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Up against the town belt on an exposed hill in Southgate, this four-unit co-housing project is a testament to great friendship. Ruby Harfield visited the unique setup.
About five years ago, a group of friends held several dinner parties to discuss potential solutions to their future living arrangements.
They loved the social side of flatting but not the cold, damp, poor-quality houses. They wanted the security of owning their own homes, but struggled with the idea of moving further away from the city to find something affordable.
The Buckley Road Project was born, a grand plan for home ownership based on friendship. A way to ensure they lived in warm, comfortable homes close to the city, maintaining communal connections.
The project, designed by Space Craft Architects, consists of four terraced townhouses built on a single section on Buckley Road, sharing a multi-purpose room, deck, laundry, gardens, and carparks.
When I visited on a wet and windy Saturday morning, the group were going about their lives – one couple has a baby, another couple have moved away temporarily, and the rest were enjoying the peace of their individual spaces.
I was struck by the tranquillity of the place, as I walked away from gusting winds into a private, sheltered sanctuary overlooking Mount Albert Park.
Nicole McCrossin, Tania Sawicki Mead and Anna Nord (who’s renting) gave me a tour before we sat down for a chat, while Joe McCarter and Alana McCrossin video-called us from overseas. Tania’s partner was looking after their baby next door and Laetitia O’Connell was away.
They have mostly known each other for years – Alana and Nicole are sisters, and the others met through university or mutual friends. The idea for the project came about after Tania and Nicole lamented over dinner about the state and cost of houses in Wellington.
“The way that we could actually get a house was by pooling our resources,” says Nicole, but “I don’t think we had, at that point, a vision of what that actually meant. It might have meant just buying a house together, but then we thought there would still be a lot of DIY and maintenance on a substandard house in Wellington.”
The opened a bank account and each of them contributed $10 a week.
“Then we had a series of dinners – we like cooking – and leaned on our friends who had professional careers in various parts of the building industry. We had a surveyor, a property lawyer, an architect,” Nicole says. They bought a property in a deceased-estate sale in late 2017 and four of them lived in it for three years. They had initially looked for land, but that was too hard to find.
“We realised our buying power once we bought the place and were all throwing as much money at it as possible,” says Alana. “We paid the mortgage off in less than three years.”
“Financially, it was a great call as we were not all separately renting; we were pooling our money into an asset,” says Tania. “Our first lesson, after the first two years, was that this was a great option even if you don’t end up building anything or don’t want to build anything. Buying a house together with friends is a great way to avoid haemorrhaging money into someone else’s mortgage.”
Their first hurdle was getting finance through a bank; many of them thought their arrangement was too unusual. The real estate agent even referred to them as a cult.
Then covid hit and costs sky-rocketed but together they worked through each problem as it arose – and there has been no lasting damage.
There were, of course disagreements, but they were mainly about small design features. They all recognised from the outset that a lot of compromise would be called for, says Nicole. “You just relax a bit and think as long as the group as a whole is moving in the same direction then that’s cool.” There were countless meetings, conversations, WhatsApp messages and dinner parties.
Alana remembers that things went south for her and Joe during lockdown as they were flatting elsewhere, and the regular socialising and project discussion they’d been used to became impossible.
“The other four were living in the house and obviously spending all day every day together chatting and things went fine,” she says. But she and Joe had just been talking to each other. “As we came out of lockdown we sat down with the group and said ‘Okay guys, what are we going to do…we could sell the place’.” Facing global financial strife, they thought the project was “toast” but “the others said ‘what are you talking about?’.”
Having six people to research appliances, consents or design features helped spread the burden. They’re also lucky they all have similar styles so picking designs and kitting out their communal areas was an easy task – the vibe, which feels minimalist, eclectic and vintage, merges together to make each space feel like it’s connected with the others.
Each of them had different deposits and had put in varied amounts of money over the years but this was accounted for when the construction loan was recently divided by unit titles. There’s a body corporate to oversee and fund the insurance, communal areas and maintenance.
The original house was removed in December 2020 and building began while the group rented down the road. They moved in two days before Christmas 2021 – there was still a lot to do but the houses were liveable.
Alana and Joe moved out last year but still feel connected to the place and the group. They are proud to have contributed “something good and different to Wellington’s housing stock,” Alana says. Joe feels envious living away from the project but knows he always has this space to come back to. “To actually know there’s a place there with people I love, it’s incredible.”
For anyone wanting to do something similar, the group would recommend starting with a basis of trust and friendship. They’re hoping to get to a point where they can share some of their templates and paperwork to help others undertake communal housing projects, “to make what we’ve done more accessible and more replicable,” says Alana.
Anna is renting from Joe and Alana and has fitted in perfectly, despite having had initial reservations about adopting a fundamentally different way of living.
“I’m from Florida where everyone’s garages face the road and it’s really hard to connect to people and you have this idea of really wanting to be independent and having your own place and that was really engrained in me.
“I love my alone time, so coming in here I was like ‘Oh my gosh what am I going to do. Am I going to be able to have my own space?’” but what she found was “a really beautiful balance between your own space and a connected community.”
The friends have been there for each other throughout life’s challenges and celebrations. They can do errands for each other, borrow appliances and offer support.
“I love coming home because you’re coming back to beautiful space that you’ve created with friends and that feels quite amazing,” says Nicole.
For Tania, who had a baby last year, it has been a huge relief to know her friends are just next door. “I have never been more grateful to our past selves for having done this than when we had a premature baby and life got really chaotic and really hard really quickly; so just having people around to not feel alone as you’re going through this really scary, weird time but also all the practical assistance of food, errands, putting the rubbish out, dishes and laundry.”
As for the future, if more children arrive or other circumstances change, they’ll work it out. Units can be sold or rented if necessary, Alana says.
“It might not be a forever home – life changes and you can’t plan for that. It will always suit someone.”