Tag Archives: affordable housing

Earthships are coming to Oz

Earthship HQ in Taos, New Mexico – the concept is readily adaptable to the Australian climate

 

Earthships are really quite something.

The concept grew from the desert of New Mexico, where then-architect (now “biotect”) Michael Reynolds began experimenting with “radically sustainable” architecture. It’s radical in that it is entirely self-sustaining, including grey and black water reuse, which nourishes plant life of sufficient quantity to feed the household.

Without going to deeply into the technology behind it, these beautiful buildings – which are created largely from recycled materials, including tyres and bottles, and powered by the sun and wind – are now well established.

Earthship Biotecture has taken the concept to disaster zones, including through the Earthship Haiti project, where local populations learn to build the Earthships and are given blueprints for adopting techniques locally.

A Global Model Earthship has been developed: concept plans are readily available online and adaptable for almost any climate. And there are wonderful concept plans of a large-scale Earthship community – a self-sustaining mini-city.

These are now being built worldwide, including in China (a multi-storey model), Brighton in England, and there’s even a tower model ready to roll in New York City. They are notably passing local building codes in every country.

Earthship interior greenhouse design

Michael Reynolds has recently been on a speaking tour of Australia and he’s bringing the concept to fertile ground. The Sydney event, hosted by Milkwood Permaculture, was a sell-out. The potential for these to be built in Australia’s remote, climatically-challenged communities is wonderfully apparent.

Reynolds’ inspirational message is far more than environmental sustainability – although it is exceptionally, impressively, that.

These buildings are intended to be affordable for everyone. Homes can be built from $10K upwards. And for those who cannot afford the land on which to build, there is the EVE initiative – a self-sustaining community where people can lease earthships for $100 per week.

Reynolds’ message, the earthship message, is environmental, social, political.

What would it mean, he asks, for people to be able to live in entirely self-sustaining houses, which do not rely on connections to the infrastructure grid, and can be affordable enough that people don’t require a lifelong mortgage?

Earthships effectively enable people to become largely independent of prevailing political and economic conditions.

These creations have been fine tuned for the last 40 years, and it certainly feels as though their time has come.

100 days on… where’s the vision Minister?

Planning Minister Brad Hazzard’s first 100 days in office have been an eventful time for the planning and development sector.

The State Department has seen a merger of plannning and infrastructure functions and a renaming along those lines. Major legislative instruments have been overturned or dramatically amended. Arguably the most high profile (and controversial) of which is the former Part 3A of the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act), which governed developments deemed to be of state significance, effectively shifting them out of local councils hands.

Second only to Part 3A has been the overhaul of the state planning policy governing the development of affordable rental housing. This too has affected a shift in the balance of power in decision-making back to local councils.

Next on the cards, we are told, is a revised Part 3A, a new affordable housing policy, and a whole new legislative instrument governing planning across the state, with the rewrite of the EP&A Act.

The Minister wasted no time in introducing these procedural changes, on the back of firm election promises. Playing out in the background are headlines associated with the former government’s apparent misuse of power and procedural loopholes. There are the corruption allegations levelled against the former planning minister and senior bureaucrats in relation to procedures for the purchase of prime riverside land – the now infamous Currawong former Union retreat at Pittwater.

Major developments such as the proposed $1.5bn, 7,500-home Huntlee scheme near Branxton are also being hamstrung by the legislative changes, leaving the development consortium with no option but to go back to the drawing board. Such forced retreats to the drawing board by developers are happening across the sector.

But the minister’s strong message to Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA), when he addressed the NSW Chapter recently, is that “NSW is open for business.”  That his government is intent on overturning the bureaucratic obstacles to development that have branded the state a difficult place to do business. (It’s hard to see how returning more power to local councils will achieve that… but that’s for another time).

But amidst these procedural reshuffles and kerfuffles, the Minister’s policy stance on critical issues of the day, such as urban renewal, affordable housing, densification, greenfield land release, and social and environmental sustainability, remains shrouded in mystery.

It’s great to see moves towards better integration of planning and infrastructure functions. But where does this government stand on the urban densificiation versus managed urban sprawl debate? What are the Minister’s views on Sydney’s growing housing affordability crisis, and the market failure which is resulting in first time buyers increasingly being pipped at the post by investors?

Of course, planning and development professionals will warmly welcome the replacement of the three decades-old legislation under which we are currently operating.  But without proper understanding of the policy platforms upon which a new instrument will be based, the path ahead remains cloudy and uncertain.

Let’s hear more about policy and less about procedure, Mister Hazzard. Where’s your inspirational vision for our state’s future development?

McMansion mash-up

An inspiring story which has come about through Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants program… it goes something like this:

Step one: Take one McMansion

Step two: Deconstruct it

Step three: Reuse the building materials to build a bunch of smaller, eco-friendly homes on the site.

This wonderful Reincarnated McMansion concept by architect and artist Mathieu Gallois is shortlisted to win the $50K prize in Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants initiative. It was one of 209 entries in the scheme, which focused on “reducing pollution and waste, guiding consumerism to socially and environmentally responsible products, providing local habitat for important Australian species and developing monitoring mechanisms for environmental action and progress.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, “McMansion” has become common parlance for those oversized Aussie homes (now the largest in the world, on average, in square metre terms)the ones built to a single, primary specification: cram as much floorspace onto the site as is humanly possible. Needless to say many of these ginormous edifices are obscenely under-occupied.

I use the term obscene because Sydney – among other Australian cities – is currently facing a chronic housing shortage and associated affordability crisis. The proliferation of McMansions is a symptom of poorly managed urban growth. This has a range of detrimental social impacts, not least among them the ever increasing journey-to-work times faced by those who are forced to the urban fringe in a bid to find affordable housing.

But the question of the social and economic drivers for this trend, and its associated impacts, is best left for another time.

The key question for Mr Gallois is the environmental effects of McMansions. The Reincarnated McMansion concept is a brilliant way to raise awareness of the ecological footprint of these elephant-homes, and to create something positive in the process.

All Mr Gallois needs now is someone to donate a suitable home and the funds to finance the rebuild of a low carbon, medium density scheme on the site. Any volunteers with a spare supersized home should contact Mr Gallois at reincarnatedmcmansion@gmail.com.

Visionary decision-making = outcome over process

Having spent the last few years working primarily at the level of strategic policy-making and analysis, I’ve lately also been going back to my professional roots through some projects at the urban planning “coalface,” if you will. Affordable housing delivery is a core focus of this work, as well as a deep passion of mine. Living in London and then in Sydney - now two of the least affordable cities in the world – this focus looks set to continue.

I’m working with a number of developers producing schemes under the Affordable Rental Housing State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP), which was introduced in New South Wales in 2009. In seeing how the policy translates on the ground, the fundamental disconnect between process and outcome in our planning system has become increasingly apparent.

The complexity and bureaucracy of the system is not news to anyone in the development sector. It’s an ongoing source of disappointment and frustration that the best intentions are often reduced to the worst outcomes on the ground, due to the system’s multilayered regulatory frameworks.

To give one example: I was recently party to local planning officers threatening to refuse development consent to an affordable housing scheme, due to its failure to provide 6m setbacks from side boundaries on a 15m wide site. A child of seven could do the maths on that one.

The proposal is excellent in every respect. The developer and architect are both strongly committed to providing high quality affordable housing on a narrow urban infill site in an area of strong demonstrated demand. Clearly, rigorous adherence to regulations when their application is unreasonable, nonsensical or downright impossible, can never result in good outcomes.

It is a truism in any sphere – personal, professional or political – that decision-making frameworks weighted too heavily in favour of process over outcome stifle creative invention. In the property sector, this situation impacts our urban fabric by resulting in developments which tick all the boxes, yet fail spectacularly to inspire.

It takes courage and confidence to make decisions on the basis of outcome over process. We need to recognise the profound potential of simpler systems, implemented intelligently, thoughtfully and ethically.

Gentrification, place and value

‘The deep association that people have for place constitutes a vital source of both individual and cultural identity and security and acts as a point from which humans can orientate themselves in the world.”

(Relph, E., 1981, The Modern Urban Landscape, p.27)

Urbanisation.  Historically the product of the industrial revolution and the associated mass in-migration of the “working classes,” today we are facing the re-urbanisation of our cities and all its impacts – positive and negative.

Among urban sustainability professionals, the benefits of urban living in our comparatively wealthy western world need little explanation. Walkable neighbourhoods; reduced car dependency; higher density living and smaller homes, with their associated reduced ecological footprint; opportunities for increased localised social interaction facilitated by communal rather than private open spaces.

Our cities are places of vitality, dynamism, creativity, diversity.

Diversity. It is this word that leads us to reflect on the issue of gentrification and its impacts, currently so heavily debated in cities like Sydney.

Just last week the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article highlighting the pace of gentrification in Sydney’s inner suburbs. The local government areas of Marrickville and Randwick were the most rapidly gentrified areas of Sydney during the decade to 2006.

The article arose from the publication of a new report on gentrification by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Gentrification and Displacement: The Household Impacts of Neighbourhood Change.

The report seeks to quantify the pace of gentrification in Sydney and Melbourne through analysing socio-demographic change characteristics recorded through the Census. These include the growth in the proportion of managers and professionals, high-income households, high-income renters, and people with a bachelor degree or higher. It also looked, conversely, at the decline or negligible growth in low income households and low income private renters. There is little doubt that this year’s Census will reveal more of the same, probably amplified.

As a resident of Newtown (in the LGA to which the report refers), and as an urban planner who wrote my dissertation on the gentrification of this very suburb in 1998, I have a particular interest in this report. My thesis was inspired by the genuine concern that the cultural melting pot that Newtown represented would soon be erased by the pace of gentrification that was gathering back then. That the socio-spiritual meanings woven into its physical fabric would be lost forever.

On my return from a decade living in London, in 2008, I was relieved to see that the Newtown I had loved was fighting on; its culture had not been erased.

So what exactly is the problem of gentrification? The AHURI report highlights issues such as rapidly increasing rents and house prices, associated increased overcrowding in shared houses, and the forced displacement of the neighbourhood’s historic communities – the Greek-Cypriots and Maltese (their children also unable to afford to live in the locality), the “blue collar” families, and more recent populations of low income earning creatives – actors, artists, writers.

The report states: “Those who had been evicted were often deeply angry at their enforced move. Those struggling to stay found themselves impoverished by hikes in their rents, but also feeling no longer at ease in [their] neighbourhoods.”

Over the past two years I have watched the very personal effects of this trend in Newtown. A case in point is the family down the road: the mother who had grown up in the terrace and spent her whole life there, brought up her children in the home and nursed her elderly, terminally ill mother there.  The house was recently sold from under the family’s feet by the absentee brother who inherited it. Unable to afford a home in the neighbourhood or any nearby, the family were homeless as of a week prior to their forced departure to make way for the professional couple moving in. I have no idea where they are now. The AHURI report features interviews with 30 residents who express their “significant sense of loss” at being displaced. This family’s sense of loss and disempowerment was palpable.

One of the interesting issues associated with gentrification is that the gentrifiers often do not perceive themselves as such. They identify rather with the edgy creatives, the students and the other socio-cultural groups whom they are effectively outsting.  They bemoan the impacts of the very trend of which they are a part.

Urban neighbourhoods look set to continue to be subject to these unstoppable economic forces. Yet there are ways in which the socio-cultural qualities of rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods – and, indeed, their residents – can be protected through policy mechanisms. These may include mandatory affordable housing provision in new developments, the protection of facilities such as low cost artists’ studios, and rent controls, as have been successfully enacted in New York City and other US cities for many years.

Urban and social planning policies will not slow the pace of gentrification. Indeed they more often than not encourage and facilitate it. Gentrification certainly brings benefits – revitalised retail areas, restored and protected historic buildings, infrastructure improvements which become viable due to the increased prosperity of a locality.

But good urban and social planning should also seek to mitigate gentrification’s adverse impacts. This needs to be a strong focus of government policy in Sydney’s inner suburbs, to ensure the social and economic balance sheet is carefully weighted.

This is not about social engineering. It is about ethical urban planning underpinned by principles such as the protection of equality and diversity. It is about recognising the cultural meanings embedded in our urban fabric. As Cresswell states (1996, In Place/ Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression, pp.8-9):”Value and meaning are not inherited in any space or place. Indeed they must be created, reproduced, and defended.”