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‘A rigorous, iterative design process’ – ClarkeHopkinsClarke’s James Gilliland on Aboriginal Housing Victoria Dandenong

‘A rigorous, iterative design process’ – ClarkeHopkinsClarke’s James Gilliland on Aboriginal Housing Victoria Dandenong


Aboriginal Housing Victoria (AHV), ClarkeHopkinsClarke and landscape designer Charles Solomon have collaborated on AHV Dandenong, an apartment project shaped by engagement.

James Gilliland, a Yorta Yorta senior architect from ClarkeHopkinsClarke, and Ngarigo Gooreng Gooreng landscape designer Charles Solomon collaborated with Australia’s largest Aboriginal Registered Housing Agency to create AHV Dandenong, a new medium-density, all-electric apartment community designed to foster cultural pride and community connection.

AHV’s second foray into apartment living transforms a 996-square-metre site in Melbourne’s south-east. The agency has turned what were formerly four single-storey villas for larger families into 10 one- and two-bedroom apartments for smaller families, singles and young people. 

The project includes a ground-floor Elder Residence, private outdoor space for every tenant and a communal garden/gathering space with plants selected for medicinal use and cultural significance.

Funded by Homes Victoria as part of the Victorian Government’s $5 billion Big Build Housing program, AHV Dandenong aims to provide a culturally sensitive environment for tenants who often don’t qualify for the majority of social housing stock, that is: older villas and houses better suited to larger families and households with extensive kinship networks.

Gilliland told the Australian Institute of Architects’ Country, Culture Community symposium in nipaluna (Hobart, Tasmania) recently that AHV chose this site to redevelop in part for its location on the edge of a 20-minute neighbourhood. Here, people can meet most of their daily needs for services, amenities, employment and transport within a 20-minute walk from home. 

“This decreases car use, which obviously has social and environmental benefits for everyone,” Gilliland says. 

“For low-income earners with lower rates of car ownership, it’s essential for mobility.”

Architect James Gilliland on site
Creating a ‘sense of pride and shared ownership’

When this project began around seven years ago, it was Gilliland’s first experience collaborating with a First Nations client.

“AHV had a clear set of design principles to guide concept and design development,” he says. 

“The intent was to promote a sense of pride and shared ownership in this apartment community through high-quality, sustainable design and a comfortable environment that was culturally safe.” 

AHV asked ClarkeHopkinsClarke to present a preliminary design response they could discuss with their First Nations reference group to provide feedback to inform the design. 

“We created a deliberately simple design narrative based around the Traditional Custodians of this place, the Ngaruk Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung people, and their approach to housing typologies and materiality,” Gilliland continues.

“This resonated strongly with everyone. Ngaruk refers to the rocky southern slopes of the Dandenong Ranges down to Westernport Bay. We selected materials that provided literal connections to the local mob – such as gabion cage walls filled with mudstone – and nestled light, warm interiors within a dark, robust façade.”

Above level one, a series of loft apartments employ a curved roof form inspired by temporary shelters used for seasonal harvesting. The sweeping roof form allowed the three-storey building to minimise overshadowing on the private open space of neighbouring properties along the southern boundary. 

Along the east elevation, this creates the appearance of a townhouse typology. With its recessive upper levels and apartments set well back to accommodate a 100-square-metre north-facing communal garden, the building presents as two-storey from the street. 

“Although the site was located in a residential growth zone, it had previously been zoned as general residential,” Gilliland says. 

“We’ve found on social housing projects, it’s especially important to weave form deftly into the prevailing streetscape to help normalise and destigmatise these projects and hopefully minimise NIMBY [not in my backyard]-type objections.”

An ‘arm’s length’ engagement process

Gilliland says the “arm’s length” engagement stage “created quite a rigorous, iterative design process with important feedback for achieving a culturally safe space”.

This included suitable forms, colours and the development of a two-bedroom Elder’s residence with slightly larger living space for visitors, sightlines across the shared spaces for passive surveillance, and a position near the ground-floor entrance, providing a point of welcome and custodianship.

“We talked a lot with AHV about what would inspire a sense of pride and ownership in tenants,” Gilliland says. 

“That sharpened our focus on landscaping and materials. Easy access to high quality landscaping was important in selling the idea of apartment living to tenants. So ground-floor apartments have larger terraces opening into the communal space, and every residence has balconies with planters, views to landscaping and easy access to this shared space. Apartment interiors also feature some beautiful materials not typical in social housing.”

Internal spaces provide “comfort and cosiness” as well as privacy and security.

“Kitchen and living spaces evoke the architectural narrative of a central gathering space, and materiality creates interest through texture and colour,” Gilliland says. 

“The interiors team kept white walls to a minimum and used bold, warm feature colour and natural textures in the joinery, warm timber-tone details and flooring, and terrazzo textured floors. 

“The materiality provides longevity, low maintenance and durability, but also some stand-out elements like feature Hoop Pine Ply panelling on kitchen ceilings, solid timber Blackbutt battens on stair screens, and exposed concrete soffits and polished concrete floors in selected living rooms.”

Exterior details

External screens are another distinctive feature of AHV Dandenong. They’re fitted to the east, north and west elevations to prevent overlooking  the private open space of neighbouring properties. 

Robust weathering steel was chosen for the beautiful patina it will develop with age and “zero maintenance” requirements. Gilliland designed their patterning to symbolise the Boon Wurrung clans who lived along the tributaries feeding into Westernport and Port Phillip Bay.

Above the masonry base of alabaster blockwork and gabion cage walls, the upper levels are clad in black standing seam aluminium, which gives the building a discrete appearance. The metal roof is light grey to reduce heat load. Stick-built timber framing was a cost-effective solution that reduced the amount of concrete and structural steel, and consequently the embodied carbon. 

The all-electric development includes solar power and heating and cooling via energy efficient reverse-cycle air conditioners and ceiling fans in bedrooms.

Culturally meaningful landscape design

The project aims to create a dialogue between built form and culturally meaningful landscape.

“Landscape design by Charles Solomon, with later input from Nicky McNamara and some of her RMIT design students, is a really significant feature of the development,” Gilliland says. 

“Landscaping surrounds the building. It’s predominantly a combination of native and endemic vegetation, including grasses and canopy trees of the Plains Grassy Woodlands this site was once a part of. The front yard will be a major feature, with colourful plants framed by two beautiful eucalypts. Their twisted trunks and decoratively shaded bark will provide a striking contrast to the dark, robust architecture.”

Photography by Diana Snape.


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