Architectural Perspectives on Housing Affordability

In the lead up to the latest federal budget Ken Maher, national president of the Australian Institute of Architects, addressed parliament on future housing. Maher said, “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.” 1

The Breakdown of the Australian Dream

The traditional Australian dream of a detached house on a quarter acre block, a large yard and a Hills Hoist is under attack from two sides, sustainability of our cities and affordability of our homes. Cheap land, a desire for space and the family car resulted in sprawling low-density Australian cities, and as our cities have gotten bigger they have suffered increasing infrastructure problems. It costs us a huge amount of resources to build and service our suburban dream.

The other great issue affecting Australian cities is housing affordability. With property prices in major Australian cities soaring in the past decade the dream of everyone owning their own home is seemingly rapidly receding for younger generations.

To provide sustainable, affordable and desirable housing in the future there seems to be a developing consensus that our existing models are not working. The architects I spoke with agreed we need a diversity in housing forms. The projects they are working on look to medium density developments to provide flexible and interesting outcomes to the current challenges.

“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.”2 – Ken Maher

I spoke with some key figures behind three developments in Perth and asked about their projects and their views on how architecture can hope to contribute towards happily housing Australia’s cities in the future.

Baugruppen Whitegum Valley

Render of Baugruppen White Gum Valley. Space Agency Architects.

“Baugruppen” which means building groups in German is a model where future owner-occupiers join together to become developers of their own separately titled homes. Led by former government architect Geoffrey London and designed by Spaceagency this project in White Gum Valley will be Australia’s first multi-unit Baugruppen and Western Australia’s first One Planet Community development.

“Baugruppen is a group that comes together and is assisted to become their own developer. Inevitably they develop projects that are of a higher design quality than what the market is delivering at a cheaper rate. They typically get into them for about 15% less. They also typically have a much higher level of ambition in terms of sustainability and they often incorporate shared facilities. What Baugruppen offers is a more affordable way into medium density housing and a way that community can regard it as being more community driven. I think there is a real readiness in the community for this kind of concept.”3 – Geoffrey London

Geoffrey London explained how the building plan is flexible, consisting of interchangeable stacked modules that range from 1 bedroom studios to double storey 3 bedroom dwellings. The clever use of a central core means that each module has no shared walls and also allows each apartment to have cross ventilation, natural light and private outdoor space. The design also includes shared facilities such as guest apartments, community gardens and outdoor living spaces.

Dwelling Modules: Bauggrupen White Gum Valley. Space Agency Architects.

The Baugruppen are able to achieve all this at a reasonable price mark, with 1 bedroom studios from $260,000 and 3 bedroom dwellings under $700,000 by cutting out a developer’s profit as well as sales and marketing fees. Another benefit of the residents taking control of the development is that the buildings are designed for their long-term needs rather than purely for maximum profit.

As part of this project, LandCorp and the University of Western Australia are collaborating in working towards creating a model that can be replicated across Australia.

Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project

Step House by David Barr Architects. Photo by Djuna Lee

The White Gum Valley Site is also home to the Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project, a result of a competition by LandCorp that aimed to find “a practical demonstration of sustainable, flexible and cost effective dwellings to suit the 21st century.”4 The competition was won by David Barr’s “Step House” which consists of 3 one bedroom one bathroom apartments that appear as a single house. The project is designed “for a generation fast being priced out of the “Australian Dream”… (and) attempts to reconceptualise what is achievable when community, sustainability and cost are prioritised equally.”5

Given the average Australian house size of 241 sqm, it is refreshing to see a development that accommodates 3 dwellings on a 250 sqm site. According to David, the project “essentially falls between a standard residential home and a multiple apartment block. It is an apartment but it is of such a small scale that it reads more like a house and I think having smaller, multiple dwellings is actually a crucial way forward.”6 It is one that responds to shifting demographics in which single person households are becoming increasingly common.7 Despite their size, there is no sacrifice on liveability with each apartment having private as well as shared communal external areas, plenty of storage, generous ceiling heights and high thermal efficiency.

David Barr helped to keep the design cost effective by “keeping things simple…using standard construction techniques, rather than trying to explore extraordinary technologies. It’s a simple timber-framed construction, clad in a simple corrugated iron material and it then becomes a series of spatial arrangements that enable the delightfulness of the space and the volumes created outside.”8 Part of the research process involved finding out what Gen Ys actually wanted. “We found they were willing to forgo size for location. The other thing was minimal maintenance. The property had to be not only affordable to buy but affordable to live in long term so the cast-iron cladding won’t need painting or ongoing maintenance.”9

“Step House” by David Barr Architects. Photo by Djuna Lee

Nightingale Fremantle

Architect’s Drawing of Nightingale Fremantle. EHDO Architecture.

Just down the road from White Gum Valley is the site of Perth’s first Nightingale Housing development, designed by EHDO Architecture. The Nightingale Model was founded by a group of Melbourne architects that deeply cared about the collection of issues surrounding sustainability, affordability and liveability of Australian cities.

The Nightingale and Baugruppen models share many similarities. Both make use of shared facilities and have sustainable and community-driven goals. The main difference in the Nightingale model is that it involves a group of ethical investors. In the Baugruppen model, the building group needs to raise their own equity to fund consultants, buy the land and start construction. In the Nightingale model, the ethical investors help to fund these initial costs however their profits are capped at 15% compared with the standard 30% earned by most developers.

The project is in detailed design stages at the moment, however, I caught up with Dimitri Kapetas, director at EHDO Architecture, to find out what to expect. There will be 12 apartments as well as 250 sqm of commercial space on the site. Surveys have recently been sent out to all interested buyers and their responses will be taken into account in the design.

There won’t be many one bedroom apartments as “the most expensive part of building apartments is the wet areas and you need the same amount of wet areas for a one bedroom as you do for a two bedroom. For 20sqm of bedroom spaces, the cost of the apartment only increases so much.”10 Instead, EHDO is exploring the idea of using removable walls to create flexible room arrangements within the apartments. The rooftop is a key element in the design which will include shared productive gardens, communal laundry and drying areas and a PV canopy that will account for 80% of the building’s power needs, helping to reduce operational costs. EDHO are also planning to include short term stay apartments on the roof level that will be available for Nightingale tenants to rent out from the body corporate if someone comes to stay, preventing the need for a spare bedroom. The same concept will be rolled out in the commercial area with areas divided off and made available for rent as a potential office or short term space. Three electric cars will also be made available to tenants to rent from the body corporate.

Architect’s Drawing of Nightingale Fremantle. EHDO Architecture.

Innovative Approaches

What these three projects all share in common is a desire to develop housing models that carefully consider sustainability and affordability while being flexible and desirable. They demonstrate that innovative approaches to housing through increased architectural involvement is key in solving the problem.

It is unlikely to consider that the average Australian detached house could or should be individually architecturally designed but that is not to say that architects cannot exert a role in reshaping our development model. It is encouraging that LandCorp are playing an important role in these projects and continued government involvement and coordination with developers and industry is essential in tackling the problem.

It seems fitting to end this article with another part from the Ken Maher address to Parliament, “We need to recognise the value good architecture brings to achieving cost-effective and sustainable buildings and urban centres, which contribute to the sustainable growth of our communities, economy and culture. In short, good design can’t be seen as a luxury or an optional extra; rather, it is essential to delivering a built environment that can sustain Australia’s diverse communities into the future.”11

You can view Ken Maher’s full speech here.

This article was written for UWA’s Design Blog, Local Code. I would like to thank Ellen Ashenden, Geoffrey London, Dimitri Kapetas, and Philip Stejskal for providing their insights on this topic.

  10. Dimitri Kapetas (director, EHDO Architecture), in discussion with the author, June 2017