Remote Protoype

Paul Memmot reviews the design stage of the Papunya Region Pilot Housing Project - a new initiative in remote Aboriginal housing.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Aboriginal campers in Central Australia.

Aboriginal campers in Central Australia.

Remote Aboriginal Community in Central
Australia. Photographer Paul Memmott, Aboriginal
Environments Research Centre.

Remote Aboriginal Community in Central Australia. Photographer Paul Memmott, Aboriginal Environments Research Centre.


Driven by past housing failures and poor consultation in its region, the Papunya ›› Regional Council of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) has ›› undertaken a progressive initiative in housing provision in Central Australia. The ›› Council’s Apatula Region comprises the arid semi-desert and mountain country that ›› makes up the southern third of the Northern Territory. From 1995 approximately 37 new ›› houses have been constructed here annually for Indigenous communities, with similar ›› numbers of houses being either renovated or upgraded.

The project initiative was to co-ordinate construction programs in the 15 largest ›› communities of the Apatula Region, and, in so doing, to determine if there are cost ›› savings in letting major, cross-community contracts utilising bulk material purchases, ›› rather than letting a series of small, community-specific contracts. It was hoped that this ›› style of project co-ordination would result in greater construction efficiency, including the ›› continuity necessary to sustain local Indigenous building and maintenance teams in ›› employment and training. Another element of the proposal was to establish and ›› implement, region wide, a portfolio of standard, high-quality designs, in an effort to ›› reduce on-going maintenance costs. Expressions of interest in these design tasks were ›› called from the architectural profession.

Twenty architectural firms were assessed by an independent peer firm, on the basis ›› of their experience and technical expertise in designing and constructing remote area ›› Aboriginal housing, and on their capacity to provide it within set time and budget ›› constraints. The Tender Selection Panel (comprised of ATSIC councillors and government ›› program management representatives) selected four designers to competitively submit ›› designs. These were Tangentyere Design, Brendan J. Meney Architects (with the Centre ›› for Appropriate Technology), Build Up Design (with Deborah Fisher Architect), and ›› Troppo Architects.

Northern Territory architects working in Central Australia have been at the cutting ›› edge of Aboriginal housing design since the Whitlam era of the early 1970s when the ›› assimilationist policy was replaced by one of cultural practice as a right of citizenship.

This evolution meant that architects could design Aboriginal houses to accommodate ›› culturally specific domiciliary needs and customs. Of outstanding merit have been the ›› contributions made over 30 years by three agencies in Alice Springs: Tangentyere ›› Council and the staff who have run its architectural design office since 1976; the Centre ›› for Appropriate Technology, which has championed important advances in design ›› technology, philosophy and evaluation; and Nganampa Health Council, which engaged ›› Paul Pholeros (architect), Paul Torzillo (doctor) and Steph Rainow (anthropologist) to ›› actively research environmental health, housing design and its provision. Interestingly, ›› the first two organisations figure in the tender shortlist, while Deborah Fisher was ›› previously a Tangentyere Design Office architect. Paul Pholeros was an assessor.

Papunya Regional Council sought cost-effective designs that were technically, ›› culturally and environmentally appropriate. They were to be adaptable in terms of siting ›› and extendability, and were to conform to environmental health standards for remote ›› Northern Territory communities. The four practices each prepared three sketch design ›› alternatives, with design reports and construction estimates, for three and four-bedroom ›› houses (achieved by extending the three-bedroom designs). Site plans demonstrated the ›› designs’ relationship to a generic site, with respect to orientation and the treatment of ›› external spaces.

The project brief required that a number of culturally specific design features be ›› incorporated to suit remote Aboriginal lifestyles. In keeping with progressive design ›› philosophy for remote Aboriginal housing, the house yards were to be treated as “living ›› rooms” to accommodate an externally oriented lifestyle and influxes of long and short-

stay visitors. The issue of visitors, and the stress which fluctuating occupant numbers ›› can exert on household ablution facilities, was of significant concern to Council ›› members. Therefore any such additional facilities had to be accessible from the ›› external “living rooms”. Another related Council concern was that adequately sized and ›› oriented verandahs be incorporated into the designs. Sightlines are also culturally ›› significant and were to be considered by the architects. Internal living areas were to ›› have a plan depth, openness of arrangement, and connection to verandahs that would ›› facilitate surveillance of external spaces and approaches, while ensuring visual access ›› could not be gained to bedrooms and ablution rooms. Kitchen facilities were also to be ›› consistent with lifestyles in remote Aboriginal communities, with respect to both their ›› general fitting out and the relationship between internal kitchens and outdoor cooking ›› areas. (My 1989 essay provides a detailed review of the evolution of these culturally ›› specific design criteria in Central Australia.)

Papunya Council further expected the four competing architectural firms to provide ›› energy conscious designs, suitable for the hot, arid regional climate. Designs were to ›› provide for passive cooling and heating, but also had to have the capacity for future ›› installation of mechanical air-conditioning. All designs were to be accessible by ›› ambulant disabled and elderly people. In addition, the proposals were required to ›› minimise cyclical maintenance costs. Maintenance requirements were also to be ›› consistent with the capabilities of community-based maintenance teams and tenants.

The building cost range to be achieved by competitors was between $110,000 and ›› $125,000 for a three-bedroom house, and $125,000 and $140,000 for a four-bedroom ›› house. These target costs were to be determined at Alice Springs levels, and ›› were to exclude from their scope all external services and siteworks.

The above criteria are embedded in the architectural design literature for Central ›› Australia, but are seldom achieved in commercial contracts. The four architectural firms ›› involved in this project did well to achieve many of the criteria, given the cost ›› parameters. An examination of the illustrated designs will reveal a number of the ›› solutions. The criteria relating to external living spaces for fluctuating households, and ›› their connection to internal spaces and ablutions is best resolved in the Build Up ›› Design/Fisher Architects and Troppo Architects submissions. The Tangentyere Design ›› example illustrates well the use of windbreak walls for sitting and sleeping on external ›› verandahs. The Build Up/Fisher example illustrates the privacy requirement for ›› bedrooms, namely minimal visual access from living areas.

Several independent architects reviewed the designs for compliance with the BCA ›› and NT environmental health standards. The entire Papunya Regional Council, drawing ›› on a combination of outside technical assessment expertise and its own members’ ›› experience with similar house layouts, selected five sketch designs for three-bedroom ›› houses from the Build-Up Design/Debra Fisher Architect and Tangentyere Design ›› submissions. Two designs were readily extendable to four-bedroom house types, ›› making up a pool of seven variations from which to choose.

These selected designs have now been documented by the practices, in preparation ›› for tender. The responsible architects will be seconded to the project management firm ›› (to be selected through another tender process), and will prepare developed designs ›› and contract documentation. They will also provide partial administration services ›› during the construction phase as required.

The use of a limited portfolio of designs from which clients can chose is by no ›› means new to Central Australian Indigenous communities. A range of design ›› approaches to housing provision has already been attempted in Central Australia. These ›› also include one-off designs for individual clients, the repetitive use of a one-off design, ›› a generic design approach (extendable and generative systems), and use of a large ›› portfolio of diverse types. As I remarked in my 1989 essay, limited portfolio strategy is ›› vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that it fails to systematically explore variation in ›› site and user requirements for the differing cultural groups within the region.

Firstly, although flat sites are the norm in Central Australia (there is usually no need ›› for design for sloping sites), the climatic extremes of heat, and at times humidity, mean ›› that any portfolio of designs must include environmentally considerate schemes that ›› allow for house orientation to at least the four cardinal points.

Secondly, the importance of varying household types cannot be ignored. In traditional ›› camps, households could usually be divided into nuclear families, single men’s and ›› single women’s groups. But in many contemporary Indigenous settlements, while these ›› household types continue, more complex ones have also emerged due to cultural ›› change in domestic economics and social authority structures. In many instances one ›› finds several customary family units occupying a single house, often residing in a ›› bedroom each. In a recent survey of a limited sample of Aboriginal houses across the ›› Northern Territory, we found that the average number of permanent residents per house ›› was 8.9, and per bedroom 3.2. These occupant numbers grow even more at particular ›› times during the year due to the presence of visitors. A single Indigenous house may ›› therefore be doing the job of more than three houses, as their capacity is conceived by ›› mainstream society. (Current national averages are 2.7 persons per house.) There is a ›› concomitant need for robust design strategies which fully take into account the ›› implications of maximum occupant numbers, when ensuring the durability of all house ›› components, including mobile appliances and fittings.

The Papunya Regional Council has taken an initial series of progressive steps, which ›› have produced a positive outcome. Ideally a number of related ones also need to be ›› taken. One, already planned, is a post-occupancy evaluation of the designs once they ›› have been built and occupied for a seasonal year. This will uncover any design flaws ›› and unforeseen maintenance requirements, and analyse what real economic gains ›› have been made through this particular procurement arrangement. A further step would ›› be to extend the portfolio to include specific designs for different orientations and ›› household types. In particular, household environments catering for single men’s ›› groups, single women’s groups, singles, young couples, aged persons and large ›› complex domiciliary groups should be considered. A useful component generally of ›› future design submissions would be the preparation of scaled models to assist ›› communities and others in understanding the spatial implications of two-dimensional ›› house design drawings.

Dr Paul Memmott is an associate professor at the University of Queensland and director of the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre.


P. Memmott, 1989 The Development of Aboriginal Housing Standards in Central ›› Australia: The Case Study of Tangentyere Council in B. Judd & P. Bycroft (eds.)

Evaluating Housing Standards and Performance (Housing Issues 4), RAIA National ›› Education Division, Canberra, pp. 115-143.

P. Memmott and M. Moran, 2000 Indigenous Settlements of Australia in CSIRO (ed)

Australian State of the Environment Report 2001, AGPS, Canberra (forthcoming).

P. Memmott, S. Long, S. Fantin and E. Eckermann 2000 Post-Occupancy Evaluation of ›› Aboriginal Housing in the N.T. for IHANT, Social Response Component. Aboriginal ›› Environments Research Centre, University of Qld, St Lucia, 28/4/00.



Published online: 1 May 2001


Architecture Australia, May 2001

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