Have your avo and eat it too: How design can (help) solve the housing affordability crisis

 

With the Australian Institute of Architect's National President Ken Maher addressing an audience at Parliament House last week on housing affordability and the role architects can play in solving it, AGENDA enlisted Adelaide architecture graduates Matt Alfred and Jenna Holder for their two cents worth (or about a two-hundredths of an avocado's worth).

Brunch, technology and other similarly luxurious vices have become something of a national punching bag for housing affordability in recent times. It is fast turning into a faux pas for wealthy, white-collar homeowners / national treasurers to remark on the frivolous spending of today’s youth. This is an argument that could go back and forth for years so let’s leave aside, for the moment, the 28-fold increase in housing prices against the mere 10-fold increase in wages since 1975. Let’s even leave aside the famous research of French economist Thomas Piketty that demonstrates a global rise in inequality of wealth distribution that greatly favours those who already possess capital (1). Let’s go even further and leave aside the near-sighted tendency to focus these comments on upper-middle class, single, hipster millennials (who let’s face it, we all want to chastise a little bit); rather than young, struggling middle to lower-class families. Let’s focus instead on how we can help to solve the problem. Let’s focus on Medium Density Urban Infill Housing. 

 

Medium Density development has had a cool reception in Adelaide, to say the least. While other cities have been forced to embrace the change gradually, in some cases as far back as the 1970’s, Adelaide stands at tipping point right now. We are currently either able to combat the exorbitantly high prices that Sydney and Melbourne are seeing, or continue down the spiral of suburban sprawl that has crippled countless cities around the world. Population densification sounds a bell of warning for many Adelaidians; a loss of space, of freedom or even a loss of rights. However globally, innovative architects, along with the right developers, have been working hard to affect the general attitude toward population densification.

 

Currently the housing landscape sits at two opposite extremes. On one hand is the ‘Australian Dream’ driven suburban sprawl. Outer suburb McMansions in land hungry developments consuming not just the staggering square meters they stand on, but new roads required to service each new house in each new suburb. Despite there being libraries worth of material that attest to the environmental, economic and social damage that suburban sprawl does, it remains the greatest barrier to sensible and affordable housing (see Paying for it: In hock to the greatly outdated Australian dream published in CityMag for a detailed and well written interrogation of the Australian Dream).

 

On the other hand, there are dense, developer-driven high-rise apartment buildings. Anybody with an eye on CBD cranes and planning applications can tell you just how ubiquitous these are about to become in the Adelaide CBD. But these towers are expensive, complicated, typically driven by the bottom line. This is to say nothing of the economic ramifications of flooding the market with these small high-density apartments, along with the urban implications of high vacancy that will likely ensue.

 

A happy medium is medium density infill in established areas. This means townhouses, semi-attached dwellings and apartments of a few storeys. It means developments that establish a greater connection to transport, retail and social infrastructure.

 

Population densification threatens a lifestyle that most Australians have grown up with and resistance to it is a completely understandable reaction. However it is also important to acknowledge that population densification is not the Dickensian jam-packed life of squalor that we have been led to believe. 

 

The most pertinent advantage of this strategy is that it immediately offers a more affordable alternative to the detached house in more desirable locations. But there are many, arguably more important benefits that combine to create a compelling argument. There are advantages to the environment: multi-residential buildings being less harmful to the environment per dwelling to build and run, along with a reduced reliance on single occupant cars. There are advantages to our health: less driving and more walking and cycling. There are social advantages: more social interactions in our everyday lives, and the creation of tightly woven communities. There are also economic advantages: denser communities are far more capable of sustaining small business, stimulating local economies while reducing our reliance on big box retailers. (See Charles Montgomery’s Happy Cities, for a detailed exploration of how we benefit from population densification.)

 

What’s more is that Adelaide has the capacity to do a great job of this. According to George Giannakodakis in an article published last year, Adelaide has enough infill land alone to satiate our need for housing for the next ninety years.

 

These advantages are becoming commonplace. The challenge of medium density housing now, is in creating an argument for a lifestyle that is ostensibly at odds with the Australian Dream. 

 

With the Melbourne housing market in crisis, Breathe Architects have found an opportunity to put forward their argument, and it’s a strong one. Breathe are responsible for The Commons, a four storey apartment building beside an inner suburban Melbourne train station. Prioritising environmental, social and financial sustainability, they eschew second bathrooms and basement car parks, while emphasising the social power of communal spaces (laundries, rooftop gardens, or balconies) in bonding residents and saving on costs. The result has been the formation of a tight-knit community from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, who owe this flexibility of lifestyle to Nightingale, the model on which Breathe based the Commons. Breathe have taken the battle a step further releasing the intellectual property for Nightingale. This has garnered a great deal of attention with several high profile architects developing projects based on it.

 

Further afield, architecture phenom Bjarke Ingels has been not so quietly exploring the social possibilities of medium to high density housing, putting forth several compelling projects that reinvent what it is to live densely. The ‘8 House’ or ‘the Mountain’ in Copenhagen make strides toward embedding a high concentration of people into a strong community. The latter directly addresses an issue that is frequently at the fore of the ‘Australian Dream’ argument; the yard. With apartments perched on a sloping hill, each apartment is given its own sizable courtyard while the slope helps to maintain privacy. While the ‘8 House’ implements a slowly ascending walking and cycling loop that allows each apartment to be situated on a ‘street’. The efficacy of these methods for our purposes can be called into question, as these apartments have been known to sell for up to a million euros. However they provide fertile ground for the exploration of spatial arrangement in housing as a social catalyst.

 

Adelaide doesn’t have a Nightingale yet, and it will be considerable amount of time before it has a ‘mountain’, but the rapid densification of Bowden has seen signs of innovative offerings. A wander through the precinct will reveal a consideration for circulation paths and indoor / outdoor relationships that begin to tackle the issues that Adelaidians have raised with medium density. While its strategy of introducing smaller developments leading into larger ones certainly helps to ease us into the idea of apartment living.

 

Housing is expensive, and brunch is delicious, but with a focus on well-designed, medium density urban infill, Australian cities can become healthier, more sustainable and (most pertinently) more affordable.
 


1. Piketty, T & Goldhammer, A 2014, Capital in the twenty-first century, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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