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Edition 29

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Essay

Garden cities of tomorrow

A PROJECTED AUSTRALIAN population of thirty-six million people by 2050 is being touted as a figure to fear. The pressure on food supply, lifestyle, natural resources, transport, housing and urbanisation, the thinking goes, means ‘we’ll all be rooned.’ Yet the raw numbers and past experience suggest that it is not such a problem for the supply of housing or the quality of our cities. If the projected number is reached, it will constitute a 65 per cent increase over forty years. Four decades ago the population was 12.7 million, a growth over the equivalent period of 75 per cent.

In 1970 housing was quite different – blocks of land in the major capitals were twice the size, but houses were half as big as today’s two-storey McMansions, with half as much glass, cars and appliances. This is the 2x2x2x2x2 phenomenon. Forty years ago, however, the average number of occupants in each dwelling was almost twice what it is today, even allowing for a greater diversity of household make-up and an increase in unoccupied holiday homes, which skews the figures.

Following the numbers, there is an easy solution to housing an increasing population: go back to the 1970s home-occupancy rates and add one or two people to every household. Problem solved. But contemporary ways of living and population diversity make this solution simplistic.

The Australian domestic lifestyle is distinguished by the ability to live outdoors, in private. There is a symbiotic relationship between freestanding houses with front and back gardens, which make up three-quarters of the housing stock, and the very low density in the sprawling areas of Australian cities of only ten houses on each hectare. Unlike denser cities, where apartment dwellers use public gardens for recreation, in Australia and other countries that heeded Ebenezer Howard’s call for the Garden Cities of Tomorrow, recreation was increasingly privatised in the backyard.

The interiors of contemporary Australian homes are like those elsewhere – ever larger open-plan spaces, multiple bathrooms, bling kitchens and lightless media rooms. The big difference is outside, where a transitional space, an outdoor room, is common. From the early 1800s this was grafted on to imported English and Irish plans. A veranda was added for sun and rain protection, and the house and outbuildings were often linked and stretched to create an internal courtyard for added security. The word ‘veranda’ comes from the Spanish baranda, meaning railing or handrail, and was corrupted by English troops as they invaded the New World.

The Irish novelist Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman provides an idiosyncratic way of seeing the difference between the houses of the old and new worlds. The hero is an expert on the writings of a fictitious scholar whose many hilarious theories include ideas about roofless and wall-less houses expressed through tale of a builder who made houses as ‘wall-less roofs’ and ‘roofless walls’, and who cautions against their use as ‘many more than one sick person lost his life in an ill-advised quest for health in these fantastic dwellings.’

To Australian eyes such houses are perfectly reasonable: our verandas and courtyards are seen as vital in keeping the occupants alive and comfortable. By the early 1980s Australian houses had blurred the lines between inside and outside, and outdoor lifestyles became a defining mark of yuppies – or, as Australian Crawl sang in ‘Beautiful People’, ‘the garden’s full of furniture, the house is full of plants.’

Recent home designs have gone further, combining the veranda and courtyard into one space – the ‘sala’ or ‘al fresco’ – and at display villages, such as Homeworld in western Sydney, every one is fitted with a barbecue and dining area. These are the ne plus ultra of Australian living, giving us the largest houses in the world but creating a dire sustainability problem that will be exacerbated as these houses march over ‘the sunlit plains extended’ as the population doubles.

 

FOR A LONG time suburbia appeared to be a monoculture. But there have always been alternatives, including the walk-up flats built before and after World War II. They accounted for less than a fifth of all dwellings and their compact size made them less visible, at least to politicians and planners, if not the neighbours. The increasing diversity of the population and building types has meant that in the past ten years the number of apartments has greatly increased; in Sydney more apartments than houses are being approved, and are becoming more noticeable and controversial as a result.

The twentieth-century ideal of an Australian monoculture living in uniform suburbia has long gone, if it ever really existed. Australia now has one of the most diverse populations in the world, yet the freestanding single-family home still accounts for three-quarters of the housing stock. We are now building a far greater range of housing, including duplexes, townhouses, and low-rise, medium-rise and high-rise dwellings in response to changing demographics.

Consumers are demanding more housing choice, and planning policies are struggling to catch up. The traditional family of two adults and at least two children accounts for less than half of all households – extended at one end by multigenerational families of six or more and share households, and at the other by an increasing number of couples and singles.

In response, an array of different housing types is being designed and built to challenge the current duo-culture of single-family house or medium-rise apartment. The need to have the largest homes in the world is being challenged. A survey of emerging housing options shows how the future population could easily be accommodated within the existing cities, and with greater amenity. So while the simple arithmetical solution of adding one or two people to each household would not work, with smarter housing design and planning policies this might be achieved in a way that increases amenity and affordability – and creates a new style of garden city.

Change is afoot in suburbia. The fringes of the cities continue to be developed, but economic factors are forcing variation as affordable shrinking lots force an evolution in house designs. Display villages now include many more smaller homes (partly so first-home buyers can afford them). On these smaller lots, the problem of overshadowing from adjacent two-storey houses is addressed by moving the living areas from the front (where they were from 1900 to the Jennings houses of the 1970s) to the rear, where they face gardens – not yards – with an outdoor room on the corner so the plan can be oriented to north on a variety of sites. A few recent designs have started to address the idea of a multi-generational home, with a separate flat within the house, often downstairs so the grandparents can have easy access and stay home to mind the children while both parents are earning wages to pay off the mortgage.

The idea of two houses in one has a long tradition: the granny flat, frequently illegally built, provided additional accommodation for granny (who often tipped her savings into the home) or supplementary income from a lodger, to offset rising costs or enable the changing family to remain in a desirable area. This form of single-owner dual occupancy is being increasingly codified in most cities; it has recently been reintroduced in New South Wales after being needlessly withdrawn by Premier Bob Carr in the mid-1990s to curry favour with Sydney’s upper-middle-class residents, who feared their suburbs would be overdeveloped by stealth. Bans don’t stop the second dwellings being added; they just drive the process underground (or under stumps, in Brisbane), where it is unregulated and consequently often poorly done. It may surprise local councillors to learn how many garages are actually occupied as flats.

As well as new designs, recent subdivisions are also fostering different house types, including courtyard houses on zero-lot lines (houses built to one boundary to reduce the waste created by the traditional one-metre setbacks), or townhouses (two zero-lot lines). These can work on lots of 200 to 250 square metres, a quarter of the traditional block.

This will potentially double, perhaps triple, suburban density – but it is still not really sustainable. Most fringe suburbs are poorly served by public transport and the services are too scattered to be efficient. The problem is epitomised by the recently opened zero-energy house in outer Melbourne, built by Henley Homes and designed in conjunction with the CSIRO, which is monitoring it. The house is fairly conventional, with an added airlock for thermal comfort, yet contemporary in its façade and internal finishes. It operates with no demand on the local water or electricity supply, although it must be connected to both: to fluoridate drinking water and feed solar electricity back into the grid. Its overall sustainability is limited by distance from the nearest station – ten kilometres away, at Epping – and the absence of shops, schools and health clinics, things typically missing in all fringe developments. Planners argue that these services will come, but there are often lags, so Landcom in Sydney and VicUrban in Melbourne are demanding that the ‘village centre’ be built concurrently, although public transport inevitably arrives much later (or seemingly never, in Sydney).

The battle to design a freestanding sustainable or zero-energy home has been won, but it is a pyrrhic victory: these are now seen as worthy objects whose dependence on a massive infrastructure and hidden transport costs hinders rather than aids the development of a sustainable city. The push is on to increase residential density, but we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the grey water in a rush to medium– and high-rise apartments. A century of freestanding homes has left Australians in love with the possibilities of indoor and outdoor private life, a life that will not be easily squeezed into towers.

Urban planners argue that high-cost services are often underused in existing suburbs which have undergone generational change; and that it would be more sensible, and sustainable, to increase the usefulness of existing services by increasing the local population. This comes with the added benefit that if the new buildings are well designed, they may make little demand for electricity and water on the existing infrastructure.

These infill developments are sometimes called six-packs, as they seek to replace a single house on a suburban block with three, four or – optimally, from a developer’s perspective – six townhouses or apartments. But compactness cannot be achieved simply by squashing existing houses closer together: they would overshadow each other, cars would dominate the streetscape, the houses wouldn’t cross-ventilate and the private garden would be lost.

There is a way, however, to combine the more efficient higher-density housing with the best aspects of the freestanding home – that is, individuality, privacy, variety and, most critically, access to a private garden. This is the holy grail for sustainable housing, and the solution may well be a scheme that is upside down, inside out and back to front.

 

AS DENSITIES INCREASE, blocks of land get smaller; houses get closer, sprout two or three storeys and become so tight that the sun doesn’t reach the ground. Turning the house upside down, with the bedrooms and home offices on the lower floors and the living areas on the upper levels and roof, will give greater access to sun and breezes. It sounds Mediterranean, and there is a salient lesson: the Greek or Arabic home, with a flat and habitable roof, may be a better climatic model for Australian cities.

The current environmentally sustainable trend is for a green roof, designed for both green planting and green technology. These can be used as living areas, to grow food and sequester carbon, as well as for solar thermal and electricity generation. But the idea of barbecues on the roof, outdoor plasma screens and sleepouts looking at the stars (through clearer air) is challenging for many councils, who see only the downsides – loss of privacy, overlooking neighbours, and amenity problems – rather than the environmental benefits that a better-performing house might offer.

The second challenge is to turn the house inside out. Recent research suggests that thermal mass has been underplayed in the design of houses for temperate Australia. The predilection for brick as a veneer over a timber frame is the opposite of what is needed: the internal house is lightweight and does not store warmth or coolness, while the mass of external brickwork adds little by way of insulation. The brick blocks, in situ or precast concrete, should be on the inside, wrapped in a layer of effective insulation with a weatherproof veneer on the outside.

Often in higher-density housing this happens by default; solid party walls and concrete upper-level floors offer better mass and acoustic isolation. By contrast the boundary walls of freestanding homes, facing across a two-metre demilitarised zone of water heaters and fences, offer little acoustic privacy or good land use; but they are cheap. A single party wall takes up less space, yet costs more, as it has to reach a higher standard of fire safety and acoustics – and so a smaller townhouse, on less land, becomes more expensive.

The thermal comfort of apartments is improved by exposing the building’s concrete ceilings. With the need for apartment floors to be insulated against noise transfer, the exposed mass is often found in the walls and ceilings, which keeps them cool. We are used to the notion of passive warmth being facilitated by sun shining on the floor. The converse is true in summer: thermal mass in walls, and particularly in ceilings, absorbs the day’s heat, which can then be night-purged using colder night-time air, making the house cool for the next day. As electric-powered cooling produces more greenhouse gas than heating, general uptake of this kind of passive cooling would substantially reduce carbon emissions.

A symbiotic relationship between the first two ideas now emerges – the upside-down house needs concrete for the upper living floors, and to support the green roof, and so this immediately offers the potential to build it inside out, and at the same time support heavier upper floors.

Finally, turn it back to front. The car’s influence on house design has grown disproportionately; the garage is now the largest and most prominent room in most project homes. Many councils have legislated a set-back from the house alignment for the garage, and limited its dimensions to no more than half of the frontage. As garages get bigger to accommodate SUVs and 4WDs, and the houses get closer, the large steel garage door dominates many streetscapes – a last gasp image of the twentieth century’s love affair with cars.

In the new century the car is best banished to the rear, to a service lane: we go back to the future of the nineteenth century. This will be aided by the imminent demise of the big car, for soon we will see the uptake of smaller options: smart cars, mini electric cars, electric bikes and so on. The traditional garage size will be seen as excessive. A rear service street will be narrow but accommodate smaller cars, mini recycling trucks (there will be less garbage, with less packaging and consumption, and more composting on the green roof) and a safer area for children’s play. And over the top of the garage could be a Fonzie flat, a second residence for the third generation, a nanny, a guest, student or bon vivant to bring you ‘happy days’.

Townhouses and apartments will face a public street, possibly lined with small businesses in the ground-floor home offices, or new shop-houses, the greater density enabling the revival of the pedestrian– and cycle-friendly street. Smaller vehicles mean more and better car parking between the trees that form a shade canopy for the entire street.

 

THE UPSIDE-DOWN, inside-out, back-to-front townhouse will increase the number of residents threefold, but another typology will be needed to get to the desired sixfold increase. And three-storey redbrick walk-up flats may be the surprise package – the most reviled house form in Australia could be the most sustainable. They have a small footprint, modest-sized apartments, high thermal mass, minimal parking. With a bit of tweaking they could be ideal. The external brickwork can be wrapped in rigid external insulation and cladding (with muted colours), to increase the thermal mass and reduce the redbrick overkill. Balconies could be extended and fitted with better balustrades, screens and planting for privacy, together with shading devices over exposed windows. This will increase the amenity and the thermal efficiency of the building, and rebuilding the garden will offer the potential for productive food gardens as well as better landscape screening. We could go further and remove the tiled roof and replace it with a flat green roof.

The economic imperative to make these changes has not yet arrived, but the qualities of this design are incorporated into hundreds of infill projects already being built. There is a perception, fostered by groups such as Save Our Suburbs, that these developments been foisted upon an unwilling and resistant public. Activists from wealthy suburbs often regard these apartments as a sort of socialist conspiracy, but they are actually a perfect example of the market economy in action. With the exception of some recent government-sponsored affordable housing, apartments are built by developers, who are driven by profit. The traditional formula for success is to split the sale price into thirds: land, construction, profit. The project won’t stack up unless there is demand, and at a relatively high increase in value. Sadly for SOS, the secret to the success of these apartments, and the continued demand for their construction, is the enemy within: local residents, downsizing from large houses when children leave home, are buying into a different way of living in the suburbs they know and love.

Many of these low-rise apartments are based on passive thermal design, using solar gain to provide warmth in winter, and cross-ventilation and night-purging in summer. This has been a feature of well-designed freestanding houses in temperate Australia since the publication of Homes in the Sun by Walter Bunning, in 1945. What is unique is the attempt to transfer these ideas into medium– and even high-rise buildings.

 

DWELLINGS IN EUROPE and North America have larger heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, in buildings that are far more tightly sealed and permit much less interaction with the surrounding climate. This is due not only to harsher, colder climates, but to the prevalence of higher-density dwellings that demand greater privacy and hence fewer windows, openings and external spaces.

Urban consolidation and the higher levels of thermal comfort are pushing Australians to more sealed dwellings with less passive design. We could develop buildings like Solaire in New York, a LEED-certified housing tower by the US architect César Pelli that has walls embedded with solar photovoltaic panels (to make electricity) embedded in the façade to offset the energy demand; or press on with naturally ventilated apartments, with single-depth plans and deep blade walls for privacy, such as those by the Australian architects Frank Stanisic and Ian Moore. The latter’s Altair was highly awarded internationally and suggests that, while there is local pressure to follow the European and North American example, many temperate areas in South America and Africa want to follow Australia’s lead.

Many architects are preoccupied with finding the most sustainable type of residential dwellings. At one end is suburbia; at the other, high-rise towers. The towers are certainly dense, but often perform poorly in energy and water use – foyers need lights around the clock, car parks need mechanical ventilation and apartments are usually fully air conditioned, and there is little roof for water collection and use.

 

WHERE ON THE bell curve sits the most suitable mix of housing density, transport proximity and urban form? It may well be that between forty and fifty dwellings per hectare is the answer – which is about five times suburbia but only a fifth of high-rise. With the change in form comes a change in the design of streets. Ideas of a more cosmopolitan city that were championed in the 1960s come back into focus, such as Edward Cullen’s Townscape (1961) and Bernard Rudofsky’s Streets for People (1969; tellingly subtitled ‘A Primer for Americans’). Often the new housing forms go hand in hand with public transport systems: so-called transport-oriented designs.

In Sydney, this is linked to the evolution of the cities-within-cities approach championed by Sue Holliday, president of the Planning Institute, and developed by the former state architect Chris Johnson in the regional plan to strengthen existing urban growth centres such as Parramatta, Penrith, Chatswood and Liverpool as cities in their own right, with medium– and high-rise apartments within easy walking distance of their centre.

A different form is proposed by the Melbourne City architect Rob Adams, who has suggested that far greater density can be achieved along the high streets of that radially formed city. He mounts a persuasive argument that streets, as well as buildings, are the key to future urban design and suggests that only 6 per cent of the city fabric will need to be changed to three– to five-storey townhouses and apartments over shops and offices along tram and train lines, leaving most suburbs untouched. Density can be increased to maximise the efficient use of services, without the need for wholesale changes to the house form that Australians are so fond of.

In Perth, Peter Newman has developed the radial transport-orientated design even further, with a freeway and integrated train line from the city centre to Mandurah offering the chance for hubs at every station, although so far there are only commuter car parks. This green-field planned approach is far easier to implement than the kind of reworking of the existing fabric that Rob Adams proposes. Resistance to linear transport-orientated design can be seen on the North Shore of Sydney, where Ku-Ring-Gai Council is at odds with the state government’s mandate of urban consolidation along the existing highway and railway lines.

Peter Skinner at the University of Queensland proposes a different form of development for South East Queensland: a dense, linear city that hugs the coast, which is the main lifestyle drawcard, and stretches from Noosa to Coolangatta. Focusing on low– and high-rise residential buildings, it would release the hinterland from the current pressures for rolling green-field suburbia and allow it to retain its role as environment lungs for flora and fauna diversity, water collection and recreation. If you are going to destroy the most desirable coastal land, you should maximise the return for as many people as possible.

The question of how Australia will accommodate an extra fourteen million people by 2050 pales by comparison with the global challenge of housing nine billion people by the same year. The building industry is currently the largest employer in the country, and it is driven not only by new dwellings but by perpetual renovation and maintenance. Looking to the future means making tough and innovative decisions about how to construct more diverse housing that is sustainable and sensitive to local traditions – and that may just mean turning them inside out, upside down and back to front. 


From Griffith Review Edition 29: Prosper or Perish © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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