A call to arms for architects and planners: We must refurbish public housing, not knock it down

Last week, contractors began the demolition of Sydney’s Arncliffe estate, a 1940s public housing scheme of 140 apartments across multiple three-storey double-brick walk-ups. Most of the estate’s residents were relocated before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia. Other than being used during lockdowns as emergency accommodation, the homes have now sat empty for several years.

The plan is to replace the estate with 744 apartments across three towers: one tower for social housing tenants, where community housing organisation Evolve Housing will manage 180 units; and two larger towers of two-bedroom apartments that will be offered to the market as private dwellings.

The estate is one of several similar projects underway or being planned across the country. The NSW program – previously known as Communities Plus – also includes the redevelopment of the Ivanhoe estate in Macquarie Park and the Waterloo estate, where the tender process for the first phase is nearing completion.

In Victoria, the state government’s Ground Lease Model is expanding on the state’s Public Housing Renewal Program.

In addition to the immense harm caused by forcing residents to relocate and breaking up communities, the cumulative result of these projects is a reduction in today’s public housing stock for the sake of a relatively minor increase in the future.

With more than 174,000 households on public housing waiting lists nationally, and with private rental prices at record highs and vacancy rates at record lows, it’s a model that defies the common sense.

With one side of their mouth, governments say we urgently need more housing, especially more affordable housing. With the other side, they say we must sacrifice existing public housing stock for future supply that will be out of reach for the average householder.

I’m not arguing to retain all existing public housing in its current state. Any tenant will tell you public housing is in chronic disrepair due to decades of neglect by successive governments. The lack of maintenance and upgrades bolsters the government case for redevelopment. But, in fact, it’s a case of demolition by neglect.

But what if, rather than allowing public housing to deteriorate and then selectively redeveloping sites to suit the private housing market, we systematically renovate and refurbish existing stock? That would improve public housing without displacing the people who live there.

This way forward was illuminated at an Action for Public Housing forum held last Tuesday (which you can now view on YouTube).

Melbourne-based non-profit architecture practice OFFICE introduced its Retain, Repair, Reinvest (RRR) strategy and alternative proposals for Melbourne’s Ascot Vale and Barak Beacon estates. The strategy involves retaining existing communities, repairing buildings and reinvesting the money that would otherwise have been spent on demolition and redevelopment into improvements and upgrades.

At Ascot Vale, the RRR strategy proposes to add lifts, solar PV, passive heating and cooling systems, specialist disability units and a refurbished communal rooftop. Each building would be made compliant with all contemporary apartment standards and new-build energy targets and the project would save the Victorian Government $2.8 million per block of flats, and $15 million in relocation costs.

The Barak Beacon proposal involves a similar suite of upgrades as well as re-oriented floorplans to enable a 25 per cent increase in the number of units on the estate. That’s double the increase in social housing contained in the Victorian Government’s redevelopment proposal. An additional stage would involve infill development of 238 new homes within the estate while retaining the existing dwellings, allowing on-site relocations.

The proposal would save $88 million in construction and relocation costs.

Tragically, the Andrews Government is proceeding with demolition and is moving to evict the final remaining resident.

OFFICE follows in the footsteps of Pritzker-Prize winning architects Anna Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal, who conclude their Rothwell Chair at the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning with an exhibition that opens this week. Dr Hannes Frykholm, an architect and researcher working at Lacaton & Vassal as Rothwell Postdoctoral Research Associate, discussed the pair’s massive Gran Parc project in Bordeaux.

This world-leading example of refurbishing public housing extended the complex by adding winter gardens and balconies to each unit, which together increased total floor space by 53 per cent. It also added several additional units and a second elevator to each building. The project did not force residents to relocate or to pay higher rents, and was cheaper than demolition and redevelopment.

Both OFFICE and Lacaton & Vassal conducted intensive consultation with residents to understand their housing needs, an approach strikingly absent from public housing redevelopment projects in NSW and Victoria.

Closer to home, architect Hector Abrahams presented an alternative proposal for 82 Wentworth Park Road, Glebe, a 17-unit complex that the NSW Land and Housing Corporation is proposing to demolish and redevelop as 43 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Abrahams, who was commissioned by the Glebe Society and Hands Off Glebe, has designed an alternative proposal featuring a second 17-unit building to infill the large, under-utilised carpark at the rear of the complex, and lift access to both the new and existing building.

The refurbished complex would have 34 units and 52 bedrooms – just one bedroom less than the LAHC proposal, at significantly lower cost and in a shorter timeframe.

There is, of course, another crisis that we mustn’t forget when we think about the housing crisis. Dr Frykholm, seated before a backdrop of Boral’s Marulan South Limestone Mine, evocatively described how

as towers rise from the ground in one place, there are holes appearing in the ground elsewhere. And the fractures are not only geological – they displace entire communities. Buildings are pieces of mining equipment, architectural theorist Mark Wigley suggests. They belong to processes of violent extraction and they cause rapid destruction to the planet. So, as an example, the extraction and curing process of cement is estimated to be the source of about eight per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

OFFICE’s respective proposals for Ascot Vale and Barak Beacon would have led to massive energy and embodied energy savings. Barak Beacon would achieve an average NATHERS rating of 8 and Ascot Vale 7.4. Similarly, the Gran Parc project reduced energy consumption by 50 per cent thanks to its winter gardens with double-glazed windows, in addition to embodied energy savings and a reduction in building waste.

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The technical superiority of such an approach is obvious: it improves public housing and even adds more units for a lower financial, environmental and social cost. But as several of the 100 or so members of the audience noted, the problem is political, not technical.

Governments are committed to demolition-and-redevelopment projects because they see them as a way to generate revenue, make public housing cost-neutral, and shift responsibility for public housing to the non-profit sector and to the Federal Government.

It’s bi-partisan policy that we need to fight, and it’s a fight in which architects and planners are crucial.

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