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Future Homes – an interview with James Mant and Andrej Vodstrcil
With Victoria’s population set to double by 2050, designers, planners and policy-makers are reckoning with the challenge of providing high-quality, affordable and sustainable housing where people want to live. In response to Melbourne’s continuing population growth and pressure on inner-city suburbs, Future Homes is an initiative that seeks to enable modest density increases in suburban areas close to train stations and shopping centres – areas that can support new residents as they have existing services.
This joint collaboration between the Department of Transport and Planning and the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) provides ready-made architectural designs for 3-storey apartment buildings backed by a streamlined planning process at an affordable price.
Architects and designers took part in a design competition in 2020 and were invited to submit apartment plans that prioritised liveability and sustainability in design.
The scheme has been likened to Robyn Boyd’s Small Homes Service in the 1940s, which produced plans for houses that could be bought for the modest fee of five pounds. Boyd was frustrated by poor design in Australian suburbia, once asking: ‘Is it just that the Australian public clings to its depressing little boxes because it knows no better, has seen no better design?’. Future Homes responds to the stagnancy of suburban design by offering adaptable and affordable homes that prioritise social communal space, sunlight, and family-friendly living.
We spoke to James Mant from the Department of Transport and Planning Victoria and Andrej Vodstrcil, co-founder of Lian Architects and one of the winners of the Future Homes design competition, and about the importance of re-thinking design and working towards high quality, affordable housing to make our suburbs more liveable, sustainable and equitable.
What are the core challenges you're trying to solve with the Future Homes project?
Future Homes is trying to solve many of the most difficult issues that we're facing. It’s about getting quality medium-density housing into middle and outer parts of Melbourne, into places that are better serviced. One of the most difficult things as a planner is that we talk about growth, but then poor design outcomes are delivered and the community decides they don’t want development near them. We need to be able to embed good design in denser developments, and Future Homes does this. It asks: How do we get well-designed medium-density housing happening in Melbourne, and how do we get the community on board with this? And how do we incentivise the development industry to do it? It's really trying to tackle a lot of the difficult issues in planning.
What are some of the key features when you talk about design quality?
There are two sides to design quality. You have how the community interacts with the building, which is important because there is always strong community opinion. From a visual point of view, good design considers the impact on the street and the retention of canopy trees. In Australia, we're too obsessed on the building's height as the measure of design, and I've always been perplexed by it because that is just one element of the design. Having said that, the scale on the street is important from a community perspective.
The other design elements that are essential are the sustainability impact of the building and its adaptability. Changes to the size of a household and being able to accommodate families is really important. Being light-filled and well-ventilated is necessary - particularly ventilation post-COVID. And we really need to think about reducing car parking. In the right locations we should be doing that by having more walkable access to public transport as part of these designs.
One way of improving quality is thinking about the business-as-usual approach to suburban redevelopment, which is a suboptimal subdivision where one block is carved up into three or four units or townhouses. Often with a large driveway, lots of hard concrete surfaces, and not much permeable garden area. Future Homes looks at the opportunity of amalgamating two lots and coming up with better use of space that has more usable land and more permeable garden area. And that comes from a qualitative assessment of what it is about suburbs that we like, which is standalone buildings surrounded by really lush and usable gardens.
The 20-minute neighbourhood concept has been a controversial one recently – why do you think that is, and why is it important that neighbourhoods are designed around this model?
There have been some weird conspiracies about this model that have misinterpreted the point. In a way, it’s been good publicity, because when most people read an article about this idea, they’re introduced to a great policy they may not have heard of. It’s simply the idea of being able to access the things you need locally, and having the choice to do that. Connecting with your local community and having the services that you need there is important given the fact that now a lot more people are working from home. Future Homes is part of the solution because it's about locating more people within those 20-minute neighbourhoods.
“When people hear these new ideas about the city, I think there’s a sense it will be an attack on their way of doing things. In actual fact, it’s supporting what they're doing and enabling them to live more freely.”
When people hear these new ideas about the city, I think there’s a sense it will be an attack on their way of doing things. In actual fact, it’s supporting what they're doing and enabling them to live more freely. It’s interesting it has been depicted as an attack on freedom when it is actually an enabler of freedom.
How are sustainability benchmarks operating in this project and does having these goals make it easier to prioritise environmental concerns?
The wider sustainability issues are around where these projects are located. Future Homes is directed to locations where we can encourage people to walk locally. We’re not saying these should be everywhere, even though in theory a lot of Melbourne could accommodate them. We are saying this kind of development should be in places that are close to shops and services, and having attention to open space and tree canopy in the street is part of that.
There are requirements for daylight and natural ventilation, and all the designs exceeded these. They all have northern light living spaces, which is also exceeding the standards. They didn’t request us to deliver 100% natural ventilation but we all did that because we all wanted to create the best design possible. And we saw that as something that would make them beyond the typical market offering and that residents would value.
What are some of the unique challenges related to equity and experience in suburban areas?
Since the 1950s there has been a strong cultural connection in Australia to having a house and land, and that still exists. In terms of the suburbs, there are two different challenges: middle-ring 1950s suburbs where the focus is on retrofitting existing areas, and increasing density where people are resistant to change. Then you have greenfield locations, where there are more recent developments like house and land packages and often very low densities. In those locations, there's no real incentive for developers to do medium-density housing, and they'll tell you that there's no demand for it as well. The challenge is how to change that model in those locations. Future Homes is part of demonstrating that there are different products and options. The more it happens, the more standard it becomes, the more we’ll see it in both these types of locations. It's a challenge to change a model that has suited a lot of people for a long time.
A common product that is already out there is the townhouse, sometimes built over three or four levels and entered through a private garage below. And that sort of market uptake is tied back to that idea of needing a house on its own land, which Future Homes is in some ways challenging with collectivised parking and maximised gardens. This project is saying that, when dwelling more densely in our suburbs, let’s prioritise well-appointed spaces with joyful outlook and sense of address – rather than a house on land without those things. That cultural shift is what we’re trying to tackle.
“This project is saying that you don't need a house on the land, you need a well-appointed space. That cultural shift is what we’re trying to tackle.”
We should be enabling people to have access to and live in places where people want to live. Many of the inner suburbs are very expensive, because they are already 20-minute neighbourhoods. A lot of people are struggling to get into the housing market, particularly in accessible locations. New homeowner grants favour greenfield house-on-land packages, so people that are trying to get into the market have limited choices, and then go further out where it’s not accessible. So that's not an equitable way that the city is being laid out.
In the longer term, how do you hope the future homes project will impact Victorian suburbs?
It's one part of a big puzzle that we're trying to put all together, but it's an important part. I would really love to see it become more of a standard practice in Melbourne. I want people to see that this type of product does work and is viable. And I think the more it happens, the more it becomes viable.
Long term it would be great to see uptake of this scale of density within existing suburbs. And not necessarily for every single building to change over to this density, but to keep the character of the suburbs and have it as part of the mix of buildings which make up our cities.
Andrej is an architect, with extensive public-focused project experience, and co-founder of LIAN, a Melbourne based architecture practice exploring responses to Australia's necessary urban transitions – primarily in housing. LIAN was founded with Lisa Garner in 2020 following success in the State Government’s Future Homes Competition, and subsequent implementation. They are currently engaged in the delivery of projects for Nightingale Housing and Homes Victoria. Alongside practice Andrej also engages in design research, running studios exploring housing with students at Monash University.
James Mant is Director of Places and Precincts at DELWP. James is a passionate urbanist and is responsible for the 202 PIA award winning 20-minute neighbourhood policy and program and the Future Homes program for the Victorian Government. James advocates for walkable, healthy compact places, great design, place based planning and working in partnership with communities.