Housing affordability in focus: What can architects do?

“… imagine a place where affordable housing is further away than a far-off dream, and where even the idea of owning your own home and its patch of dirt is the subject of endless political football.”

In these salient words from the foreword of Architecture Australia May/June 2007, the Australian Institute of Architects 2006-07 national president Carey Lyon was referring to the plight of Indigenous public housing. But in today’s context, his words could easily describe the collective angst the country is experiencing over the future of home ownership and long-term housing security in Australia.

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The issue of housing affordability has, of late, been the subject of feverish debate – a “barbecue stopper” issue, as the Sydney Morning Herald described, with daily headlines in the nation’s newspapers. Beyond the debate about tax concessions and housing supply, the contagion of housing affordability has also infected the discussion about apartment design standards.

On 9 May, the federal government is expected to deliver a budget that will feature policies to improve affordability. Regardless of the outcome, ArchitectureAU will look beyond the partisan debate over fiscal policies and focus on the question of what architects can do?

The Institute’s current national president Ken Maher told an audience of federal politicians, “As a key player in the development of the built environment, the architecture profession has the skills to deliver housing that addresses crucial issues, such as affordable living, sustainable design and flexible housing, providing savings in both upfront costs and the ongoing cost of occupation.”

Nightingale Housing project in Brunswick by Breathe Architecture.

Nightingale Housing project in Brunswick by Breathe Architecture.

Image: Breathe Architecture

There are already examples of the attempts to solve the problem through intelligent design. These include architect-led development models like Nightingale Housing, which has grown in the past three years from a single project proposal to 16 licenses for developments in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia. Nightingale’s proponents say the model challenges the status quo of speculative multi residential development by producing environmentally, socially and financially sustainable housing. The first Nightingale project in Melbourne’s Brunswick, designed by Breathe Architecture is currently nearing completion.

The winning Manor House design by Madigan Architecture/University of South Australia in the Missing Middle design competition.

The winning Manor House design by Madigan Architecture/University of South Australia in the Missing Middle design competition.

Image: Courtesy NSW Department of Planning and Environment

In New South Wales, the Missing Middle design ideas competition, an initiative by the Office of the Government Architect and the Department of Planning and Environment, highlights the potential to densify and retrofit existing suburbs in ways that could also increase housing supply. “Medium-density housing is generally more affordable because it requires less land. It is sustainable and, if designed well, it can create stronger and healthier communities and contribute to our cities’ resilience in the future,” said Ken Maher.

In Western Australia, there have been a number of government-led initiatives that propose innovative solutions. In Fremantle, the council is considering a planning amendment that could see more “tiny houses” built in the city. The amendment aims not only to improve affordability, but to “improve the diversity of housing choice available in an existing suburban context,” said Anthony Duckworth-Smith of the Australian urban Design Research Centre, which was commissioned to analyse the effects of the amendment on dwelling typologies and neighbourhood characteristics.

BIGyard Zelterstraße 5 by Zanderroth Architekten. The architecturally innovative and environmentally efficient Baugruppen collective housing model will be applied in two separate projects in Western Australia.

BIGyard Zelterstraße 5 by Zanderroth Architekten. The architecturally innovative and environmentally efficient Baugruppen collective housing model will be applied in two separate projects in Western Australia.

Image: Simon Menges

Fremantle City Council is also offering a parcel of council-owned land for a cooperative housing development. The WA government’s development agency LandCorp is also undertaking a similar initiative with cooperative housing development led by former government architect Geoffrey London and designed by Spaceagency, which will be built at the WGV at White Gum Valley, an “innovation through demonstration” project currently under construction on the site of the former Kim Beasley School.

Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project by David Barr Architect.

Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project by David Barr Architect.

Image: Robert Frith

The same site is also home to the Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project designed by David Barr Architect. The project, which consists of three interlocking one-bedroom apartments that appear as a single house, is designed specifically with affordability in mind and was offered for sale to first home buyers earlier this year.

In the search for solutions to the housing affordability problem, the agency of architects and built environment professions cannot be understated, because problem solving is, at its core, the primary remit of architecture. How can the built environment professions apply their collective intelligence to achieve affordable, sustainable and flexible living by design?

Watch this space.

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