“If housing the homeless had a simple solution then the problem would have been solved by now,” Dr Andrea Nathan tells me. Dr Andrea Nathan has spent around a decade researching urban planning in Australia.
It’s true. The reason homelessness has not been solved yet is because the issue is obviously more complex than most people realise, and is inextricably linked to other political, economic and social factors. Changes need to be implemented in all of these areas in order to bring about efficient change. Given cases like Tracy (the 51-year-old sole parent), it seems the problem goes deeper than simply needing to build ‘more houses’ or ‘cheaper accommodation’, even though it seems that way at first. When it comes to solving issues like homelessness on a long-term scale, often prevention is just as important as the cure.
Preventing homelessness means schools need to educate children on healthy family relationships, substance abuse and the effect of domestic violence causing things like homelessness in the first place. This is why social houses often push ‘spiritual programs’. Schools would do well to offer programs on how to have positive relationships so that children are aware what a normal and healthy nuclear family looks like. Awareness also needs to be spread in institutions and to the masses about gender discrimination in the workforce and how it is adversely affecting single mothers and women over 50. Spreading awareness about these factors and attempting to prevent the issue affecting younger generations sets a good foundation for solving the problem in the long-term.
With that being said, we can now move on to address the issue of the housing crisis.
Australia is lacking cheap housing for low-income earners . Therefore, housing needs to be less expensive. The only way to do this is to design houses that are cheaper to afford. This sounds easy enough in theory but it is difficult to achieve in a profit-driven country when everyone is just trying to ‘do their job’. But, it might mean pushing extra harder for low-cost housing designs, particularly prefabricated residential housing that is environmentally sustainable. One way to do this is to keep solar passive principles in mind. Designers need to create homes that make use of natural sources of energy like considering how to orient a building to get suitable sun exposure, placing doors and windows in a way where cross-ventilation makes sense, and using economic water, electricity and gas systems. By doing this we could, for example, reduce having an air-conditioning system altogether by utilising cross-ventilation principles (where appropriate) that would otherwise increase the cost of a marketable home. However, it is important to consider that sometimes ‘cheap buildings’ do not always equate to being the most environmentally sustainable, and could be a reason as to why houses are expensive these days, and one aspect as to why the issue is a difficult one. For example, geothermal systems that use ground heat to heat a building is a very environmentally sustainable system that we should be using more of, but the embodied energy (cost of labour and construction) involved and the actual technology required adds extra expenses to a building . Every action has a consequence.
In Australia, we are also renowned for designing the worlds largest homes as we enjoy larger spaces . But designing smaller prefabricated homes on vacant blocks of land means more homes for the homeless on less land and potential shared services that would significantly reduce building costs.
Theoretically, if a company wanted to build something else on once vacant land that has sprouted multiple prefabricated homes for the homeless then these prefabricated homes could easily be removed by crane and relocated to another vacant block of land. Housing on wheels, so to speak, does not have to be theoretical but could actually be part of solving this problem. This idea is reminiscent of Framlabs hexagonally shaped parasitic pods for the homeless that can be stacked against any vacant building wall in New York .
I attempted to design my own prefabricated house for homeless people, considering these issues. I call this system H-House (Homeless-House), after being inspired by the ‘Y:Cube’ by Richard Rogers, who created compact rectangular ‘tiny homes’ for the homeless. These homes could be stacked to create a larger social house for a homeless community . Like the Y:Cube the H-House could be easily altered (gable roof removed) and stacked on top of one another to form a larger social house system. Having the ability to stack houses means if land ever becomes uncomfortably scarce, we can always build upwards instead of out. The H-Houses are proposed on a currently vacant block of land along Canning Highway. Six H-Houses measuring 6m x 4m would fit on this vacant block of land to house six homeless individuals:
The H-House will take on the form of a garden shed as it is quick and cost-effective to erect. The walls of the shed will be made from insulated Colorbond, and separated by curtains instead of walls, to cut down costs. Interior curtains are also less bulky than walls in such a small space. Intersecting curtains can be stretched to create rooms of different shapes and sizes within the shed. According to Tracy, many homeless women in particular have trouble sleeping on beds after being homeless for so long. Therefore a Japanese-style mattress will be placed on the floor to design around that issue. Gardening and mental health are also linked, so curtains and a Japanese-style interior add to the therapeutic focus of the design, and green is a meditative colour. Fold-up chairs, racks and utility hooks keep costs down and save space. Awning windows provide natural cross-ventilation, and solar panels on the roof keep electricity costs down. A lattice will clad one of the exterior walls of the H-House to grow edible plants, keeping homeless people active, healthy and able to source food. Between the placement of these H-Houses will be water tanks, a community garden, and a public laundry and kitchen. The site is adjacent to a bus stop, with David Vincent Park on the east, and shops to the west to encourage integration of these people into the wider community.
Many elements of the H-House design was inspired by Foyer Oxford’s multi-storey homeless house in Leederville, where I was lucky enough to go on a rare group tour lead by Scott Brotherwood from Foundation Housing. According to Scott and Michelle Blakely, a UWA staff member involved in homeless housing, Foyer Oxford is considered a ‘state of the art’ social house .
Tracy tells me that she had a friend who stayed at Foyer Oxford, and found it to be a safe place for young women compared to the high ratio of men at The Beacon .
My friend now, because she’s young, she’s been able to go to the Foyer in Leederville. She’s got accommodation at the Foyer, and that is a youth facility, and there’s only young people there!
Tracy also tells me that any kind of crisis accommodation should be under $100 a week, at least.
TRACY: Salvation Army [The Beacon] shouldn’t be charging the whole of the Newstart Allowance, they do. And they shouldn’t, you know. It should be $100.”
ME: “$100 a week for rent?”
TRACY: “It should be $100 a week!”
Scott tells us that rooms at Foyer Oxford can be rented for $100 a week which equates to around $14 a day. That fits Tracy’s criteria for safe and economic crisis accommodation for women, in her experience. As we enter the lobby Scott describes the space as being “light, bright and airy” to ease anxious homeless people who enter. The staircase spandrel area is used for showcasing aesthetically pleasing artwork by the local TAFE students. We walk through the corridor to the reception which is protected by glass, and Scott tells us that the glass barrier allows homeless residents coming into and out of the building to have a more personal connection with the staff by having a safety barrier that is made of more transparent material.
We walk into the public garden area where we see the windows into the apartments above. Scott says that the apartment windows are positioned to face north and west to make use of solar passive principles. The north side is made from brick whereas the east side is clad with aluminium material that does not require paint (thus keeping costs down), and has a durability lifespan of forty-years as well as good thermal insulation properties. In this way, each apartment is kept cool using a fan rather than an air-conditioning system.
Each apartment is a modest thirty-five square metres (as small spaces require less heating) and contains an en-suite bathroom. Some come equipped with nursery rooms with a cot for small children. The kitchen tiles on each storey are in different colours to give each resident living there the impression that they have access to a one-of-a-kind personalised home. This detail seems insignificant but according to Scott these subtle details makes a huge impact on someone who has not been able to have a place they can call ‘home’ in a while. The dual-stove and cabinetry are very compactly designed to save space, with the microwave placed within the cabinetry.
The interior designers decided to cut out insulating acoustic board into hexagons and tessellate different coloured hexagons on the outside of the walls (instead of on the inside) in public spaces. These not only sound proof the area but creatively function as a bulletin board as a cheap and cost-effective alternative.
The corridors are shorter and wider than usual to create larger “incidental meeting spaces” since Scott says the apartments are so small. The lights are also positioned in a “staggered” formation rather than straight as they look more “funky” and prevent an institutionalised look or a sterile “hospital” atmosphere. The white rugged-looking bricks were chosen so that if they were chipped by violent residents then they would be inconspicuous. Each resident has a swipe card that allows them to have access to particular floors of the building only. Scott says this not only creates a more personal community atmosphere for the residents within that floor, but is more importantly a security measure that reduces the difficulty of finding a perpetrator should the residents misbehave on a particular floor, since only a certain number of residents have access to that floor. It is important to consider safety in social houses as people often have traumatised and violent pasts. Things like the laundry room are placed near common rooms for natural surveillance purposes too.
Social houses are very good at helping to solve the problem of homelessness since they build ‘up’ instead of ‘out’ (increasing population density on a small portion of land) and because many people can benefit from shared TV services, laundry, kitchen and gardening services as things are usually cheaper in bulk. Instead of putting a TV in each room like The Beacon on Aberdeen Street, Foyer Oxford saved money by creating public home cinema rooms, which also fosters a community atmosphere. Residents can customise these common spaces using the acoustic insulation “bulletin boards”. One of the residents was also allowed to paint a colourful mural in the children’s play area. These activities provide homeless people with a sense of freedom and keep their minds focused on positive goals that benefit the community.
Scott Brotherwood informs us that altogether the building cost $23 million dollars to construct, with the addition of $3 million dollars for furniture.
Ultimately, the solution for homelessness sounds great on paper but now people need to take action. As designers, engineers and architects we have the power and responsibility for creating the future of our built environment for the benefit of everyone and to fit all types of budgets. We can take inspiration from cost-effective social houses to bring down the price of rent so that everybody is able to be housed. Hopefully when this current era is recorded in our history books it will be indicative of a generation that tried to make selfless, positive change for the good of the community.
 Australians For Affordable Housing, “Get The Facts.” Accessed June 8, 2018. http://housingstressed.org.au/get-the-facts/
 Energy Informative, “Saving Money With Geothermal Heat Pumps.” Accessed June 7, 2018. http://energyinformative.org/saving-money-with-geothermal-heat-pumps/
 ABC News, “Australians Live In The World’s Biggest Houses.” Accessed June 8, 2018. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-11-30/australians-live-in-worlds-biggest-houses/1162630
 Framlab, “Home.” Accessed June 7, 2018. https://www.framlab.com/homed
 Rogers Stirk Harbour, “Y:Cube.” Accessed June 7, 2018. https://www.rsh-p.com/projects/ycube/
 Foyer Oxford, “About.” Accessed June 7, 2018. http://www.foyeroxford.org.au/about/foyer-oxford
 The Salvation Army, “The Salvation Army Open The Beacon Homelessness Facility.” Accessed March 23, 2018. www.salvationarmy.org.au/en/Find-Us/Western-Australia/Latest-news/The-Salvation-Army-opens-The-Beacon-Homelessness-facility/
Disclaimer: all images belong to me. Non-confidential parts of the audio and transcript from my interview with Tracy may be emailed upon request, contact: 21713186 (at) student.uwa.edu.au