Living closer together: The future of ‘home’ in post-pandemic Melbourne.

To tell the story of housing is to tell the story of a city’s history. Melbourne’s famous terrace homes speak to the Gold Rush population boom of the late 19th century; while the apartments of Southbank track the late 90’s residential shift into the CBD precinct. The places we choose to call home reveal hidden narratives, a social study of the people we once were and the lives we once lived. But as we look into the post-pandemic future of housing in Melbourne, what can the designs of the past teach us? And what comes next?

Home Made for the community

Melbourne is predicted to overtake Sydney as our country’s biggest city in just under a decade, with a population growth of almost half a million people in four years the largest of any Australian city. This rapid growth poses a unique challenge to those designing housing solutions: how do we manage living closer together in a way that is sustainable, innovative, and affordable? 

This is a question that Andy Fergus, Katherine Sundermann, Alexis Kalagas, and Lisa Gerstman have set out to answer in their upcoming exhibition at Melbourne Design Week, Home Made: Reinventing How We Live In Melbourne. A retrospective of the last ten years in Melbourne housing innovation, the Home Made exhibition explores what community-centred, sustainable models of housing looks like now, and in years to come.

See more information about the Home Made exhibition, here

The timing of the exhibition is significant, as Melbourne continues to recalibrate after 2020’s pandemic lockdown. As living rooms became offices and front yards became gathering spaces, the lockdown was a time in which domestic space was considered in more careful detail than ever before. Curator Alexis Kalagas, who is also Urban Strategy Lead at Relative Projects, says that the 112-day lockdown led to a reassessment of how the design and location of our homes contributes to our experience of comfort and community. Words like ‘community’ have long been bandied around from many modern urban developments, he says, but it wasn’t until COVID that we saw collaborative housing models like the Nightingale apartments truly come into their own.

“During COVID, you could see the communities living within Nightingale buildings demonstrating collective resilience and an ability to react in a mutually supportive way to lockdown,” says Alexis. “This made it clear what community really means when you feel you can rely on your neighbours.” From rooftop play dates to community gardens, the enforced pandemic ‘bubble’ put into practice the collective’s vision for a housing hub where resources and space was used for the benefit of all, not just a select few.

During the lockdown, many design flaws came to light when community amenities were suddenly off limits. The apartment was no longer just a place to sleep — it needed to serve every purpose, and for many, it simply couldn’t. From hyper-compact student housing to high-rise apartments with lack of fresh air and sunlight, basic human needs were not being met. For Home Made co-curator Katherine Sundermann, Associate Director at MGS Architects, now is the time to start thinking about ‘dignified densification’ — that is, designing spaces that can be economical on size, without sacrificing the basics of comfortable living.

“In the 60s and 70s, we built high rise public housing to accommodate the migrant boom. Then we didn’t see any apartment development until the 90s, where we saw warehouse conversions and then some pretty terrible investor-grade apartments in the 2010s. It’s really not until now that we’re considering apartment design that can be considered an adequate replacement for the detached house, and a sustainable home in every sense of the word.”

Looking past the pandemic and into the future for a city that’s growing exponentially, these new factors of comfort, community, and proximity will  continue to influence housing design. The Home Made team looks to co-operative housing models such as Kalkbreite in Zurich, Switzerland, as inspiration for what the future of housing could look like. An 88 apartment complex, Kalkbreite alsoincorporates community spaces, a guest house, restaurants, shops and even an art house cinema. Seven stories of sustainable materials and open-plan design above an existing tram depot have made Kalkbreite something of a gold standard for housing that balances environmentally- and socially-sustainable design. It’s a model that seems light-years away from ‘The Great Australian Dream’ of a quarter-acre suburban block — but maybe that’s the point.

A New Australian Dream

The ‘Great Australian Dream’ of a four-bedroom home on a block of land is losing its appeal among the buying market in Melbourne. Many Melburnians are priced out, with the average family home starting at around $700,000 AUD. But they are also proving to be a sub-standard choice when compared to inner-city apartment living. Simply put: when it comes to an affordable and quality lifestyle, suburban-house-and-land is no longer the best option.

“There’s a lot of research that documents how bad living in an outer suburban environment is,” says Katherine Sundermann. “You don’t have the same access to jobs, or for your kid’s education, and the cost of living is very high. In fact, the number one use of Government crisis loans is for people who have received their first energy bill after they’ve moved into their new house. These are brand new houses that could be built better, but they’re not.”

The same design faults of suburban homes can be mirrored in Melbourne’s inner-city residential areas. Poor insulation, over-reliance on cooling and heating systems, and designs that overlook natural light and airflow are all design faults of the modern investor apartments that populate Melbourne city. These, say the Home Made curators, are the design black holes that need to be replaced with more considered options that are made not for a quick buck, but for genuinely sustainable living conditions. 

“For example, people want to see homes that can operate without air conditioning, that still offer thermal comfort, that are built well and can actively reduce bills,” says Katherine. This also applies to proximity to community amenities such as parks and shopping districts, ample public transport, healthy air flow, and open plan living spaces that still offer privacy for families. The Home Made exhibition will showcase snapshots of five different housing models that follow these formats, of both existing and future projects from Nightingale Housing, Assemble, Property Collectives, Tripple, and the Third Way. 

Innovation for the masses

Promising as they are, these innovative models still come with a price tag that’s not widely accessible: Nightingale starts at $220,000 AUD for a Teilhaus ‘micro-apartment’ and works up to almost a million dollars for a three-bedroom apartment. So for those who can’t afford to buy into this model of co-operative housing, what options do you have?

The Total Environment: Rethinking our approach to Housing a Nation is another exhibition that looks to explore just that during Melbourne Design Week. It’s a two-part event, pairing collaborative research from various Melbourne universities alongside the submissions from the Future Homes competition.

This industry competition is coordinated by IBA Melbourne and invites Melbourne University, Monash University, and Swinburne University students to design adaptable and replicable home concepts that suit all people, on all incomes. Student competition and exhibition coordinator Theo Blankley says that the overall purpose of the show is simple: to showcase what low-cost, high-innovation housing could look like.

“One of the biggest problems the housing market is facing currently is bridging the gap and doubling down on the low-cost, low-quality offerings that unfortunately those less privileged are relegated to, and the market-driven, upwardly spiralling existing housing stock pricing those less fortunate (and even those who are fairly fortunate!) out of the market,” says Theo.

“The resulting need is for a broader scope approach that mediates quality and cost, that will also work in both a rental or purchasing capacity. IBA Melbourne has been working on approaches for several years now to generate a built world demonstration project that focuses less on the social capital of rooftop gardens, communal laundries, and vegetable patches, and more on the real needs of the population of our city and the rest of the country.”

The show’s organising body, IBA Melbourne, is the local arm of the ‘Internationale Bauausstellung’– or International Building Exhibition. A century-old institution, the IBA develops housing projects that ‘address the pressing issues of today and establish new paradigms for future practices.’ Here in Melbourne, their focus has zoomed in on the city’s middle ring, with a vision for connecting Melbourne’s growing Central City with the residential sprawl of the outer suburbs.

“Melbourne’s shortage of affordable housing has reached chronic levels for both renters and first-time owner-occupiers,” says IBA Chairman and Director of the Melbourne School of Design, Professor Alan Pert. “We are seeing a huge demand for co-operative models such as Nightingale or Assemble — there is serious enthusiasm around this kind of work. But until now we’ve really struggled to find this kind of innovation in the suburbs.”

The opportunity, says Alan, lies in the public transport systems. As the Victorian government unveils their plans for the Suburban Rail Loop — a 90-kilometre project that will link every major rail line from Frankston to Werribee, via the airport — an opportunity emerges to launch community hubs along the way. The new stations will act as the nucleus for a whole array of node infrastructure, including shops, community centers, and housing. Imagining what these homes could look like are the student participants in this year’s Future Homes Competition, who were asked to conjure up new and creative ways to densify the middle ring suburbs in a way that could be adaptable, exploratory, and question some of the more arbitrary, archaic and antiquated aspects of current planning legislation.

“In our post-COVID world, there’s an opportunity for the Government to play a big part in reimagining housing models,” says Alan. “We’ve seen specific things emerge as priorities, such as neighbourhood parks, and active high streets. There are positive shifts towards building communities around social infrastructure.”

All submissions to both the industry competition (which had multiple winners) and the student competition will be on display at the exhibition, held in the Basement Gallery of the Melbourne School of Design. A collaborative showing of digital and physical artifacts, visitors are invited to interact with the designs via virtual stations set up around the exhibition.

The family home: yesterday, today, tomorrow

For Alan Pert, one factor in the future of housing we simply cannot underestimate is that of COVID-19 and the global pandemic. In a recent article “Architecture and design in a post-pandemic world”, Alan says that the Melbourne community are already using their home environments differently. Some trends will fade away as the pandemic is managed, he notes, while others will leave significant changes and innovations in home and community design.

“Rather than making piecemeal and ad hoc adaptions like temporary sneeze guards, we need to emphasise the role of the physical space from the macro to the micro scale,” writes Alan. “At the small scale we need to emphasise for example a focus on more infection-resistant materials for door handles, or perhaps, designing for no door handle at all? At a larger scale, beyond architecture, we will need to recalibrate how we think about trams, lifts and other related modalities after COVID-19.”

Innovations to both the property ownership model, and the actual design of the home itself, are settling into some noticeable trends. Community-based design, shared spaces, and sustainable materials are all ‘non-negotiable’ factors for many home-owners or renters. From a financial perspective, co-ownership, private building collectives, and government initiatives are all changing the face of how people purchase property, and where. 

As the home occupier changes, so must our homes. The nuclear family structure that once dominated the housing market is diluted today reflected in a cross-section of new tenancy arrangements. We rent for longer, in inner-city urban centers. We buy later — if at all — and are exploring new living arrangements, such as with friends and family, with the home space encompassing an array of new purposes, such as work. We travel more, plan less, and are better educated on what matters to us as home-owners. The concept of a ‘home’  looks vastly different to that of last year, let alone, even a decade ago.

Through these exhibitions, Melbourne Design Week demonstrates contemporary thinking on current and future housing models. It may even reveal how you may live tomorrow.