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COX VOX: Architecture’s Role in Affordable Housing with Paul Focic

Satisfactory housing is a basic human need. Not only a place for shelter and safety – a home can help create a sense of identity.

When adequate housing is unavailable or unaffordable, quality of life can be jeopardised, with consequences spanning poor health to increased crime (Friedman 2010). In 2017, The Australian Productivity Commission identified the efficiency of cities, including access to housing, as one of the most important productivity and welfare policy issues facing Australia.

In Brisbane alone, house prices have seen a steep increase of about 299 per cent in real terms since 1986, with this figure primarily driven by the cost of land as opposed to the quality of housing. 

So, what can architecture do to help?

Paul Focic is a Senior Associate of COX Architecture. Throughout his career, Paul has worked across master planning, multi-residential, university, commercial, cultural and public infrastructure projects.  Paul has a passion for housing and the issue of affordability. He is currently delivering a key social housing demonstration project for the QLD government as a result of being one of the selected winners of the Density and Diversity Done Well competition.

Recently, Paul partook in a panel discussion for Brisbane Open House, discussing affordable housing in Queensland with Government Architect Malcolm Middleton, Anna Gorman and Surroundings Community.

To continue the important conversation, we asked Paul what architecture can do to help make housing more affordable for Australians.

What is the role of architecture and design in making housing more affordable?

Housing affordability is a multi-faceted issue that requires a national approach whereby government policy, funding, industry and designers of the built environment needs further alignment to tackle the issue head on.

The architecture and design communities have an important part to play in making housing more affordable as our training and ability to solve complex and competing demands is fundamental to our DNA. Architecture has the capacity to make housing more affordable through the adoption of smart and efficient planning – build better with less. Embracing new construction methods, technologies and pre-fabrication also can contribute to affordability. The design and development of alternative housing models is key along with the architect’s role in public advocacy. Creating more awareness of the issue and the means through which it can be addressed all contribute to making housing affordable.

Could you give us an example of good affordable housing?

Although the distinction between social housing and affordable housing should be made, we are currently working on a social housing project for the Department of Housing and Public Works which is under construction on the Gold Coast. The project will provide 20 subsidized rental apartments aimed at providing low income households with affordable housing.

Labrador Social Housing is a housing project with a difference. The design is organised around a central communal courtyard which forms the social heart of the project, the objective being to allow connections between residents who can often feel isolated. The layout aims to help create a sense of community and belonging, through the provision of a dignified and uplifting environment to call home.

Stepping from 2 storeys on the street edge, to four storeys centrally, and five storeys at the rear of the site, the scale of the architecture responds to the neighbouring built form whilst maximising privacy from the busy street which forms the projects address. An enjoyable entry sequence is choreographed whereby residents move through a series of landscape spaces to the open/covered walkways leading to individual units. A further communal experience is offered at the level of the rooftop where their journey culminates in a landscaped terrace.

One of the key ambitions for the project was to provide all units with cross ventilation. This idea is achieved through a plan arrangement that separates groupings of units into small clusters and an open corridor system that provides access, shade, cover and secondary spaces to interact with those in the community.

Below: Labrador Social Housing – Communal Courtyard 

Australian’s often hear that if they want cheaper homes they should move to outer suburbs or live rurally – can architecture help bring affordable homes back into inner city suburbs? 

Yes! But it requires a government willing to invest and incentivise the development industry and allow planning reforms around the infill development of our cities. Left-over, under-utilised parcels of land are key to bringing affordability back to our cities. We recently took part in a design competition organised by the QLD Government that sought to find solutions to the ‘Missing Middle’. Our project looked at the latent potential of the backyard spaces of a typical inner-city ring suburban block to increase density from 20 dwellings to 140 dwellings all whilst maintaining the two-storey character of our streets.  This strategy alone has the capacity to increase housing supply significantly and help drive down the price of housing through supply and demand economics. It does require however a significant re-appraisal of our town planning policies and a holistic approach to density and affordability.

Below: Density and Diversity Competition Aerial Montage – Before and After

What role does sustainable architecture play in all this? 

Sustainability is central to any conversation on affordability. Build better with less is an approach we use to evaluate design internally. Use less energy, use less resources, use less space, to the point where a design almost seems inevitable and if you were to add or subtract anything from the design it would not be whole.

The life cycle of housing and its longevity is something we take very seriously and informs everything from planning and arrangement through to materiality. If a building lasts longer and can be adapted over its life as required, they are inherently more sustainable and affordable as capital expenditure is not required to replace them prematurely.

Thermal performance of housing is also key to making housing more affordable to occupy over its life span, whereby good design means that its occupants don’t need to spend additional money heating and cooling spaces unnecessarily.

What policies and models are needed to back good design to see change?

Planning reforms, particularly in QLD, that support the densification of our inner ring suburbs and encourage more quality medium scaled development would help to create affordability on scale and enact change. As part of the Density and Diversity Done Well competition, we analysed the current zoning and planning environment and made a case for a transitional medium density zoning to help increase density and affordability whilst managing the transition between built form. Current zoning policy is currently yielding poor outcomes where it is possible for an eight-storey apartment building to be built next door to a two-storey house. The new zoning measures we proposed could help to solve these issues.

Below: Density and Diversity Competition – Zoning Proposition

Currently the QLD government is funding Brisbane’s first build to rent pilot project. Further expansion of this policy and funding would help to alleviate affordability issues and create better outcomes for those struggling to access housing. Other models developed privately such as the Nightingale and Assemble models are also beginning to provide new pathways to home ownership, bridging the gap between renting and buying.

Good design should and will always find ways to navigate within existing policy environments to create uplifting models of housing that bind communities together and create a platform for a compassionate, civil society.

COX Senior Associate, Paul Focic

Design can change people’s lives.

Good quality affordable housing can change people’s lives.

That is why I am passionate about affordability.

Constance Street Public Housing

Fortitude Valley, Brisbane