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Notes on Flexible Volume Housing

Nov 19, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Above: Diego Ramírez-Lovering, Acting Head of Department of Architecture at Monash University

Melbourne, Australia is projected to grow to nearly eight million people by 2056, a doubling of its 2007 population, and that other cities in Australia are likely to follow suit. Further, by this date, it is expected that around one in four Australians will be 65 years or older, an almost doubling of current numbers.

Such predictions offer a very different urban landscape and trigger a range of contemporary questions: how will our cities transform to accommodate this growth and how will housing be supplied? Can large numbers of new dwellings be supplied in a manner that is equitable, affordable and sustainable? What role will architecture play in the provision of such housing? These questions are complex and beg a reconsideration of the status quo of the residential building sector and architecture’s relationship to this sector.

The residential building sector represents an important part of the Australian economy, representing approximately five percent of GDP. This sector is large, volatile and multifaceted, and involves different public, private and government organisations. Volume housing – that is housing that is designed and delivered en masse – is a critical part of this sector; not only in its scale of provision, but also in its delivery of the most affordable housing in the market.

Volume builders deliver significant numbers of dwellings in the general housing market, with big building companies accounting for the largest share of this provision: in the last 10 years around 40 percent of all new dwellings were delivered by the largest 100 construction companies and, in 2008–09, of the 156,000 houses and apartments that were built in Australia, the top 20 residential builders were responsible for 28,500 of these dwellings. Following similar trends in the US and the UK, the volume housing sector in Australia will likely play an increasingly important role in meeting projected housing demand.

However, while the volume building sector is able to deliver large amounts of dwellings at the most affordable rate in the market, it could be argued that its overall delivery is not in keeping with important demographic, economic and environmental trends. In urban fringe developments, house plans adhere to formulaic spatial distributions, with little diversity in use. In addition, while volume housing and planning dispositions have remained largely unchanged for the last 60 years, the predominant make-up of households has transformed away from the nuclear family type to a wide variety of household types – including multi-generational families, families without children and one-person households.

Transformations in the supply of housing are not keeping up with these transformations on the demand side. In volume housing the planning of the dwelling is often problematic, with ill- conceived open space relationships, inadequate orientation and poor interior spatial planning. This lack of design quality can be attributable to a number of causes. The sector, characterised by risk aversion and conservatism, operates in a highly constrained financial context with strict bottom lines. If a design improvement to the dwelling is to be made within this context, it must be achieved at negligible increase in overall cost. Where the design inclusion results in a cost impost, it needs to have a demonstrable benefit to both developers and consumers that will justify the additional cost.

Arguably, architects have the disciplinary knowledge to offer design improvements to these housing outcomes. However, to date architects have had only limited engagement with the provision of volume housing in Australia. So what benefits can architecture offer this sector? One strategy for design improvement is spatial flexibility; that is, the capacity for housing to adapt and change over time in response to changing needs. This strategy can be introduced into the highly constrained context of volume housing, with minimal to no additional costs. In doing so, flexible design can address some of the social, economic and environmental sustainability challenges that current models are failing to deliver.

Historically, architects have had a number of engagements with both the theorisation and delivery of volume housing. Many of these engagements grapple with the incorporation of different types of flexibility of use, construction and delivery.

The Modernist project can be seen as the first concerted effort for a systematic method for the delivery of good quality, flexible volume housing. In an attempt to provide affordable, high-amenity, volume housing, it developed greater efficiencies in the material, structural and spatial arrangement of dwellings. Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino (1914) marks an important point in this thinking. Acting as the prototypical model of a new housing system, it proposed a simple structural shell of reinforced concrete plates supported by freestanding columns that would allow the internal, non-load bearing walls to be flexibly arranged.

Expanding this ethos, the Dutch architect and theorist John Habraken proposed a system for housing, elaborating the spatial and structural strategies of the Maison Dom-Ino. He introduced a system entitled Supports, an Alternative to Mass Housing (1972). Analogous to the way in which cities are supported by infrastructure, Supports could act as large three- dimensional structures, providing the technological, mechanical and infrastructural requirements of the dwelling. These supports would be the responsibility of the community or decision-making authority and would be seen as separate from the individual dwelling units, which could be flexibly moved, enlarged or contracted as needs arose.

While a theoretical model that may not be immediately or directly applicable in the context of volume housing, Supports has influenced the thinking and innovations in housing in a range of ways. For example, a housing scheme in the Netherlands called ‘buy-rent’, is broadly derived from this concept by allowing tenants to purchase the interior fitout of the dwelling while renting the structural shell.

This results in a more affordable housing purchase and facilitates entry pathways to home ownership. Another example of the influence of this thinking is the development of structural frames for multi-storey housing, which are then infilled with prefabricated dwelling units, such as Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s Raines Court affordable housing project, London (2003).

Such examples, which offer innovations both in the financial structures of housing, as well as construction techniques, demonstrate how Habraken’s model has been brought to bear in the different contexts of housing design and delivery. These innovations are the result of a process of translation and adaptation of architectural knowledge into different applications and point to the importance of the extraction and clear communication of architectural knowledge for broader application.

More recently, a number of architecture academics have explored the concept of flexibility through this type of analysis in case study work. ‘The Ageing of Aquarius’ research project by Monash University Professor Shane Murray et al explored the social, economic and demographic contexts that influence the housing needs of an ageing population. It surveyed 30 architectural case studies in order to extract design principles that could be adopted in new dwelling designs by the general housing market. Similarly, UK-based academics Jeremy Till and Tatjana Schneider provide a comprehensive examination of flexibility in their book Flexible Housing (2007) through the articulation of design strategies that achieve physical and spatial flexibility arrangements at different scales.

Building on this approach, of extracting architectural knowledge and principles from a range of housing designs and models, a number of case studies are identified here, with each providing different strategies for enhancing flexibility. Some of these projects have direct applicability to the context of volume housing in Australia and others, while not directly applicable, offer lateral approaches that may have principles for adoption in this context.

Anticipating Divisions

Anticipating Divisions describes design strategies that allow for spaces in the dwelling or building to be divided internally post-occupation, in order to respond to changing needs, such as a decrease in the number of residents. For instance, dividing a large dwelling into two smaller dwellings at a later date is seen as an effective social and environmental strategy, as it relates household size to dwelling size in a dynamic and adaptable manner.

This approach to the compartmentalisation of the dwelling also enables the dwelling to act as a financial lever, by allowing for supplementary income to be obtained through the incorporation of non-residential programs, such as home offices, sub-letting a part of the dwelling, or allowing for the subdivision and sale of a portion of the dwelling in order to release financial liquidity from the housing asset.

Dale Mill, Proctor and Matthews, Wardleworth, UK, ongoing

The house is initially provided as a large six-bedroom house, with two living areas that address the extended family structures of the predominantly Southeast Asian demographic of the Wardleworth neighbourhood. The townhouse design recognises the fluctuating nature of contemporary households and offers flexibility through both the capacity for adaptability of its spaces and through the ability to achieve simple spatial transformations.

The internal planning can be distributed to allow for the adaptation of space, enabling different households to occupy the dwelling simultaneously. It also enables a more permanent transformation through the simple subdivision of the house into two separate dwellings. A young family can supplement their income by sub-letting part of the dwelling.

As well, the house provides zones of separation for different family members in a multi-generational family. As children depart, parents can subsidise their retirement by formally subdividing the house, downsizing into one of the smaller dwellings and selling the larger dwelling.

Concreto House, Simon Anderson, Mount Lawley, WA, 2007

This project presents a dwelling that is designed to be divided into two discrete dwellings at a later stage. The family will occupy the entire project while the children are at home. As children depart, the parents can move to occupy one portion of the house and sell the other. As their spatial needs are further reduced, they can sell the remaining dwelling and downsize.

The project offers adaptability by responding to the life cycle of the family. It also contributes to the financial contexts of the household by offering a type of staged superannuation strategy through the phased release of equity in the housing asset.

Trio Apartments, Fender Katsalidis, Camperdown, NSW, 2010

Dual-key is another design strategy that anticipates divisions. Multi-unit dwellings can have different zones that allow for a variety of patterns of occupation in order to support the changing needs of the residents. The dwellings can be planned to cater for the needs of a variety of householder combinations, such as a shared household that requires areas for privacy.

Transformation can be achieved in the dwelling unit if it allows for the spaces to be easily changed by the user, such as the straightforward division of spaces or allowing for the addition of other rooms to the dwelling. In volume building, there are examples of flexible dwellings in apartment typologies. Termed ‘dual-key dwellings’, these units allow the separation of different household members or the cohabitation of separate, independent households in the single lease. This typology, initially developed in the context of time-share developments, is now being used in luxury apartment offerings.

Anticipating Additions

Anticipating Additions focuses on the provision of spaces that can accommodate future prearranged programs or building works. This type of flexibility is enabled by pre-empting specific changes and providing the necessary elements – structural, constructional and spatial to accommodate such change with minimal effort. This approach is common in staged housing schemes that provide for the future addition of spaces within the dwelling structure as needs change or means allow.

Quinta Monroy, Elemental, Iquique, Chile, 2003

The Quinta Monroy by Elemental is a multi-residential project designed to provide entry-level housing for low-income earners in Chile’s expanding cities. The project is delivered as a three- level terrace with a separate space at the ground level that can be used as a separate dwelling or for a different use such as an office.

An exterior terrace is provided at first level, which includes a double-height void between the dwelling and its adjacent dwelling, and is accessed via an external stair. The ground floor walls have been engineered to support two additional levels of infill construction over the terrace area, allowing residents to expand their dwelling. The design presents the phased infill of the dwelling as a strategy for staging the financial burden on the household and as a strategy for enabling the dwelling to respond to changing household needs.

The Age Small Homes Service V331 House of the Week, Neil Clerehan, 1954

This design was part of The Age Small Home Service (1947), a program of weekly advertisements in The Age newspaper, which advertised the housing product through a combination of evocative visual material and written propaganda (by Robin Boyd). A range of architects, who received royalties for each sale, authored the designs and a full set of construction documents for the house of the week could be purchased for £5.

The designs of Australian architect, Neil Clerehan, who authored many of the Small Homes Service projects, often made spatial allocations for future changes in the dwelling, such as the addition of a future bedroom in response to the changing requirements of a growing family. This future extension was provided within the plan, allowing for its simple incorporation at a later date. The Small Homes Service provided an alternative model for architectural engagement with volume building, resulting in tangible improvements to the suburban landscape of Melbourne.

The material presented here articulates different design concepts and strategies for incorporating spatial flexibility into different typologies of volume housing and some of the potential social, economic and environmental benefits resulting from such an approach. Due to the large scale of volume building operations, even small improvements in the design of the dwelling within this context can have a significant effect on the wider housing market. Multiplied, the impact of incremental change can be profound. There is a significant opportunity for architects to effect real change in the future development of volume housing, which is undoubtedly a critical component in the creation of a more equitable, sustainable and enriching urban form.

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