The Architect, the public, the affordability – The action in question
As covered in the series of articles over the past 5 weeks, we have come to understand that housing affordability is a problem that has social, spatial, cultural and political dimensions in Australia – a bigger problem than just one simple fix. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that housing affordability in Australia has broadly declined since the early 1980’s where the OECD’s price to income ratio index shows a 78% increase between 1980 and 2015.
Similarly, the Bankwest & Curtin Economics Centre Housing Affordability Report revealed, that as an example, an individual on an adult award wage of $33,600 a year cannot manage to afford to rent a one-bedroom unit in any of the Perth suburban areas. Both statistics highlight the structural problem Australia has on its hands, and its not going away any time soon. Those on lower wages are precluded from stable housing, and even those on a medium income commonly suffer from mortgage stress.
Paradoxically, the role of the architectural profession engaging with affordability issues has somewhat been left out of the debate where it is in fact a question, and a challenge to the architectural profession as a whole. Back in March, the Australian Institute of Architects national president Ken Maher delivered a briefing at Parliament House where more than 50 members of parliament were present at the address. Maher highlighted the vital role of the architecture profession in sight of developing affordable living within Australia’s built environment.
We must remember, that up until the 1970’s it was a partnership between the governments and the architectural profession that worked hand in hand. Medium density housing was supplied to both private and public housing sectors. Since then, the challenge has increasingly limited its urban, social and political influence. For the most part, architects has become increasingly associated with capital gain, and on a societal level are ineffectively positioned to respond to inequality. A developer for example may want to sell 40 one bedroom apartments to sell as investment properties. Consequently, the architect then has limited room to make a evocative response to affordability on a particular project.
One could say that the social component of architecture has been ‘neglected’ in professional practice; in recent times anyway. The burning question that serves is how might it be possible to reactivate architecture’s social component while battling the issue of affordable housing in a meaningful way? It might just be that the focus should be on the public while at the same time looking inside – architectural practice that is; with its own methods and conventions.
Architects should re-establish their place in society, but more broadly let their voices be heard . The industry has the ability to educate the everyday person on the benefits of affordable housing , especially with the possibilities that exist for equitable cities and communities. Needless to say, architects should recognize community education as an integral part of leading the discourse around housing, affordability and density. It is a fundamental way that benefits both society and the profession itself.
For the most part, the public has a clear belief that housing is excessively unaffordable, unsustainable and is problematic on a societal level (a triple negative bottom line) and lacks a representative who can advocate for them and publicly suggest alternatives. On a weekly basis, more and more newspaper feature articles and letters are published reacting to increased density in inner suburban areas within Perth (you don’t have to look any further than Simon Pendal’s column featuring monthly in the West Australian).
Surprisingly, research conducted by the Property council of Australia (with property developer Psaros and the Conservation Council of Western Australia) found staggering support for increased housing density in conjunction with ‘eco-friendly buildings that generate their own power, collect rainwater and use less energy (support at 89%)’ and ‘an increase in public transport (support at 95%)’. On the upside, this is one example of public support.
Again on a local level, few examples in Perth successfully demonstrate the role that architects can, and should play in influencing the public understanding of affordability issues and, critically, possible solutions to the matter. One need look no further than CODA studio, who in partnership with The Greens, Property Council of Australia and Curtin University Sustainability Project are recent co-authors of #designperth to offering urban analysis and commentary along with examples of how affordable housing should be factored into wider conversations about those ageing but occupied tracts of inner and middle ring suburbia development. Secondly, as previously mentioned, Simon Pendal’s column in The West Australian serves as an example of how the profession can make a contribution to the public’s understanding of issues such as co-housing models, and the value of density (as authored by Kate Hislop).
Financing. Procurement. Construction practices. Research. This side of practice seen as less fascinating need to be thought of more creatively in order to respond to housing affordability as a problem. Rather than accept a weakening scope of practice due to the threat and reality of other professions subsuming the practice, Architects should be searching for fresh and innovative ways in order to use their skills and training.
There are actually examples of innovations used by architects in designing housing that tackles these contemporary issues. The public is just not made as ‘aware’ as they could be.
Image: ‘’The Commons’ by Breathe Architecture
Remember the Melbourne apartment development, The Commons by Breathe Architecture, winning the institutes top multiple housing aware in 2014, demonstrates how singles and young families can comfortably and sustainability live a ‘rich’ life in our cities? The apartment complex eliminated what the market insists are necessary in multi-residential design: car parking, high quality (and highly desirable) materials and finishes and mostly importantly, air conditioning. Reductive by nature, two aspects were well received: the approach and the design. The typical relationship between architect, developer/capital and client, is short-circuited, essentially allowing the architects a chance to reimagine and re-claim leadership within a project.
Image: ‘’Big World Home’ by Alexander Symes
It is a matter of those within the field to explore this avenue, or area per say whereby testing new building technologies and researching the possible can significantly reduce the problem. If we are to look at alternatives to construction techniques and materials to reduce construction budgets through efficiency and volume, it is possible to consider prefabrication techniques. Perhaps one that is locally based without the sustainability issues of long distance transport? For the area of lower density housing, modular homes like that designed by architect Alexander Symes could potentially be a game changer – a progressive, socially driven housing project. Intended to be sited on unused development sites and vacant blocks, the design is a result of collaborating creative minds with a desire to quantify a solution to the larger recurring problem.
The sheer magnitude of the housing challenge facing our nation in line with staggering costs should prompt the profession to remember that the focus is on the significant contribution design can do in order to cater the provision of better, more sustainable and more affordable housing for everybody. We need to recognise the value good architecture can potentially bring to alleviating some of the pressure from this problem.
To finish, we must remember that as a nation we want to make a difference, but at the same time we must remember that architects are optimists as much as they are visionaries. We want our suburbs, our towns, our cities to be a better place as a result of our efforts. As Ken Maher puts it, “the most important thing is to translate this optimism into action, otherwise there will be no real change”.
Architects only want to work in sync with the public to address one of the most critical challenges of our time – affordable, amenable and sustainable housing underpinning strong communities. The opportunity presents itself where we could regain a sense of confidence in the future of Australia.
 Matthew Thomas & Alicia Hall, “Housing affordability in Australia,” Parliament of Australia, October 3, 2017, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BriefingBook45p/HousingAffordability.
 Rebecca Cassels & Alan Duncan, “Housing Affordability: The real costs of housing in WA,” Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, April 1, 2014, accessed November 6, 2017, http://bcec.edu.au/assets/Housing-Affordability-The-real-costs-of-housing-in-WA.pdf.
 “Research shows support for Perth to Embrace Future”, Property Council of WA, December 22, 2014, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.propertycouncil.com.au/Web/Content/Media_Release/WA/2014/Research_Shows_Support_For_Perth_To_Embrace_Future.aspx.
 CODA Studio, “#DesignPerth”, CODA Studio, June 3, 2016, accessed November 6, 2017, http://coda-studio.com/2016/06/designperth/.
 Ken Maher, “Housing Affordability: Why Architecture Matters” Architecture AU, March 23, 2017, accessed November 6, 2017, ”https://architectureau.com/articles/housing-affordability-why-architecture-matters/#img=0