Redefining the 'Australian Dream'

The bulk of Sydney’s expansion occurred around the early 1900s. This period coincided with the Garden City and Garden Suburb Movements and the proliferation of the motor car which allowed the expansion of Sydney beyond the confines of walking distances. The Garden City Movement was an idea of the city organised on a radiating geometry of connections between self sustaining centres in a broader landscaped setting. Inspired by these utopian visions during this period in Sydney’s development established the Federation home with a garden on an individual lot as the prevalent housing model and cemented it as a cultural expectation.

Today, there are different forces at play. Real estate is increasing in value, not just in overall terms but relative to average income, pushing the value of an individual house on an individual lot further away from reality and well and truly into dream territory for an increasing number of Australians.

Since the 1960s house prices have been outstripping household income. ‘Real house prices’ (the increase in the cost of purchasing a house adjusting for inflation) have been increasing at a rate of 2.7% per annum compared to ‘real per household income’ at 1.9% per annum. While these don’t sound like significant differences, when compounded over time, they dramatically affect affordability, most notably since the early 2000s and in the ability of households to save towards a deposit for the purchase of their first home. There has been a doubling of the required deposit to qualify for house purchase between 1984 to 2006.*

When coupled with the issue of land releases, occurring predominantly in the under-serviced outer western suburbs of Sydney, we end up with a city that is not only unaffordable, but we displace the population of Sydney in a manner that serves to reinforce motor car usage. It also isolates our most disadvantaged citizens, making it socially and environmentally unsustainable.

Culturally, the market is adjusting to the divergence between expectations (an individual house on an individual lot) and reality (which is that it is rapidly becoming unaffordable). To address affordability, the industry is building suburbs at Sydney’s outskirts where land value is less, but many of these are far removed from Garden City ideals. The image (left) is an extract of one such suburb of individual houses on individual lots, but it is questionable whether there is any garden (let alone garden ideal) in either the suburb or the lot. The bigger issue however is that these suburbs are often a long way from any well serviced local centre or regular transport service.

There are some larger developers building integrated suburbs in the outer reaches of Sydney. I recently attended a Developer’s forum that presented Oran Park as such a suburb, where (to the Developer’s credit) a new town centre, was being developed as part of the overall residential land release, but these are the exception rather than the norm. What is interesting about Oran Park is the great diversity of housing types (apparently even to the developer’s surprise) demanded by the market, which include studio apartments over garages (referred to as Fonzie flats), duplexes and other housing types in some cases co-located on individual lots in addition to apartment buildings and individual lots (as small as 225sqm) for individual homes. It is the allure of proximity to amenities (shops, community services, parkland etc.) that facilitates greater diversity, because it offers convenience to a broader cross section of the community. While town centres such as that proposed for Oran Park offer the convenience of proximity to amenities, they cannot sustain jobs for their entire community (which was in fact an ambition of the Garden City Movement). Oran Park is still a long way from any significant city centre or rail network, and does not remove car dependency for work or access to metropolitan services.

Oran Park is being built by one of the biggest developers with the rare opportunity of a large unencumbered land release that offers the possibility of building the community amenities. This is not within the realm of the many smaller developers which the government will need to rely on to address Sydney’s housing shortage.

As an alternative, smaller consolidations within established areas of the city offer the opportunity for greater population in areas well serviced by public transport and existing amenities. Apartment buildings (as consolidations of less dense housing on existing sites) can also mediate between affordability and market expectations, but they need to be conceived differently to the prevalent 3 storey walk-up of repetitive flats that many of the community are so unfavourably familiar with. They need to incorporate various apartment types and we need to develop new ones that are more akin to houses with a garden – better suited to cultural expectations, more affordable and inherently better suited to achieving the sustainable outcomes necessary for our 21st century.

At Redshift, we have been developing house like units into the designs of our apartment buildings. You can see variants of these apartment types in our Yagoona ApartmentsBankstown Apartments, and Dulwich Hill Apartments. These projects incorporate 2 storey dwellings (not unlike terrace houses) in the lower parts (including podium levels) of these buildings. By providing two (or in some cases three) storey units we are able to minimise their footprint in order to maximise the number of units with a front door directly off the street or common area with a front garden and in some cases a rear garden. The Dulwich Hill Apartments provide separate lockable garages located within the basement of the building, with direct internal access to the unit making them as house-like as possible.

In the case of the Dulwich Hill Terraces, we determined that while an apartment building was permitted by Council, the best way to yield value and maximise accommodation on the site was to build 8 three bedroom homes (and not the apartment building at all). The project is being built adjoining to and concurrently with a new light rail line/stop and there are several established schools and parks, even a corner shop within the immediate vicinity.

Sydney’s cultural aspiration for the ‘Australian Dream’; a house with a garden, is in the midst of an affordability crisis. The first home owner is presented with a choice to mediate between expectations and affordability. Apartment buildings in well serviced areas of the city provide a more (environmentally, socially and financially) sustainable solution to the house on an undersized lot in the relatively under-serviced western suburbs of Sydney. But, apartment building design needs to transcend the stereotypes and present prospective purchasers with options that redress the ‘Australian Dream’.

Reference:

*Information in this paragraph sourced from: http://www.ahuri.edu.au/downloads/NRV3/AHURI_Final_Report_No105_Housing_affordability_a_21st_century_problem.pdf