Demonstrating good housing design

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Government architects around the country are turning their thoughts and energies to improving general housing. Shelley Penn outlines the intentions and initiatives being explored in Victoria, while Geoffrey London reflects on architects and mass housi

The office of the Victorian Government Architect is developing a number of architectural design competitions focused on new ideas for housing. We’re looking at exploring possibilities for two distinct but related forms of housing under two initiatives, each of which will include two or three separate competitions. One of these is for public housing and the other is for affordable housing. The intention is to provide better outcomes within government housing, and to demonstrate to the private market, and thereby to affect it.

Each of these housing types is constrained in different ways. It is not our remit to tell the private sector what to do, but, as advocates for better outcomes in our built environment (which includes, by definition, more sustainable outcomes), we believe there’s a clear place for review of what’s happening throughout the state, and for government to find ways of supporting improved results.

Planning for the first programme is well underway. This is an initiative of the Victorian Government Architect within the Department of Premier and Cabinet together with the Office of Housing within the Department of Human Services. The purpose is to develop better public housing projects for the short and long term. It will be announced very shortly, perhaps by the time you’re reading this, but until then I’m not able to provide much detail. One thing I can say, however, is that it’s been clear from the start that the competitions must result in built solutions. This is important for allowing the fulsome development of ideas in real contexts, and for demonstrating the value of good design through places which can be seen and experienced. Words and drawings are simply inadequate to convey the possibilities of place and space, especially where proposals challenge known standards and models.

Less advanced in development, but equally exciting, is the second initiative – a proposal for competitions for affordable housing that we’re discussing with other departments within government. Although this is in its infancy, our collective early thoughts are again clear – at minimum it must result in built solutions, models that will demonstrate real alternatives for residential development in the private market. There is an urgent need to introduce a range of new options for detached and medium-density housing to the marketplace, to show developers the benefits, and to debunk some of the negative assumptions about architecture and good design, and, above all, to present potential home owners with high-quality, sustainable and affordable choices.

One interesting prospect of both programmes, albeit in different ways, is the linking of affordability to sustainability. The implementation of environmentally sustainable design measures usually implies some additional capital cost, although it is well documented that life-cycle costs are generally reduced. In the case of detached housing, we’re hoping that the overall capital cost outlay can be reduced in well-designed, sustainable, affordable housing. Thoughts about sustainability and affordability measures in this context are broad and various. Here are a few:

[1] New housing should be sited strategically Utilizing under-used or disused sites within walking distance of public transport, town centres and community infrastructure will help reduce reliance on car travel while also mitigating the disadvantage for those who do not own cars. It would also foster greater pedestrian activity and opportunities for social/community engagement. This provides a context for removal of the ubiquitous two-car garage, which would represent a significant cost saving. For government and society at large, it might also mean higher use of public transport and lower impact of our cities in terms of sprawl, both of which involve lower long-term costs to government.

[2] Smaller lot sizes, smaller houses It’s clear that household sizes are shrinking, yet there is an apparent appetite for bigger houses, for more space. The reality is that bigger is not necessarily better. Many of us aspire to large areas and then find we can’t use them, they exceed our needs and do not offer comfortable, positive places in which to live. A smaller room that is well designed can feel more open and spacious than its larger, poorly designed counterpart. By bringing good design into the equation, we can achieve homes of smaller footprint that offer better indoor and outdoor places for people to live. Smaller lot sizes will also help to reduce sprawl, and allow more of us to get closer to community and transport infrastructure.

[3] Moving beyond five stars On the whole, new houses on offer in the private marketplace are large, eaveless, brick veneer boxes, which allow little opportunity for natural control of heat gain and loss, with buried internal spaces that lack access to direct natural light and air. As a consequence, many are fitted with airconditioning units shortly after occupation. These houses readily achieve five stars because the rating tools we currently use only assess building fabric, not human behaviours nor ongoing energy use – but how are the benefits of the five-star rating reduced once a house has been airconditioned? Well-designed, smaller spaces in a temperate climate do not require airconditioning. Through good orientation following passive solar design principles, they offer high air quality, are cheaper to run and perform better environmentally. Glazing is a significant up-front cost factor, so additional expense for larger windows must be balanced to achieve affordable outcomes, with life-cycle costs considered in the equation. Overall, the benefits of fresh air and controlled solar gain/ loss, a sense of spaciousness and the wellbeing afforded by good access to the outdoor environment are compelling reasons to review the current approach.

[4] Exploiting materials Insulation and framing technologies mean that we have not needed bricks and tiles for “solidity” for a long time now. Mass materials such as brick are more expensive to build with than lighter-weight materials, and offer virtually no thermal benefits when used as a traditional veneer. We might make significant savings if we looked at alternatives, or if we used the thermal mass offered by masonry more strategically for its environmental benefits.

[5] Site specificity and identity Houses of smaller footprint, with better orientation, are likely to offer less visually bulky forms and greater visual diversity in our suburbs. Local character and identity will be stronger when houses respond to the specifics of their sites in an integrated, holistic way, rather than through superficial elements such as portico shape or brick colour.

Overall, the architectural design competition is a good way to proceed because it draws on a wide range of intelligent ideas from a passionate profession. With a broad scope in terms of competition outcomes, and the promise of commissions to see ideas through to built solutions, we believe we will see some real innovation in thinking from across the spectrum of architectural experience. Competitions are also great vehicles for raising awareness of the issues and the possibilities of both public and affordable housing. It is only through showing genuine alternatives, which can be experienced and tested, that we have any hope of influencing the vision of private developers and the aspirations of the marketplace. The competition process is also an opportunity for architects to show that good design and sustainability are interconnected. Architecture is not just about elite, high-end houses – it is about fundamental benefits at local and global levels across the breadth of the built environment, from strategic planning around infrastructure and siting to building and landscape design in all of its detail. These are some of our hopes for bringing architects, with their prodigious capacity for balancing conflicting and complex needs, to propositions for new housing within and beyond government.

›› Shelley Penn is Deputy Government Architect in the Office of the Victorian Government Architect.


My proposition, hardly unique, is that the broad provision of housing in Australia will benefit from a more sustained contribution by architects, through their design skills, and that governments can facilitate this using a number of strategies.

In the post-World-War-II period in Australia, such ambitions were pursued in a number of projects by Australian architects. One of the most well known, Robin Boyd’s The Age Small Homes Service, sought a direct engagement with the public. Run in association with The Age newspaper, the Small Homes Service allowed members of the public to buy a house design by architects, ready for building, for five pounds. This “barefoot” architect strategy exposed the workings of architects and the benefits of design to a wider spectrum of Australian society than would have otherwise been the case.

In Perth, a version of the scheme, the Homes Plan Bureau, was run out of Boans, a local department store, and was the source of lively reportage – confident of the need for the service and its popularity – in the local RAIA chapter journal, The Architect. Similar services were repeated in other parts of Australia.

Throughout the expanding suburbs of the 1950s and 60s, architects were active in designing large numbers of new houses. These houses were, in the main, modern and inventive, responsive to the local climate and the site, economy-based and construction-oriented.

Many architects worked closely with house builders to produce affordable, well-designed modern houses for “everyman” – suburban prototypes – and their designs were reproduced in large numbers. These partnerships included: in Sydney, Peter Muller and Craftsman Homes, and Woolley and Dysart with Pettit and Sevitt; in Perth, Peter Overman and Corser Homes; and, in Melbourne, Graham Gunn with Merchant Builders.

Postwar governments provided occasional opportunities for architects to become involved in housing. One example of government patronage – the topic of one of the papers at the reHousing conference – was the competition for the Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games athletes’ village of 1962.

Numerous competitions for housing projects have been organized by governments around Australia, and this form of patronage has the potential to promote original design and make it accessible, although this is not always the result.

A notable example of government patronage was the work of the Victorian Housing Commission, for which John Devenish set up a programme to commission innovative architects to deliver public housing as part of a process of urban renewal from the late 1970s to mid-1980s. Numerous Melbourne architects were invited to participate in this short-lived programme, providing exposure and opportunities early in their careers.

So, what has happened? Why has this kind of architectural work, directed towards a broad application in housing, diminished significantly, apart from a very few exceptions? Why is it that the work of architects in the residential sector is now almost exclusively within the realm of either the “bespoke” house or the developer-driven and, often, architecturally compromised multiple-housing project?

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. For example, several recent projects continue the postwar fascination with the potential of the courtyard house.

Field Consultant’s design for a modest courtyard house in 2000, Holyoake Cottage in Hawthorn, can be understood as an extension of the experiment of, and a form of homage to, Roy Grounds’s own courtyard house of nearly fifty years earlier. Donovan Hill’s D House of 2001, another suburban prototype, this time for backyard infill in Brisbane, uses the courtyard as a seamless extension of the interior. The Poll House by Gary Marinko in Perth, in an expensive suburban setting, is a house turned inwards, an experiment in design around courtyards, in the use of tilt-up concrete, and accommodating two generations of a family on a single site.

The appeal of the courtyard house in the broader Australian market could lie in the fact that it may still be understood as a detached house type but, by building on boundaries, it offers better land use economies and good opportunities for acoustic and visual privacy, together with the full integration of internal and outdoor spaces, the courtyard becoming an outdoor room. Within well-designed subdivisions, correct orientation for solar gain and good passive environmental performance is easily achieved. Courtyards encourage less water consumption by limiting the size of private gardens and provide safe spaces for children, spaces that are easily secured and observed from within the house.

The courtyard house type also offers a format for responding to our changing demographics and household structures. It enables a diversity of individual house design through flexible internal arrangements within a consistent medium-density structure. Good design and encouragement to test through design are critical to achieving these outcomes.

Our ageing population presents some specific challenges, as Shane Murray’s “The Ageing of Aquarius” research project indicates (see pages 95–98). This important research seeks to provide the housing industry with an analysis of the housing needs of this sector and to give some impetus to the development of innovation within the industry. The analyses undertaken by Murray and his colleagues demonstrate how selected housing projects have the potential for diversity of use designed into them. One deservedly well-publicized example is by Kerstin Thompson Architects – eleven townhouses with courtyards in Fitzroy. The complex assumes a scale and configuration related to the nineteenth-century terrace housing of Fitzroy, a contemporary reconfiguration of this enduring medium-density house type.

Most developments of a similar number of houses would repeat a single house plan eleven times.

But Thompson has developed four types based on variations in bedroom numbers and flexibility of use. The ground-floor rooms and garages are designed to invite a variety of uses – home offices, studios, workshops, bedrooms. This project shows what a thoroughly considered and welldesigned medium-density housing development can offer – flexibility, diversity, quality of spaces and finishes, achieved not at great expense, but through clever design.

The Office of the Government Architect in Western Australia is exploring the roles government might assume in encouraging design quality in housing.

The NSW State Government’s SEPP 65, with its strong environmental outcomes and a report card that sets out its successes, is an example of how government can legislate to encourage better design outcomes.

A strategy being explored in Perth is that of the demonstration project. Here government assumes a leadership role and provides a method for emphasizing design quality. It can focus on issues such as more sustainable outcomes, experimentation with materials and construction methods, new housing types, and the encouragement of inventive formal outcomes.

Donaldson + Warn in association with Sandover Pinder, DesignInc, Jones Coulter Young and Iredale Pedersen Hook have all recently completed design work on a series of medium- to high-density housing projects for a mix of singles, the aged and families. All these projects have around 80 units and have a powerful focus on sustainable results and, in a couple of cases, on the innovative use of concrete. All the projects have been taken through to documentation but are now subject to attempts to secure funding. This introduces an opportunity for joint ventures with the private sector, which can also lead to a mix of occupants.

The courtyard house type is being tested with a small demonstration project for four such houses by Iredale Pedersen Hook. A brace of small affordable houses has been commissioned in a growing northern suburban area, Ellenbrook, in which the focus has been on demonstrating sustainable outcomes and a willingness to experiment with designs and materials.

A number of sites owned by the government, some with housing already on them, but very underdeveloped, are being tested by commissioning smaller architecture firms with a focus on housing to undertake design studies. Occasionally competitions are used, such as the one associated with the Housing Conference held in Perth in 2005, to provide opportunities for emerging firms. None of these initiatives is without difficulties and the architects involved have been generous and patient contributors to the process.

If we are to get serious about testing alternatives to the way we design our houses, if we accept that we need to increase diversity by developing new housing types, if we wish to bring sustainability to the foreground, respond to our changing household structures and offer affordable options, we need to draw on the skills of architects and design more cleverly. There is enormous potential here, currently being explored, for the RAIA to advocate such an involvement and broker engagements between architects and large-volume builders.

›› Geoffrey London is professor of architecture at the University of Western Australia and WA Government Architect. This article draws on a paper presented at the reHousing conference, Melbourne, 8 October 2006.



Published online: 1 May 2007


Architecture Australia, May 2007

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