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While the technical quality of MDH developments can be measured, it is more difficult to measure the non-technical aspects. What makes one MDH development more desirable than another? How is that measured?

Most building and planning experts agree that MDH is becoming an increasingly important part of how we address issues of housing supply and affordability in New Zealand.

Several MDH development resources are available that generally provide reliable guidance regarding the technical aspects of designing and constructing MDH.

However, far few resources deal with the quality of MDH – in particular, the factors that make one MDH development more desirable to occupants and the surrounding community than another. How good is a development? Is it a nice place to live? What makes it better than the others? These are important questions that are difficult to answer, especially in an objective manner.

To better tackle these issues, the industry needs a way to measure quality, a common baseline that the majority of people agree describes what does and does not constitute quality MDH from a non-technical perspective. One way is to use an assessment tool.

Benefits of assessment

A robust assessment can yield information that could potentially improve a range of MDH outcomes. To realise these benefits, an assessment tool should provide each role in the MDH development process with relevant information.

Developers and designers

Assessment may provide developers and designers with greater efficiency and certainty around the design and help ensure a proposed development appeals to occupants and local authorities alike.

An assessment tool should provide developers with an integrated view of a project, a way to consider what works and doesn’t work in the design. It should also identify improvements for the future. It provides a means to compare the development’s objectives with residents’ views and an independent site review. To do this, an assessment should:

  • include context of the local area and community
  • clarify how the development benefits the community and improves the local environment
  • identify local amenities, key destinations and transport options
  • determine the types of occupants to whom the development will appeal
  • maintain design standards with direct reference to residents’ wants and needs.

Use of such assessment, post-occupancy evaluation, and any associated certification or quality mark, can also help to build the developer’s reputation and assist with future developments.

Occupants

From an occupant’s perspective, assessment may lead to more convenient living, better privacy and security, a healthier indoor environment, more pleasant surroundings and greater certainty in the housing market.

An assessment tool can help existing and potential occupants to make better informed decisions about individual developments and their wider housing options. It enables them to understand the principles that underpin a development before making choices about whether a particular dwelling, location, building and community is a good fit for their needs. To do this, an assessment should:

  • establish the development’s level of quality
  • reassure (through independent analysis) concerns such as safety, security and privacy
  • educate on the local community and its suitability for occupants’ interests, ages and lifestyles
  • provide accurate post-occupancy feedback from the residents.

Local communities

Communities may want to understand how a new or proposed development will complement and enhance their neighbourhood. To do this, an assessment tool should:

  • independently assess the quality of a development
  • identify how the building character integrates into the neighbourhood and surroundings
  • identify ways the development can support and enhance the community
  • provide reliable and easily accessible information to support the wider adoption of MDH in the community.

This is also a potential source of information for planners and local authorities and those interested in improving building quality or ensuring there is a diverse mix of affordable housing options in the community.

Characteristics to assess

An effective assessment regime should not focus solely on design quality. Ideally, it should also encompass outcomes in terms of functionality, sustainability, liveability and how well the development contributes to the wider community. To be useful, it should also be possible to compare the outcomes from developments in different geographies, built environments and local jurisdictions.

One way to achieve this is to define a set of common principles to underpin the assessment process. For instance, these principles might include:

  • character, context and identity – how well the development integrates into the form and style in the surrounding buildings
  • choice – how well the development provides for a diverse range of occupants
  • connectivity – how well the development connects to existing infrastructure and enables safe, universal access
  • liveability – how well the development facilitates positive interactions between occupants and the wider community
  • sustainability – how well the development makes efficient and cost-effective use of resources and supports the local economy.

Each core principle can be further divided into areas of interest and used to form the structure of the assessment. Once a structure is established, the assessment can be carried out using a variety of approaches. In practice, this may require a combination of site reviews, developer interviews, occupant surveys and more.

Existing tools

The process described in this section was used to create two exemplar MDH assessment tools. The summary report BRANZ ER33 Medium Density Housing Assessment Tools details the development of these tools and their application in two example projects.

It may appear onerous to implement an assessment methodology from scratch – surely such tools could be adapted from countries where MDH has been widely used for many years.

While tools that focus on the community and intangible aspects of MDH do exist, invariably they are designed for large developments or an urban planning scale that does not easily adapt to New Zealand settings. Such tools include the UK’s BREEAM Communities tool and the US’s Living Communities Challenge, which are used to assess large-scale communities of hundreds of houses in mixed-use settings.