Recently VicUrban, the Victorian Government’s land and development agency, commissioned seven well known Australian architectural practices and volume home builders to collaborate in the design and construction of 5 houses that offer a sustainable/affordable alternative to the current project home offerings. These designs have now been constructed and right ups published. The project is called Habitat 21. www.habitat21.com.au
Once constructed the Habitat 21 dwellings had to meet certain criteria which required them to achieve the equivalent of a 7 star sustainable rating while at the same time be constructed for a finished price of around $200,000 Australian dollars, a monumental challenge to say the least especially when shaping up to the cost per square metre comparisons offered by the G.J Gardner and Coral Homes of this country.
The outcomes produced a series of solutions that have achieved their objectives. But, like all projects attempting to offer a considered alternative, the response is in the hands of the Australian public. I admire the fact that ventures like this one are attempting to do something about the housing issue however at the end of the day they face two gigantic hurdles.
1. A conservative public.
2. A multi-national based project home industry that wants to keep them conservative.
Both these factors are seemingly immovable mountains. In reading a recent article by Shelley Penn in the May/June issue of Architecture Australia it is obvious that the Architects involved in the Habitat 21 project had to work within conservative construction parameters.
‘The architects were both tenacious and responsible, letting ingenious ideas go in the face of advice that they wouldn’t sell…’ Penn Aa May/June p69
Almost all volume builders construct with techniques that fit within their scope of comfort. This comfort has nothing to do with the home owner but rather parameters that maximise their control over the public mindset. In the hands of a good designer the integration of ideas that utilise the potential of these materials could elevate liveability. However, most of these companies have in-house design teams making the opportunity for true collaboration rare. Even in the Habitat 21 environment where the DPCD (Department of Planning and Community Development) is involved we see limits and boundaries that are advised on by the volume builder that have nothing to do with liveability.
What makes progression in our housing industry a difficult process is a physiological undercurrent that keeps the public informed about what is appropriate housing. Ironically, it doesn’t come from designers and architects but rather banks, brokers, lawyers, councils and real-estate agents. It gently persuades the public suggesting that they should not make a building/design decision that impacts on their immediate needs and their sites environmental offerings only future unpredictable circumstances like resale value.
Everyone who has ever pushed for change that impacts on big business knows it is like pulling a tooth. That is why for change to happen there needs to be less competition and more collaboration. I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to design issues but I would like to propose one perspective that could offer a possible direction. It is quite a different approach to the one VicUrban and the DPCD have realised.
Across the board we are beginning to see the emergence of prefabricated building systems specific to the housing industry, in particular insulated panel construction. It makes so much sense to me to look at the inherit attributes offered by some of these systems. For example Bondor’s Insulwall product (www.insulliving.com.au) that has just been released this year. Not only does it meet all the reverent Australian standards but it blows them out of the water! The system has incredible R-values, it is load bearing and can be used in cyclonic regions, it is self-spanning eliminating the need for rafter and truss setups. It is sound proof, fire resistant and can be used as an all in one flooring system. The panels can be manipulated and altered to allow for angles and site specific design challenges. It allows for a paint finish internally without the need for plaster but at the same time giving an even and clean finish. The exterior allows for any kind of material to be applied, alternatively it to can remain raw or receive a paint finish only. To build it doesn’t required skilled labour, build timeframes are up to 34% better than it's traditional counterparts and perhaps most of all it is comparable to the cost per square metre rates set by the volume house companies.
I find it difficult to understand why this kind of system has not been considered at a government level. By using this product and others like it is it, I have found that it has not reduced the scope for creative site specific solutions but rather it has enhanced them. By designing to 1200 proportions, which is the width of the extrusion as it comes off the factory floor, the fat of the building is eliminated refining the design both materially and spatially. We are talking about a system that is all encompassing, it covers all bases. If the volume home builders and their tradesmen were willing to be trained in the simple building processes of panel construction we might see the emergence of a new era within the residential market. This kind of system is what is needed for the immediate future.