How designers can influence the future of poverty in Australia


[Image: Health Habitat staff greeting a rural community member] [1]

When most of us wake up we have some sort of routine, maybe it’s getting a glass of tap water before taking a shower or getting your clothes ironed and ready for another day of work. These habits that we develop and overlook on a daily basis are essentially the foundation to our health and wellbeing. It’s easy to take for granted the access we have to wash our clothes, dispose of our waste, cook in a functioning kitchen or even take a nice hot shower on a miserably cold winter morning. What a lot of people in Australia don’t really discuss is that quite a lot of us actually don’t have access to these basic services, three million of us to be more precise. [2] Of those three million, 731,000 are children, [3] which is roughly one in six children in Australia. The most common services that people in poverty lack are; access to washing, waste disposal, nutrition, space and protection from natural elements. So, as designers, how can we help provide a greater quality of living?

[Image: One in six children in Australia living below the poverty line] [4]

What we see in the diagram below are the main factors that are affecting most of these people. When proper washing or showering facilities are provided, there is an immediate reduction in diarrhoeal diseases and the transmittal potential between people in the same community. The second square (top row, middle square) indicates the ability to regularly wash clothes. By providing this service, you remove all kinds of bacteria, dirt and insects that may have contaminated a person’s clothes. The square beside that demonstrates the external connections a home would require to remove waste. While the fourth square (second row, left) displays the importance of having a safe and clean environment to cook. When we start to look at all the other remaining squares we can start to paint a picture in our head of what is required to provide a first world standard of living. Whether it’s designing spaces that remove overcrowding from homes (second row, middle) or handling external conditions such as sun exposure or dust (bottom row, middle), these are the basic needs that are lacking for three million people in Australia.

[Image: Diagram of nine major issues that need to be addressed per household in these communities] [5]

An example of these issues being addressed and challenged is in a small indigenous community in WA. The area is home to around 50,000 people where only 35% had a running shower system (including drainage), 10% had a safe electrical system and only 58% of houses had a working toilet. [2] The organisation who took on this challenge is called ‘Health Habitat’. It was founded by three directors, a medical doctor (Dr Paul Torzillo), an anthropologist (Stephan Rainow) and an architect (Paul Pholeros), all thrown together by the director of Nganampa Health Council, Yami Lester, in 1985. [6] Yami Lester was concerned about the growing health issues in various indigenous communities and what they began to establish together was the diagram and health guidelines discussed above.

Initially when Health Habitat looked at the community of 50,000 people in WA they found that 70% of the housing issues arose due to a lack of maintenance, 21% due to faulty construction and only 9% from miscellaneous damage or misuse. Health Habitat’s representatives say indigenous people are not the problem, they’re the solution. This is mostly true as over 70% of their working on-site staff and trades are indigenous. [7] The late Paul Pholeros stated, “Local community people have the greatest interest in the principles and detail of the work as they have the greatest to gain by the work being successful.” [8]

Over a short period of time and with a budget of $7,500 per home, Health Habitat were able to turn the amount of homes with working showers from 35% to 86%, provide safe electrical infrastructure to over 75% (up from 10%) and provide working toilets for over 90% of the local population (up from 59%). [2]

[Image: The dust mound solution in the front under the fence] [9]

One example of how Health Habitat tackled a major issue within this community was through the control of dust. Unbeknownst to most people, dust in rural areas can cause major long-term vision problems in young children. When the dust blows up and begins to collect around the eyes of these children, the standard practice is to wash it out with clean water but of course there was a lack of access. Another issue was controlling how the dust rose and found it’s way to the eyes. Health Habitat found that by building up mounds of dirt around major pockets of dust around housing and pathing, they were able to mitigate the wind blowing the dust up and above a height of 1m, controlling the level of exposure of dust to the eyes. [2]

This level of designing for the greater good of smaller communities is a strong example of local architects like Paul Pholeros taking on their own initiative. He stated, “Good housing and health policy ultimately comes from good work proven in the field not from government. Governments may occasionally adopt the policy direction well after it has been proven.” [8] Taking this level of initiative can set a strong example for the younger architects and community leaders looking to make a positive impact. Rather than being reactive to national problems Paul chose to be proactive and take on the challenge to set the standard on what could be done. The main question that arises from this level of work and detail is, how sustainable is this model? Approaching areas, community by community, using the same key issues and attempting to address them home by home.


“Local community people have the greatest interest in the principles and detail of the work as they have the greatest to gain by the work being successful.”  – Paul Pholeros


[Image: Indigenous tradies working on a local community site] [9]

Health Habitat’s template is structured over seven stages; Project Planning, Community Discussion, Feasibility / Budget, Survey Fix One (Assessment and start of work on-site), All Fix Work (Continuation of all work until funding runs out), Survey Assessment Fix Two (Practical competition) and Reporting back (review of results, analysis and maintenance). Using this template, they have completed over 218 projects nationally since 1999. [11] That averages to an impressive 11 completed projects annually by one organisation. The seven stages manage to cover all the major necessary steps required to implement a strong guidebook for other organisations interested in approaching similar housing work. They’ve also established a non-commercial license that restricts any potential exploitation for profit or politically-driven motive.

Health Habitat are continuing to set the trend in Australian pro bono or non-profit organisations and a lot of it is thanks to Paul Pholeros. After he passed away in 2016, a large number of architects spoke up about how much he influenced designers to think with practicality and ambition at the same time towards building better communities. It’s important to remember and realise that many young designers can have the same level of influence that Paul has had in rural communities. It is also important to remain outspoken on a lot of these major issues. Before he passed, Paul was quoted on the Health Habitat website saying, “Given the resources of Australia and the proven Housing for Health methodology, it is a national disgrace that any citizens have to live in such poor conditions.” [8] Unfortunately, it will take more time to make sure every citizen has the equal rights to such basic services but for now, organisations like these ones will have to continue to carry the torch and set the standard across the country.




3. “Poverty – ACOSS”. 2018. Acoss.Org.Au. Accessed June 3 2018.

6. “WHO WE ARE – Healthabitat”. 2018. Healthabitat.Com. Accessed May 21 2018.

7. “WHAT WE DO – What The Housing Data Reveals – Healthabitat”. 2018. Healthabitat.Com. Accessed May 23 2018.

8. “WHO WE ARE – Healthabitat”. 2018. Healthabitat.Com. Accessed June 1 2018.

11. “WHAT WE DO – Housing For Health – Healthabitat”. 2018. Healthabitat.Com. Accessed June 5 2018.–3.



2. Pholeros, Paul. 2018. “How To Reduce Poverty? Fix Homes”. Ted.Com. Accessed June 5 2018.



1. 2018. Healthabitat.Com. Accessed June 5 2018.

4. 2018. Acoss.Org.Au. Accessed June 5 2018.

5. Pholeros, Paul. 2018. “How To Reduce Poverty? Fix Homes”. Ted.Com. Accessed June 5 2018.

9. Pholeros, Paul. 2018. “How To Reduce Poverty? Fix Homes”. Ted.Com. Accessed June 5 2018.

10. 2018. Healthabitat.Com. Accessed June 5 2018.