Remote, in more ways than one

November 22, 2013

NPARIH’s strategy will improve current living conditions, but is it enough and is it up to the standard set by the Building Code of Australia, Federal Safety Commission Standards and the National Indigenous Housing Guide?

As part of a 10-year funding strategy, the Federal Government, alongside state authorities and the Northern Territory, have put in place the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH), providing housing for Aboriginal Australian communities in remote areas with the intention of reducing severe overcrowding, homelessness, substandard housing conditions and shortages in remote housing. $5.5 billion has been allocated for use across the country between 2008 and 2018. $1.7 billion of this has been directed at the Northern Territory under NPARIH and the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP).

The aim is to build 4200 new houses and rebuild/refurbish a further 4876 in remote communities across Australia. In the Northern Territory there is a commitment to build 934 new homes, 415 rebuilds and 2500 refurbishments across 73 remote communities by the end of 2013. Five years in, a recent review shows that 903 new houses and 2765 rebuilds/refurbishments have been completed, suggesting that the NPARIH/SIHIP to date has been a success. Yet, while numbers and statistics are important, the overriding purpose of this strategy is people: improving the lives and living conditions of those most in need. Here the outcome is not so clear. In such an instance, then, how are architects involved?

The Happy Haus craned in as an entirety onto site

The Happy Haus craned in as an entirety onto site


Following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, 2009, architects across Australia – most notably Brisbane-based Donovan Hill – stepped forward and offered their design services to bushfire victims through the Victorian Building Commission. In response, Victorian Government Architect, Geoffrey London, in collaboration with the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, set up the Architects Bushfire Home Service. All proposed designs had to comply with new Australian Standards relating to the design of homes in bushfire-prone areas. Victims were able to select a design on the website and consult directly with the architect to modify the design as required. Each design also came with a cost estimate provided by the Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors.

The designs ranged in scale and cost, with the most expensive three- bedroom house estimated at $550,000, with the cheapest at $205,000 (at the time of writing). These price estimates date back to 2009, but the inaugural houses constructed under SIHIP (2010) were three-bedroom homes costing $450,000 – the upper end of this scale. It is difficult to draw a definitive conclusion over the efficiency of the cost of each house due to the fact there are varying factors at play, such as location, climate, site, transportation, labour and finished quality; but if a three-bedroom house can be constructed for $205,000 (and meet the expected quality standards) then an inflated $450,000 price-tag seems a little obtuse. It could be argued that the remote location of the houses inflates the cost; however, if this is the case why are architects not offered the opportunity to develop design solutions that could accommodate this and reduce overall costs?

Transported as and when needed by flatbed truck

Transported as and when needed by flatbed truck


It begs the question, where is the architect in all of this? The Northern Territory Department of Housing states that the responsibility for the design and construction of each house under SIHIP goes to two construction company consortia, known as the Alliances, comprising what appear to be substantial mining, engineering and construction companies. Considering it is within the remit of the architect to design functional houses with consideration to climate, environment, purpose, for often minimal cost, through extensive consultation with the client, it seems logical that they should be a key player in this scheme.

Any design project for an Aboriginal Australian client should be approached with careful consideration. Culture is not a static thing – it changes and evolves with time in different ways for different people. Some Indigenous people have only ever lived in an urban context, while others have only ever lived in remote communities. It is important to be aware of the culture of each individual or group of people to understand how their way of domestic living is shaped. Added to this is the fact that the origin of Aboriginality is not monocultural.

Essentially, to design with respect to culture means assessing the way a person lives or desires to live and how the interpretation of culture impacts this.

The Happy Haus repositioned in a different location

The Happy Haus repositioned in a different location


Carroll Go-Sam, a researcher at the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre at the School of Architecture, University of Queensland, presented a paper at the ‘Which way? Directions in Indigenous Housing’ conference in 2007, detailing approaches that have developed over the past 30 years. Go-Sam states that designing for any Indigenous person within the cultural design paradigm requires knowledge of culture and customary behaviour. She emphasises that providing a house that is held to any other aesthetic other than the Western standard particular to the area may be considered an insult, and suggests that ‘cultural design’ should complement the environmental health paradigm – as the environmental health paradigm is the basis for the National Indigenous Housing Guide, one could assume the standards set by this are being met.

A recent review, commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and undertaken by the Allen Consulting Group, looked into the experiences of Aboriginal Australians affected by the NPARIH scheme, specifically in the Northern Territory. The report highlights the importance of recognising the differing characteristics of Indigenous families and cultural practices, including the desire of the extended family network to live within close proximity to each other.

Interior living spaces

Interior living spaces


This desire becomes a burden when services within homes fail and families move in together, leading to chronic overcrowding. The ‘tenant’s experience’ report documents that residents who had been offered new or rebuilt homes were happier than before due to a reduced number of residents in each house, along with more amenities, making the house safer and easier to maintain. It was surmised that, as a result, residents were happier and healthier, resulting in an upturn in school attendance figures. It should be noted that the comparison here is to families who have only had refurbishments, who insist that their houses are unsafe. One tenant suggested that the refurbishments were not adequately undertaken and as a result water was affecting the electrics. In such instances, overcrowding is not reduced because the scope of works for the refurbishments does not include the addition of any bedrooms.

In fact, it is worth pointing out that due to the poor state of housing, more existing buildings were to be demolished and rebuilt than anticipated. Meaning that the focus on reducing overcrowding becomes overshadowed by the need to replace housing that is unfit for human habitation. This is the case in the community of Ngukurr as reported on the ABC current affairs program, Stateline. $30 million was allocated to the town in return for signing over their township to the government under a 40-year lease. As a result of the existing housing conditions, however, there will only be a total net gain of eight bedrooms. Obviously this does not have a great impact on reducing overcrowding and, as a result, the intended lifespans of the new buildings will be diminished, given that the number of residents will remain the same. It is not uncommon in Ngukurr to have 25 people living under one roof.

This is not the first time federal and territory governments have committed to aiding Indigenous communities. The most recent attempt in the Northern Territory was the initial stages of SIHIP, which reportedly spent $45 million in its first two years without building anything. Stuart Robert MP, Federal member for Fadden, wrote an article for ABC News in early 2010, ‘The Army can do it, why can’t Minister Macklin?’. Robert provides an example how, with a budget of $5.375 million, the military can build ‘twelve houses, an ablution block, subdivide land and deliver medial services and training’ in four months to local Indigenous people. Further, the 2013–14 FaHCSIA budget report states that the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP) exists to ‘improve living conditions within remote Indigenous communities’. Jointly funded, with $6 million from the government and personnel, equipment and resources from the army, this begs a further question: if this model works, why has it not been replicated and scaled up to provide necessary amenities for remote communities?

Floor plan

Floor plan


SIHIP has been incorporated into NPARIH in the Northern Territory and are working collaboratively to meet the projected end of 2013 target, according to the Northern Territory Government Department of Housing. There is no doubt that what NPARIH is attempting is an improvement on the current living conditions, but is it enough and is it up to the standard set by the Building Code of Australia, Federal Safety Commission Standards and the National Indigenous Housing Guide as promised? Paul Pholeros, architect at Heathhabitat, said on the ABC 7.30 Report (aired on 28 April, 2011) that the houses he viewed in Santa Teresa, NT, refurbished under SIHIP, ‘simply don’t function’. Ken Davis of the Northern Territory Government Department of Housing stated in response it is undeniable that more needs to be done, but that residents are ‘very, very pleased with what has happened [in Santa Teresa]. Is it enough? The answer is no and are we going to go forward and do more? The answer is yes.’ This may at first sound positive, but, if it is true, where is the extra revenue coming from, considering $5.2 million has already been spent in this particular town?

With another five years remaining in the NPARIH strategy, it is hoped that Australian decision-makers and high-level politicians refrain from lowering the standards any further, as Senator for the Northern Territory and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, said in an article in The Australian (24 November, 2012): ‘Dropping standards won’t help close the gap; it will simply leave Indigenous Australians further behind.’ Maybe a solution to many of the ills would be to engage the expertise of the architect to offer solutions that could negate the spiralling costs and increasing timelag, providing Aboriginal Australians living in remote communities homes to be proud of.

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