By PHILIP CHANDLER
A Wellington urban planner’s building an affordable, off-the-grid, modern-day commune at the base of Queenstown’s iconic Remarkables mountain range.
David Lee’s planning two eco-villages, each comprising about 15 to 17 owner-occupied cabins, and a 400 square metre house, along with infrastructure.
“I think everyone’s starting to get it that living with a group of like-minded people in villages, how it used to be 200, 300 years ago, is actually the smartest way of living and not having fences,” he says.
The high-specced, energy-efficient cabins would be about 30sqm and hopefully cost less than $100,000 to build.
Residents wouldn’t own land but have a 10-year renewable ‘licence to occupy’ for about $300 a week – though other models could be utilised.
“We should be planning our society around the fact housing is a right, not a privilege, and if we can prove that in probably the most expensive place in New Zealand to live, then we should be able to do it for Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch.”
Lee, who’s also a Wellington regional councillor, says the biggest obstacle to building this sort of community is finding the land.
Having spent $2.1 million to buy his 49.6-hectare parcel, off The Remarkables skifield access road, early last year, “the hardest task is behind us”, he says.
Rather than try to subdivide it, he’s placed it in a family trust for 100 years.
“It’s such an incredible site, it’s actually a bit rude not to share it.
“Us urban planners live in this little dream world of utopia, thinking we can create this utopian society.
“I’m of an age now where I think, ‘why not?'”
Lee is designing the village so people are encouraged to interact with each other.
‘‘It’s very much like your Pasifika housing, you’re making people connect with one another
and look after each other.’’
The central meeting house would include a communal kitchen, showers, storage area and
flexible multi-purpose spaces.
The cabins would be transportable so residents could shift them around the site or take them away.
A key part of the commune is it’s totally off the grid, a bit like Camp Glenorchy.
There’d be solar power, rainwater collection, composting toilets, the reuse of grey water for
irrigation, zero waste, through a closed-loop composter, and even a mini-hydro power
scheme, utilising a stream running through the site.
Lee says it’d be imperative to have like-minded people with ‘‘shared values’’ and a mix of ages, genders, ethnicity and disabilities.
He thinks it could suit retirees with zero assets who otherwise couldn’t afford to live in Queenstown.
He’d also like to encourage visits from the likes of youth groups and lower-decile schools.
Lee’s set up his own prefabricated building company, a social enterprise itself, to build the
commune — he estimates the first phase will cost $2m-$3m to develop.
‘‘We want to have our first demonstration cabin up by Christmas and have our meeting house hopefully built by this time next year.’’
He’s already had discussions with Queenstown’s council, and hopes to vary a consent, obtained by the previous owner, for a 1000sqm building platform.
‘‘They don’t think it’s going to be a big issue if we contain ourselves to the building platform, keep the height down below four metres and use a colour scheme that blends in with the environment.’’
Lee’s working on designs with Queenstown-Lakes’ Urban Village group and has had
interest from other village projects around NZ.