HOUSING THE FUTURE:
Six Points for Architects & Urbanists to Consider
BROADSHEET BY AMELYN NG FOR AIA CPD EVENT, 11 APRIL 2016
While financial viability is a major, if not primary
driver of multiresidential housing affordability,
good housing is not solely about square-metre rates
and property value. Beyond the quantitative ($ and
sqm) dimensions of affordability, let us concurrently
consider the more qualitative civic and social
dimensions of dwelling in the city. As the high-rise
typology becomes the future norm, it is more
important than ever to integrate collective civic and
urban value into our long-term densification strategies.
How might architects rethink socially sustainable
models of housing for tomorrow’s burgeoning
population? This broadsheet sets out some points of
concern for architects and urban planners to consider,
critique and evaluate for themselves in practice. By
reflecting on the civic and social effects of housing
density, existing precedents and potential future
scenarios, this article hopes to provoke critical thought
on future development and cohesive city-making.
‘Affordability + Liveability = Stability’
Future developments should balance both quantitative and qualitative solutions, considering
not only short-term market viability but also long-term, community-positive urbanism.
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1. Common Ground
Every apartment block is not an island.
When designing towers for living in, the ground-plane
condition should be addressed with utmost
consideration for the wider urban fabric (beyond the
A typical residential tower has its back to the
street, often featuring a locked private lobby and
underutilised lounge area. For security reasons it is
made impermeable to the public. In this ubiquitous,
default model of high-rise living, the resident is
increasingly isolated from their broader environment.
What if high-rise residential typologies were more
aligned toward urban integration? The notion
of public thoroughfare exists predominantly in
commercial building such as office towers such as
the examples below; why not extend this thinking to
residential towers? What if, like mandatory setbacks,
we speculated the establishment of a mandatory
‘common-ground’ plane? By respecting the existing
grain and civic adjacencies of inner-city plots, cities
may be able to better uphold urban continuity in the
face of an increasing demand for housing stock.
Conventional multi- residential ground plane:
Impermeability denies public & breeds isolation
Potential to democratise access: Establishing a ‘common
ground’ plane across private developments
HSBC Tower in Hong Kong by Foster + Partners.
Photo by Eldan Goldenberg.
Example of an ‘unlocked’ lobby. A corporate foyer and
public thoroughfare on weekdays, the covered open
space is appropriated by Filipina domestic workers every
Sunday for social gatherings and micro-trading.
Urban Workshop in Melbourne CBD
by John Wardle Architects.
Photo by Irwinconsult.
Example of a permeable lobby that ensures the
continuity of laneway networks in the city. It has a cafe
and gallery archiving the site’s historical artefacts; and
operates like a through public laneway.
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2. Flexible Programming
What if the choice to live in a high-rise city apartment
did not necessarily mean having to give up
neighbourliness, community and civic interaction?
One concern with the locked-lobby approach (a
feature of the prevailing high-rise residential model) is
the perpetuation of gated vertical communities. While
not immediately perceptible, the anti-social condition
is already manifest in areas such as Southbank where
chronic impermeability has resulted in insular living
and street inactivity. This has a long-term impact on
liveability and suburb desirability.
and exchange will only grow more scarce. By
encouraging space-sharing, space-adapting and
space-letting we effectively multiply these urban
spaces. Ground-level vacancy may in turn be
reduced, over time restoring street life and mitigating
the ‘ghost-streetscape’ effect that currently haunts
tower-suburbs such as Southbank and the Docklands.
The progressive reevaluation of our living norms will
undoubtedly come with challenges, particularly in
operational planning, security and body-corporate
maintenance and overall financial viability. However
these recalibrations should be seen as “growing pains”
Future apartment towers should provide a robust and
adaptable interface between public and private realms,
embracing moments of overlap instead of wholly
segregating private from public zones.
The potential to transform static resident-only spaces
(e.g. foyers, receptions, privatised landscaping) into
dynamic, active platforms exists across the various
stages of a building’s life: from pre-construction
temporary site activations to post-occupancy
operations and management. Time-sensitive
programming might be seen as a parallel to the
‘open-plan’ model of the last century: radical in its
programmatic flexibility at the time of proposal, but
upon refinement large-scale adoption, it has become
the modus operandi for architects globally.
Assemble, an emerging residential developer focused
on small-footprint living, has based their current office
on Roseneath Street, Clifton Hill- the site of their first
multi-residential project in partnership with Wulff
Projects and Icon Co. Other parts of the private site are
leased out to creative enterprises such as local clothing
label Kloke, while its vast ground-level warehouse
space is regularly activated by design presentations,
exhibitions and public events such as the up-coming
Brutalist Block Party in collaboration with Open
House Melbourne. Even before any construction has
begun, community is already being created upfront
and on-site, where future occupants of the new project
get to meet potential neighbours and familiarise
themselves with the location. This is one such example
of flexible cross-programming being used to establish
resilience and social capital.
In light of our city’s projected residential growth,
public greenspace as well as areas for civic gathering
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3. Demographic- &
Developed cities across the globe should be pressed to
reassess their priorities: on one hand to accommodate
the displaced and marginalised, or on the other
continue to advance market-driven economic
interests. In many cases the latter has been prioritised,
amplifiying disparities in its population’s wealth, race,
class and religion, and heightening political and social
While there are no easy answers to these questions,
we should be cognizant of these urban dilemmas and
think laterally about more amenable, intelligent pieces
inserted into the urban tapestry- adjusting with the
city rather than divorcing itself- where inhabitants may
productively engage with and contribute to trade and
social capital of society as a whole.
Large-scale single-stage developments that aim to
provide social housing en-masse pose the danger of
fragmentation. One is reminded of our commission
flats, Brutalist social-housing blocks of the sixties, and
in more extreme cases, the ‘ghetttoisation’ of uniformly
developed residential zones that pepper remote
areas around the world; Modernist slum-suburbs
with increased work travel distances and heightened
segregation between higher and lower income groups.
Quick-fix ‘out-of-sight’ developments are contributing
significantly to stigmatisation and ‘othering’.
This raises not just a sociopolitical problem but also an
architectural and urban one. Cross-cultural tolerance
and integration are not simply the concern of the
socio-economic or policymakers, but exists also in the
domain of the architect and urban professional.
Beyond social and indigenous housing initiatives, there
also is the contentious case of refugee housing- an area
of great public debate in contemporary politics and
social work but not so much in architectural circles.
This also forms a touch-point of residential affordability
and housing for the future.
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4. Communal Living
Current models of inner-city living should continue
to diversify their offerings and evolve in accordance
with future living and working lifestyles. Rather than
a one-size-fits-all approach, the residential property
market and its associated housing policies should aim
to be more flexible, responsive and inclusive overall.
The resurgence in co-housing initiatives such as
Melbourne’s Urban Coup reflects an increasing desire
for community-centric owner-occupier housing
that is still amenable and close to the city centre. An
increasing number of prospective purchasers are
hoping to have more say in the design of their property
if they will be living there long-term: that is, they wish
to invest not just for short-term financial gains but
also qualitative returns that will see them through the
various phases of life. Committed owner-developer
groups such as Urban Coup allows such choices to be
Perhaps more architects should be having these
open-ended, nebulous conversations: is it currently
feasible, for example, to raise a family or age-in-place
in an apartment tower? How can we future-proof
vertical communities from demographic stratification,
and ensure yields don’t all skew towards 1-bedroom
student shoebox apartments?
The decision to live communally or ‘grow old
with your apartment’ should not be a reluctant
compromise on location, access, tenure type, price or
choice. Alternative models should be embraced and
investigated to avoid homogenous development or
This apartment-and-townhouse project champions
housing diversity in an otherwise cookie-cutter
multi-residential development climate.
The “assemble your home” concept gives purchasers the
ability to tailor their dwelling to financial and functinal
needs, providing a choice of standard or premium
options for their kitchen, bathroom and flooring, and a
range of extras such as a dog door, flexi-room, fold-down
bed or kid’s bath. There is a more nuanced palette of
choice on how individuals wish to live than traditional
models, while balancing construction efficiency, site
density and overall financial viability.
WestWyck Ecovillage, Brunswick.
Stage 1 by Peter Mills & Michael McKenna.
Stage 2 by Multiplicity.
Image by ArchitectureAU.
Westwyck comprises a cluster of 30 apartments
and townhouses around and within the former
Brunswick West Primary School. The units have
been developed in stages over a decade and are fitted
with solar panels, rainwater harvesting, grey-water
recycling and above-standard insulation, as well as
common landscaping areas and vegetable gardens. Its
affordable, ecological and community focus has drawn
much interest by like-minded locals and continues to
outperform itself in the housing market.
With a mission to repurpose the vacant schoolhouse,
developers Lorna Pitt & Mike Hill (also committed
owner-occupiers) have taken a long-term view on
the housing project and are personally invested in
community building. Recognising the importance of
122 Roseneath St, Clifton Hill by Icon Co, Wulff Projects good design, they also partnered with similarly-aligned
& Assemble. (currently in design documentation phase). local architects (named above) for creative heritage work
Image by Assemble.
using cost-effective, sustainably sourced materials.
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A key factor in housing liveability and affordability
is the access to civic services: be it physical access
to shops, parks and schools, or financial access
an apartment’s body corporate fees. In a future of
increasingly privatised superblocks and towers,
designers and developers should to democratise
spaces where possible, through the localised sharing of
amenities between adjacent residential blocks and with
its broader community.
Consider the notion of car-pooling. When a resource
is shared by actively coordinating schedules with each
other, utility and social benefits are maximised while
energy expenditure is minimised. In the same vein,
high-rise “amenity-pooling” could streamline the
unnecessary number of identical programs such as
pools, gyms and function rooms (refer diagram below;
these are typically energy-intensive), reduce the overall
ecological footprint and strengthen neighbourly
relations between tower residents.
Scenarios where “amenity-pooling” could occur in
(a) At ground level, to restore these traditionally public
programs to full public access.
(b) At intermediate levels, with residential bridges
linking ‘actively coordinated’ towers in series or
parallel. Stephen Holl’s Linked Hybrid buildings in
Beijing come to mind.
Current situation: Private-access-only amenity
(inaccessible and insular) that exists as duplicates from
tower to tower (unsustainable).
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Linked Hybrid Mixed-Use Complex in Beijing by Steven
Holl. Image above by Dezeen.
Sketch below by Steven Holl.
(c) At rooftop level, where the best views and light
in the building could be reserved for communal
activities, instead of plant room or penthouse decks.
While this proposal seems a huge stretch from our
current ways of doing housing, the topic certainly
warrants further research attention, particularly since
the surge in housing density wtihin already built-up
areas such as the CBD will place immense pressures on
existing civic infrastructure.
As land becomes scarcer and more subservient to
yield, there will be fewer parks, sports courts and
other public open spaces at ground level. Can we
rethink engineering and functional standards so that
the valuable roof plane can be appropraited for civic
To illustrate, let us consider a public school which
admits students on proximity-based acceptance. If
the neighbourhood is gentrified to accommodate
population growth and its residents double, the same
school will not have enough places and support
services, and unless it upgrades, expands or hires more
staff, its admissions has to be more selective.
Furthermore, these residential ‘amenities’ in
question need not only be limited to the luxury
triumvirate of gym-pool-sauna. Why not consider the
“amenity-pooling” of primary schools, childcare, aged
care services, bookable meeting rooms, doctor’s clinics,
home-office consultancies and so forth?
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Would families then be discouraged from living in
these denser areas simply because their children have
a lower chance of getting accepted into a school? These
are the everyday scenarios and flow-on-effects we have
to be conscious of.
If nothing is done to improve and expand these
civic programs to meet the needs of a burgeoning
population, residential liveability and affordability for
each of those occupants will naturally suffer.
As design professionals we are responsible not just
for our allotted site for the duration of our services,
but also for the shaping of our urban domain as
an accretive whole. The civic condition of a city
has a direct feedback loop into its housing market.
Let us continue to push the boundaries of creative
programming, democratic accessibility and civic
amenity in each project, over time incrementally
benefitting urban life and its symbiotic relationship
with private residential life.
Security is one of the key factors in choosing one
place to live over another. It is inextricable from
the liveability-affordability-stability venn diagram;
a suburb that rates lower on residential security
typically reflects lower property prices than their safer
counterparts. If a percieved threat to one’s security
is sustained and unsolved, the public perception of a
that neighbourhood can quickly plummet along with
property desirability. From then on the stigma is often
difficult to remediate, even with the promise of new
Is the self-governed model scaleable ? How might
such thinking apply not just to medium-density but
high-density dwellings? What is the (fine) line between
passive surveillance and overlooking?
However difficult the questions are on housing the
future, they will not go away with quick-fixes nor by
turning a blind eye to the civic condition. Housing
is being developed at an unprecedented pace before
our eyes, and this generation of architects have the
requisite creative and professional skills to rethink and
reshape its effects on tomorrow, one dwelling at a time.
Fundamentally, residents want to feel safe and
protected in their home. To a degree architecture and
urbanism can reduce the risk of dangerous situations
by designing safe and resilient neighbourhoods from
Urbanist Jane Jacobs’ ‘eyes on the street’ still holds true
today; architects should adopt passive surveillance as
first principles in the design of housing, before relying
on surveillance technologies and heavily policed
reception areas (refer diagrams below).
In many ways, self-governed ‘common security’
imbues a sense of collective responsibility that passive
‘private security’ system is unable to offer.
Heller Street Park & Residences in Brunswick by Six
Degrees Architects. Photo by Patrick Rodriguez.
Example of passive surveillance, neighbour security
and effective public-to-private gradient via shared
greenspace. This urban gesture extends beyond the site,
stitching dwellings back into the local fabric.
Amelyn is a design-focused researcher from Melbourne,
with a deep interest in civic agency and socially responsive
infrastructures. She believes architecture is at once a physical
practice, critical discourse and catalyst for social change.
She recently presented a speculative paper on refugee housing
at the AMPS housing conference in Nicosia, Cyprus 2016;
the project has also been exhibited in Melbourne and in
Madrid as part of Archiprix International 2015. Her M.Arch
thesis, a critique of laissez-faire privatisation and consumer
behaviours in Southbank, was awarded the 2014 Edward &
Penelope Billson Prize and Ernest Fooks Memorial Award.
Her writing has been recently published by the Australian
Design Review, Architect Victoria, Assemble Papers,
Architecture & Design, FLOG and Inflection Journal.
While working towards her architect’s registration at
Fieldwork and Assemble, she hopes to examine the potentials
of opportunistic urbanism through ongoing research and
regular contributions to architectural publication.
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