This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Drawing on over thirty years’ experience working with remote Indigenous communities, Geoff Barker of PM+D Architects outlines some key issues for consideration and debate.


Thorough and effective consultation is essential for successfully conveying a project’s ethos and for client satisfaction, no matter who the client is. However, consultation can have many different meanings. Unfortunately, it does not always involve a commitment to listen, share and act on contributions. For example, it is common for a “consultant” to attend a meeting, express a point of view (developed in isolation from those affected) and seek endorsement of the idea/solution. On satisfying the requirement to “consult”, they depart to start work on their initial proposal, irrespective of feedback and contributions. This is not what is expected and it is contrary to our view of what is required.

A more effective method, which we use in all community-based projects, involves a process of “engagement” and negotiation. We use an approach that starts with a focus on building relationships through interactive dialogue, and we refer to these working relationships as partnerships. We recognize that we are not entering an ideas vacuum when we begin; however, we stress that the architect/consultant is not a passive recipient of information and ideas expressed as “wants” or “needs”. Our role is to challenge and question assumptions and introduce ideas and alternatives. The architectural team has a pivotal role in allowing the client/users/stakeholders to contribute and develop ideas and solutions. This interactive engagement provides relevance and meaning for the client/user in potentially complex projects and the outcome can be specifically attributed to those involved.

This methodology is underpinned by collaborative action, which requires stakeholders to participate in workshops, focus groups and public forums to develop a common mission and ownership of the development process. Focus is placed on shared project management: information collection, issue confirmation and resolution, risk management, operational prerequisites and value management. Working on projects in a cross-cultural situation adds a further dimension to the planning of a project and requires skills and interests perhaps not widely associated with physical projects. Key tasks typically include:

  • Establishing rapport, confidence, credibility and a strong relationship with the client/user group. When working across cultures this can take time and commitment.
  • Effective communication and tools to assist in this. This might involve employing interpreters and translators or perhaps learning the language.
  • Recognition of the client/user as a central member of the project team.
  • Regular contact and engagement with the client/user group.
  • Innovative approaches to promote and establish engagement with the client/user group.
  • Establishing a “place” for meeting and providing information as early as possible. This should be close to the site or in a location that all stakeholders feel comfortable with.
Through this engagement it is important to identify an agreed development process with the stakeholders as soon as possible, with a commitment to then monitor, review and revitalize its implementation as the project proceeds. Tools to maximize opportunities for sharing information and to stimulate stakeholder involvement might include:
  • Site assessments and on-site design workshops.
  • Formal meetings and informal sessions.
  • Interest group workshops.
  • Group and public meetings.
  • Individual sessions with key stakeholders.
  • Questionnaires and information sharing sessions.
  • Directed conversations.
  • Interactive exploration of ideas.
  • Site visits to proposed site and other places of relevance.
  • Participant hands-on activities and surveys.
  • Posters and visual presentations.
  • Plans, perspectives and models.
  • Newsletters/promotional material.
  • Theatre and role transfers.
  • Sometimes music, art and dance.
We do not endorse the term “consultation”. We suggest that methods such as engagement, negotiation and partnering need to be promoted, developed, widely understood and implemented if we are to participate in the wider development goals espoused by Indigenous people.


Housing design is more than developing plans to construct a physical product. It is an holistic process involving research, planning, finance, implementation and handover to the owner and/or occupant. Complex housing issues are often described as the “housing problem”. This is often based on a simplistic presentation and/or understanding of the issues involved in housing in general, and especially in housing equity programs, and it often excludes those who are supposed to benefit from such programs. Solutions are often seen as solely physical products. In reality, the process of achieving successful housing outcomes and equity is a matter of appropriate options and choice in process, form, type and tenure. The following principles are fundamental:

  • Design for health, safety and security. Consider the recommendations of the National Indigenous Housing Guide, the Building Code and Environmental Health Standards.
  • Design for cultural prerequisites and parameters. Establish comprehensive community engagement to inform this.
  • Design for comfort and climate. Consider acceptance, access, vision lines, orientation and internal/external ratio of space as understood from the client/stakeholder engagement process. Establish prevailing weather conditions, including specific local conditions.
  • Design for constructability. Consider the availability of and aspirations for the use of local and imported labour, materials, time and other resources. Consider the logistics of building in the location and transport of materials and components.
  • Design for future management and maintenance. Establish processes for maintaining and managing the new dwelling. Consider construction details and the selection of hardware, materials, fixtures, fittings and finishes in light of this.
  • Design for sustainability. Address a broad understanding of sustainability: energy, water, life-cycle cost, minimizing waste, et cetera.
  • Design for local involvement. Consider design decisions in terms of opportunities to include training, employment and general involvement with stakeholders, especially residents.
  • Design for economy and cost efficiency. Design decisions have implications across all costs. Most importantly, consider life-cycle costs, not solely initial capital cost. This includes issues such as value for money, embedded energy, embedded water and carbon emissions.
  • Design for aesthetics. Consider the environment and context of the work.


Renovate or demolish? One rule of thumb has been to demolish if the house needs to have significant work done on it and this work would cost in excess of 50 percent of its replacement value. But this is only a starting point. It can be argued that it is cost effective to transform a dwelling from dilapidated to a fully habitable state if this can be achieved for less than the cost of a new dwelling. The significance and extent of various compromises are also critical considerations, while remnant value is difficult to ignore when the cost of replacement is known to be high. Demolition usually means that materials and hardware end up in landfill, contrary to the principles of good environmental management.

The decision to replace or renovate is complex – not solely a cost issue. The following criteria are recommended as the basis of a decision:

  • The suitability of land and/or location for continued, long-term use as the site of a dwelling.
  • The appropriateness of the design and detailing that would be retained in the renovated dwelling.
  • The age of the main structure and any previous modifications and/or upgrading.
  • Structural integrity and/or any deterioration that would impair a sustainable living environment.
  • The extent of work required.
  • The cost of renovating plus the impact on future operational and maintenance costs compared with the cost of a new dwelling (life-cycle costs).
  • The potential of a renovated dwelling to deliver sustainable access to the nine Healthy Living Practices.
  • The ability to maintain the dwelling if renovated – ease of maintenance and access to spare components.
  • The extent and quality of services connected and changes needed.
In different places it might be appropriate to give weighting to some of these items before reaching a decision. The weighting is not explored here.


Maintenance is important for ensuring the viability of assets and sustaining habitable and safe conditions. This involves maintaining a safe and health-supportive work and operating environment, prolonging the economic life of the assets; achieving optimum levels of energy- and water-efficiency; minimizing disruption; reducing the incidence of unplanned major repairs or replacements; and optimizing the number of visits by external trades and workers on site with the quantity of work to be done. A five-tier system of repairs and maintenance categories and action will help to understand repairs and maintenance:

  • Cleaning and touch-up activities carried out in the normal course of occupancy by the resident.
  • Urgent health and safety and minor items acted upon immediately.
  • Programmed repairs and maintenance and hardware replacement.
  • Upgrading and refurbishment.
  • Replacement.
Our experience in remote and regional areas suggests that there is a way to go before we have the systems and resources to ensure habitable, robust and sustainable housing. A series of management arrangements can help achieve this:
  • A system for identifying repair and maintenance needs, which includes detailed reporting and follow-up.
  • A schedule of planned maintenance.
  • Regular cleaning, minor servicing and touch-up activities. This might be done by residents or a person employed to do so.
  • A list of approved suppliers, trades and workers.
  • A series of period contracts with suppliers/trades who carry out regular planned visits. These visits could involve minor repair and maintenance needs as well as the planned work.
  • A system of reporting that can identify all the appropriate aspects of the repair and maintenance carried out over a period of time. These would include: date and time work was done, who reported the work to be done, where the work was done, trade or work area including who carried out the work, details of what work was carried out, cost of the work, comparison of cost of work to estimate or budget, and accumulated schedule of work done by:
    [1] Particular and nominated periods.
    [2] Location of work.
    [3] Patterns of work (so repeat work can be identified that signifies a more serious problem).
This all sounds complicated but appropriate systems need to be in place if we are to achieve the long-term sustainability of housing assets.


The quality and performance of plumbing and drainage installations in regional and remote areas of Australia is often inadequate. The failure of plumbing and drainage can have a serious impact on health. Water quality is a major issue in many regional and remote locations, and has a serious impact on the life and performance of hardware and infrastructure. In addition, plumbing and drainage installations need to be better designed, more appropriate for their location, better installed and better maintained.

Typical problems in regional and remote areas are:

  • Inappropriate fixtures/fittings and poor selection of materials.
  • Inappropriate design to meet the demands of high-load situations.
  • Poor installation.
  • Inadequate quality assurance of workmanship.
  • Poor or nonexistent maintenance systems.
  • External factors (for example, unlicensed workers and the lack of appropriate trades to do the work).
Simply complying with the Building Code and Plumbing Code does not necessarily achieve satisfactory outcomes in regional and remote areas. The standards that project managers apply through the documentation of projects could be improved by considering the sustainability of systems, the ease of maintenance at a local level and improved quality of workmanship and certifications of work at critical stages of installation, not just at the end of installation.

Price is important but it should not be the main criteria. The delivered product would also be enhanced by more external or third-party inspections and by testing and certification during construction and prior to completion. Including existing regional resources, such as shire health officers, as part of the team will also improve the outcome.


Fire safety is a central safety principle in the National Indigenous Housing Guide, but it attracts little consideration. There is often a perceived conflict between the need for security and fire safety in housing, especially in remote areas. This regularly results in windows having bars and inpenetrable screens securely fastened to the window frames – often with tamper-proof screws. While security is an important issue, it should not compromise safety. A number of strategies are recommended:

  • Minimize fire risk through materials, design and construction. Plywood and plasterboard linings are prone to fire and can destroy houses even when the frame is steel. Using major steel sections rather than lightweight frames may improve fire resilience.
  • Install fire-detection systems. However, smoke detectors can be a continual nuisance when they start beeping. Alternatives need to be identified and regular battery replacement programs instituted.
  • Ensure escape is possible from occupied areas of housing. Escape from external doors and each bedroom is recommended as a minimum.
  • Ensure fire suppression equipment is available. The availability of fire extinguishers and blankets has been minimal in houses surveyed in the Northern Territory over the past eight years.
  • Educate residents about fire safety and protection. Based on our interviews, there is a low level of fire awareness.
  • Use furniture and fittings that do not promote fire. The type and range of furniture available in communities has not been researched. However, there is a prevalence of foam and inflammable personal possessions.


Housing costs, especially perceived high costs, have been a recurring theme in Indigenous housing for many years. Cost has also been used to promote housing “innovation”, with the implied outcome of reducing capital costs. The range of solutions currently being explored and promoted has an ominous familiarity: kit homes, prefabrication, factory components, local building teams, using local materials, training programs to maximize local opportunities, reduction of bureaucracy, cutting out specialists, using larger contracts and arranging design-and-construct projects regionally. In this context, it is worth remembering a call from community representatives during a 1980s housing conference: “Don’t forget that in the end we [the residents] have to put up with your magic ideas and let me tell you, what we see and live in doesn’t work.” We should not disregard such options, but they should be considered in light of the socio-cultural and economic situations in which they will be implemented.

Recent debates about up-front costs mirror previous debates and studies, which concluded that the true cost of housing is not understood unless you consider life-cycle costs. The following items need to be considered when looking at cost:

  • Project managers and architects are often targeted in suggestions that management be cut to reduce external overheads. Over the years, such moves have resulted in confusion over roles, standards and quality control and rampant cost increases.
  • An overheated building market can result in builders taking on too much work and then not delivering.
  • We are all in the business of delivering quality for a cost. However, no matter how good the builder, the success of a project often relies on the quality and integrity of the subbies and workers.
  • Prefabricated housing is not an answer by itself. There may well be situations in which prefabrication or hybrid construction are appropriate, but one option is not the answer. Flexibility is important.
  • Risk is one of the most significant components of remote-area building costs, after materials and labour. Risk is becoming a larger component as uncertainties increase and builders are expected to cover all risks. Sharing risk through a different contractual relationship is an untried option. [The “Alliance Contracting” being developed in the NT has the potential to deliver real benefits.]
  • Material costs have increased significantly recently, far beyond published CPI figures.
  • The reluctance of labour to go bush is becoming increasingly significant, due to a reduced number of quality skilled trades and general labour and the perceived hardships of bush work.
  • The increasing demand for skilled labour is a continuing problem, while the availability of quality trades who want to work in regional and remote areas is diminishing – higher and higher rates are being charged by those remaining in the bush work sector. Contractors report that trades have charged between 30 and 60 percent more for work in the Emergency Response “Intervention” in the NT. This has the potential to significantly affect the price of housing in regional and remote areas at the exact time when there is a concerted effort to look at reducing costs.

Geoff Barker is principal of PM+D Architects, based in Perth and Broome. This article is based on a series of discussion papers prepared to promote debate in the field of housing and related issues. They will be available through the PM+D website when it is launched later this year.



Published online: 1 Sep 2008


Architecture Australia, September 2008

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