Well done ACNU and PIA for organising the October 2013 Compact Housing seminar in Sydney. What is compact housing? Well I suppose it is a more sensible name for what often, sometimes erroneously and certainly pejoratively, gets termed ‘small lot’ housing. Compact housing is about small (non apartment) housing ‘of various shapes and styles’ which means it is probably one of the most topical urban design and planning issues in Australian cities, and especially their suburbs.
What we got was a mix of presentations, a tour of the newest compact housing in NSW (Thornton, Penrith) and a compact housing urban design ‘game’ all of which made for a great day. Good to see 80 or 90 people there too. I’m not sure the group left with a clear and consistent view about how to plan, design and build compact housing and how to do it well. There’s more work to do but the seminar was a fine debate to build on. Here’s my pick of speaker comments: Evan Jones’ opening observation that all the best (housing) projects have some kind of government involvement is instructive, but worrying. I thought the market was meant to provide?
Craig Butler (Penrith Council) had a few interesting comments. He’s been reading Tim Flannery and shared the observation that our ‘environment shapes us’. (Bushfires were on our minds down at Penrith). He also talked about how an eclectic mix (of housing) makes for an eclectic community, something my pal Malcolm Holz would sing in support for, aligning as it does with his ‘creative suburb’ work.
Mike Scott from Treadstone is an informed developer. He sees compact housing as being integral to the ‘21st century suburb’ and the demographics/markets we need to design for. Capital funding and contract arrangements seem to have been a drag on compact housing in NSW and this took his focus. He is involved with the Thornton project we visited, where compact housing prices start from $230k we were told.
Urban designer Tanya Vincent helped design and codify the Thornton housing, which is also being promoted by the NSW government in other growth areas. Lots of great resources and details I liked from Tanya included the ‘set-up’ not setback, and the dangers of making lanes like streets and ending up with ‘stranes’. Clive Alcock and CIC are doing the best compact housing I have personally seen.
He talked about a few projects including the housing at Lightsview (Adelaide) I have previously written about. The design of this housing ‘starting at 3.8m wide 1.5 storey terrace houses at $290,000’ is really clever as is the use of modern building materials and techniques. Clive reckons housing choice makes economic sense for developers. The challenge is to ‘design, approve, build, sell quality instead of just selling space’.
Malcolm Holz brought a south east Queensland experience, emphasising flexibility. Houses of 70m2 and 50m2 at Fitzgibbon Chase were used as examples, although Malcolm reckons the lot size sweet spot is a shade over 100m2.
John Stimson gave more Adelaide examples for a ‘suburbanite’ community including an amazingly priced 2-bed compact house for $169,000. This is where the ‘receptionist on $45k’ can get in but (controversially among some of my peers!) I wonder about the quality in some such low cost compact housing examples (same in Queensland). I haven’t seen all these examples up close but I get the impression that typically private outdoor space is given up (or made a public obligation) and basics like light and air and, in some cases, street address are compromised for price.
To me this question of trade-offs is the key debate that needs to come out of the seminar. Examples (including Thornton’s excellent ‘but not low cost’ range of demos) show we can do compact housing, in all sorts of ways and sizes and prices and locations. But clearly not all compact housing is the same. Some designs are generous with space and amenity, while others make trade-offs that have to date been sacred cows (like the aforementioned outdoor space, parking, privacy, street frontage and access to sunlight).
Perhaps there is room for all options but the risk to avoid is surely a race to the bottom and ensuing bad examples that will close the door on a critical housing and city-making opportunity. Let’s face it, compact housing is already viewed with great suspicion by many including older generations who don’t live in it but have the power (as councillors, managers and decision-makers) to decide whether compact housing stays or goes. Could a charter for compact housing be a useful way to both promote and sustain this important type of development?