Cutting corners on social housing design is a costly mistake, warns experts
Architects’ stress quality, sustainability, and livability in social housing construction. Image: Canva.
  • $10B Housing Australia Future Fund to develop 30,000 affordable homes.
  • Architects emphasise quality and sustainability in social housing design.
  • Diverse needs require customised, innovative solutions for quality social housing.

Around 30,000 much-needed new social and affordable homes are slated for development now that the landmark $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund Bill passed Parliament last week.

Good housing, not any housing

Responding to the bill, the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) released a statement emphasising the need for quality, sustainability, and liveability in developing these new homes.

“We have called for more social and affordable housing for many years,” said AIA national president Stuart Tanner.

“However, we need good housing, not any housing.

“People deserve livable housing that is more than just a roof over one’s head. These dwellings must be high-quality builds that will not only serve this generation but the generations to come. That is a fundamental aspect of sustainability.

Tanner argued that it was vital that registered architects were involved in developing social and affordable housing proposals to ensure quality.

“Architects develop housing that focuses on livability,” he said.

“Our members are design professionals, they know how to make the most of a budget through orientation, cost-effective and sustainable materials and design. Architects also have the professional expertise to steward the entire process, including construction.”

The Institute rejected calls from some sectors of the construction industry to cut corners on design, energy efficiency, and accessibility requirements, arguing that subpar homes would fail to serve the needs of Australia’s current and future population.

“It will not save money if the building requires substantial retrofitting because of poor material choice, orientation or execution in the building stage,” Tanner said.

“Scrimping now will cost more in the long run.”

Social housing stigma

While experts have agreed that social housing is a sound solution to Australia’s housing woes, little action has been taken in the past to wield the potential of social housing in alleviating the housing crisis.

Primarily, social housing has been seen by the public and policymakers as a failed policy and a drain on resources.

Often conflated with crime and anti-social behaviour, detractors fail to account for how social housing primarily serves disadvantaged households in under-serviced and under-supported public housing estates, creating the conditions that produce said crime and anti-social behaviour in the first place.

Though much has been spoken about social housing and how it may be the panacea to our housing problems, social housing remains heavily stigmatised in Australia. Examples of social housing done right are few and far between, partly due to how social housing tends to be poorly maintained and the insufficient funding the sector receives.

Why high standards for social housing matters

University of Notre Dame Professor and expert on homelessness and its effects on health, Lisa Wood, told The Property Tribune that ensuring high standards for social housing in Australia is of the utmost importance.

“Greater investment in social housing is vitally important if we are to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness or housing stress in Australia.”

Professor Lisa Wood, University of Notre Dame

“Sustainable and quality design of social housing is critical. Just because someone is homeless or poor, often through traumatic life experiences, they shouldn’t be expected to live in substandard housing,” said Professor Wood.

“Designing social housing to be environmentally sustainable is also important as it reduces the cost of living for people on no or low income.”

A beacon of success: My Home

Among the exemplars of quality and sustainable design, is My Home, in Fremantle. The initiative started with the goal of housing Australians who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, of which Professor Wood was a board member.

“The recently opened My Home project in Fremantle, Western Australia for example, has been architecturally designed with passive solar heating and cooling in mind and reduced household costs for residents via solar panels, shared solar batteries for the 18 homes so no power bills, and quality materials and fit out,” said Professor Wood.

“My Home’s innovative use of purpose-designed prefabricated walls and floors means that these can be built much faster and more cheaply than conventional housing. This type of innovative private-public partnership to rapidly build social housing and locate it on donated land is a great example.”

Professor Wood also stressed the importance of ensuring that social housing is constructed to address the diverse requirements of the Australian population.

“We also need a greater variety of quality social housing to meet the needs of different population groups – for example culturally appropriate housing for Aboriginal people that has involved their input into design.

“Also, many people who are rough sleeping have mobility or health issues and need housing that has accessibility built into the design. Natural light, being able to see nature and a space to feel safe outdoors is also important for people who have endured trauma or have mental health issues.”

A community and stakeholder centric project

Perth architect and founder and chair of My Home, Michelle Blakely, told The Property Tribune that the first My Home development was completed in July 2023, housing 18 older women who had been homeless in Perth’s Fremantle area.

“Everyone deserves a home which is designed and built with the same care and consideration given to a big budget luxury home. This includes designing for thermal comfort, efficient performance, minimal environmental impact, enjoyable living spaces, safety and security.”

Michelle Blakely, My Homes founder and chair

Blakely said My Home is a philanthropic development working with a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model.

PPP model
My Home’s public private partnership model. Image: My Home.

Under this model, land is acquired through a long-term peppercorn lease from Government or Church, construction costs are covered by private sector tax deductible contributions with some Government contribution and a Community Housing Provider (CHPs) manages the property and tenants when the homes are completed.

My Homes
All homes are designed and constructed to Passivhaus standards. Image: My Homes.

In other words, My Home is a not-for-profit that delivers social housing by connecting stakeholders, landowners, funders, CHPs, service providers, community groups, builders, and consultants, with My Home managing the entire development process.

As the initiative is currently live, there is a pipeline of sites at differing stages of development.

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