsetting windows. 

See Acoustics for guidance on acoustic privacy. 

Med dens draft 16 v2

Window design options to enhance visual privacy. (Adapted from Building multi-unit housing (In Living 3 zones) An Urban Design Guide for Christchurch, Christchurch City Council, 2014)