The Urban Landscape For A New Era.

At last, we seem to have said all that needs to be said about the “What” and now we can get on with the “How”!

1. INTRODUCTION

This post is based upon the premise that our current major cities cannot be allowed to expand indefinitely and that they must either be redesigned to contain more housing units, preferably of more modest dimensions or the population must spill over into other old or new settlements, to which the same development rules apply. Matters to be discussed include planning for more compact urban areas, measures to reduce current market distortions and the design of modest or flexible housing units to provide a pleasant living experience within this new environment.  I should stress, however, that many of the suggestions made here (which may be considered fairly radical by some!) are put forward on the understanding that we are looking at an extended time-frame (30-50 years perhaps) and could be introduced gradually in a relatively painless way.

2. HOUSING COSTS AND PRESSURES.

Over the last thirty years or so, there has been a substantial drift of population from country cities and towns to capital cities and a few regional centres. This is due largely to the centralisation of commercial and administrative activities, which has prompted people to follow in search of work. Those who remain have suffered some loss of quality of life, because the local population is inadequate to support even the reduced services left behind.

This situation has been considered quite acceptable by state and city administrations because substantial political and fiscal benefits flow on from the increased profits accruing to the private sector and the employment opportunities which they may offer. On the downside, the need for much more housing has meant that nearby land reserved for food production and biodiversity support has been rezoned for urban development.

Australian cities, by world standards, are quite spacious. In the mind of the homemaker, the “quarter-acre block” (about 10,000 sq. ft. or 1,000 sq. m.) has been for many years and still is the desirable minimum for the area of land required to hold an average-sized house (about 16 squares or 150 sq. m. with a garden capable of being used for various other purposes such as housing a garage or workshop, playing modest outdoor games or growing flowers and vegetables.

I first set foot in Australia in 1965 and over the next 25 years bought several houses in West Australia and Victoria. To qualify for finance in those days, the accepted criterion was that the house should not cost more than 3-4 times annual salary, taking into account the employment stability of the applicant, and a deposit of at least 10% was required. This situation pertained until the boom times of the later 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the situation is radically different. A house and land package will cost upwards of $500,000, depending on location, services and infrastructure. Given the salary ranges pertaining today, such prices equate to 6-8 times annual salary and, in order to make houses affordable, banks have almost totally waived the need for an initial deposit.

There are a number of reasons for this distortion.

  • Firstly, there are more people moving to the cities than there is available land to accommodate the homes required. Many cities are already built up to the boundaries dictated by legislation and governments will only release land reserved for agriculture or biodiversity (known locally as green wedges) when the political pressures to provide more housing exceed those to maintain environmental balance.
  • Secondly, there is a financial process in place called negative gearing, where a house may be considered an investment, allowing its costs to be offset against income tax.  This means that home buyers are competing against investors who have a considerable financial advantage.
  • Thirdly, some years ago, the government of the day introduced a scheme of grants to first home buyers, to assist them in buying a home. The idea was that the grant would provide a reasonable deposit, so that smaller and more affordable mortgages would be required.  In practice, house prices rose to absorb the grant and, in order to enable the transfer of the grants to the seller, banks loosened their lending criteria, advancing money to persons who would, at best, be marginal candidates for finance on the required scale. The high repayments were tolerable so long as the boom times continued, but many home owners were left in very vulnerable positions when the good times evaporated (as they did in 2008). In countries such as USA and UK, the collapse in the housing market was catastrophic. Australia has avoided this problem thus far because the mining boom has cushioned the nation from the worst effects of the downturn, but the adverse effects on our housing market may yet be painful, as the number of loan defaults is rising.
  • Fourthly, there is a tendency for houses to be much larger than was previously the case.  Houses of 30-35 squares, or 280-325 sq. m. (known derisively as ‘McMansions’) are not uncommon and the reason why there is a demand for these is quite interesting. Paul Gilding, in his fascinating book “The Great Disruption: How The Climate Crisis Will Transform The Global Economy” (pp 70-72, 190-192) suggests that there are two levels of happiness. The first is the aggregation of sufficient resources to live comfortably and without stress, doing all those things one would like to. Once this is achieved, the second level is that of maintaining a position of social respect and appreciation from one’s peers and friends, and this is reflected in one’s possessions (“keeping up with the Jones” syndrome, perhaps) and the ability to give gifts and assistance to others. These are the drivers for the current wave of consumerism. Now, if one wants to broadcast a message as to one’s achievements and social standing, what better signal is there than a really spacious and well-equipped home!

The current situation cannot go on indefinitely and a number of measures to alleviate the situation will be discussed in the following sections.

3. REDUCTION OF MARKET PRESSURES.

The first thing to recognise is that settlements will, in the future, only be able to grow if there is adjacent land available that has no demands upon it for environmental or agricultural purposes. Hopefully, the analytical model I have put forward in earlier posts, will identify locations for new settlements (if needed) meeting these criteria, but sufficiently close to areas of productive land. . Also, land suitable for development under these terms may be reclaimed from land damaged by mining activities or from the sea, lakes or rivers. A good article on this latter form of reclamation in Wikipedia shows that the practice is surprisingly widespread.

In earlier days, buying agricultural land on the fringe of a city and then lobbying to have the zoning changed to residential could confer huge profits on the owner, because of the difference in value between residential and agricultural land. A town planning firm I worked for once suggested that if land was to be rezoned, it should only be sold to a government instrumentality called a Development Corporation. Owners would receive cash at the agricultural zone valuation, but would also receive shares in the Development Corporation, so that they would receive  some of the profits from all land sales, the remainder benefiting the community. If something like this were introduced today, it would remove much of the incentive for developers to press for distortions in the planning scheme.

When the land available for expansion is limited or non-existent, there are only two alternatives. The first is compaction, where more dwelling units are fitted into the same space. The second is redirection, where nearby settlements are accepted as satellites to the main city, or more distant settlements become virtual satellites using broadband networks to connect to head offices, customers, hospitals, schools and so forth.  In these latter cases, there are significant requirements for infrastructure to connect the various settlements, provide services and so forth, to ensure that people moving out from the city are not unduly penalised for doing so.  It may also be appropriate to offer tax relief to people prepared to live in distant communities. Whatever the case, the availability of a larger number of dwellings will help to reduce demand and therefore price.

All financial processes (such as negative gearing) which put upwards pressure on house prices should be withdrawn. In fact, there is a case for reversing the process where dwellings could attract a tax depending, not so much upon their size, but rather upon their degree of utilisation. In the UK, first-home buyers were allowed to rent out unused rooms in their houses without paying income tax on the money received. Similarly, we could adopt a situation where unused rooms could be rented out to reduce the tax otherwise payable.

4. HIGHER DENSITY DEVELOPMENT.

Situations already exist where a number of housing units are located on one extended block of land, with a modest amount of garden space which is, in effect shared.  This type of housing is usually directed at retirees, whose families have grown up and left home, or at people needing some sort of care, where it is advantageous for them to be located in one place, where appropriate services can be provided economically.

We can go back to the past for a useful variant on this idea.  Some of the finest housing in major cities of the world, such as London, Paris and New York, consists of terraced units, often in a square, with a communally owned garden in the centre. The fact that later developments in Australian capital cities included substantial amounts of terraced housing for the well-to-do, shows that this pattern of development was well favoured at the time. With the coming of the industrial revolution in Britain, terraces sadly got a bad name when reduced to the minimum in terms of space and utility, simply to house the workers close to coal mines, shipyards, factories and the like.  However, if we can establish reasonable design and construction standards, terraces may yet have a future, as they have, in fact, got some practical advantages, such as superior insulation (on account of the shared walls), fewer metres of roads or tramways per dwelling and so forth. There is also a case to be made (though not so compelling) for the minimal terrace (usually referred to as semi-detached or duplex), where two housing units are joined together and surrounded by garden space. In Britain, after the second world war, a lot of new and rebuilt city housing units were duplexes and some were quite grandiose in design.

The near-iconic feature of today’s cities is, of course, the tower block. While the highest ones are usually commercial buildings or hotels, we are now seeing some very substantial housing blocks, notably in China and Hong Kong. While these are very effective in cramming a lot of people into a small area of land, they do have some issues, which will be addressed when discussing building design. However, one issue which is relevant to the overall urban context is the outlook from a building, which is tied into the distance between buildings. The design parameter which governs this aspect is something called the plot ratio, which is the ratio of the total floor area of a building to the area of the block of land it stands on. For a given plot ratio, if the number of storeys is doubled, then the area of a single floor is halved, and so on. The intention is to avoid the ‘concrete canyon’ effect, where people on the lower floors are deprived of a reasonable amount of light because they are overshadowed by neighbouring buildings. It is important that, for dwellings, at least, this parameter is adhered to, though there are many cases in Melbourne where it has been ignored in the commercial areas, because the developers have significant  influence over the planning authorities. At one time, I was a member of a team which prepared a master plan for the City of Melbourne and we protested to the city planner that the design for the headquarters of a major steel company substantially exceeded the plot ratio specified for the area. It was explained to us that the company had threatened to move its business to Sydney if its design was not accepted and, as the planning officer said, “business is business”. The building is located at what is, in consequence, the windiest road intersection in the city.  I myself have lost three umbrellas there !

5. SUBDIVISION.

This term is usually used in the context of dividing a development area into separate blocks of land, each of which will be sold to become a separate property.  I would now like to extend this idea to existing houses which have large gardens upon which to build a separate house or which have an appropriate design for separating the house into a number of self-contained units.

In my youth, I lived in the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne, UK. A very wealthy businessman came to live in Newcastle, much to the chagrin of many of the existing business leaders, who viewed him as reducing their standings in the community.  He built a very large house indeed, by the standards of the day (it had three bathrooms and a six-car garage) which caused even more irritation because of its flamboyance. When the owner announced that he was moving away in pursuit of better business opportunities, everyone looked forward to him losing a lot of money, as his home was considered to be a complete white elephant. The smiles soon disappeared after a few doors were blocked up and the house sold as a block of flats!

While this is a fairly extreme case, it suggests that if houses were designed so that they could easily be divided into one, two or three separate living areas for sale or rent, the increased opportunities for other people to be housed within the same city boundary would reduce the cost of each unit.  They could even be bought back and the original house restored to its previous design, if a family size warranted it.

Finally, many houses are built on very large blocks, in order to engage in outdoor activities of one kind or another (tennis, for instance).  Earlier in this piece, I suggested taxing houses where they were being used in a sub-optimal fashion.  Perhaps the use of land (over and above the accepted garden space) for outdoor activities should also attract a similar tax, as the community as a whole receives no benefit.  I suggested earlier that the tax could be reduced by renting unused rooms, and this idea could be extended to the relief from taxation of private open space by making it available for some sort of public use (a junior tennis club, for instance).

6. PUBLIC TRANSPORT.

The provision of transport infrastructure in Melbourne has always been quite expensive, relative to similar cities and this is partially due to the generous size of individual house blocks, which increases the number of metres of tramway or road per housing unit. Tower blocks go some way to ameliorate this, of course, though they have their own issues. One advantage of the terraced house design is that, if located on streets at right angles to major arterials, tramways or railway lines, a given length of infrastructure item will serve more housing units, as more of them can be fitted into a given length of residential street.

7.   HOUSE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION.

Some time ago, the BBC in UK ran a very interesting TV series on unusual houses, which they followed through the construction phase until the family moved in and could comment on the living experience.  The one which caught my attention was the Huf Haus, which was prefabricated in Germany, loaded onto a number of lorries (complete with all of the bathroom and kitchen fitments!), driven over to England and erected upon the site within a couple of weeks or so.  It is common practice to sneer at prefabricated houses, where the picture in mind is of a fibro cottage erected at a mining site with a lifespan of perhaps 20 years.  However, a visit to the web site of this construction company (http://www.huf-haus.com/en/home.html) will hopefully lead to a more understanding and accepting attitude. Certainly, it gave rise to quite a few ideas of mine, some of which I would like to discuss here.

One of the main tenets of my proposals on sustainable population is that we must examine the consequences and rewards of redistributing population inflows to new and existing settlements distributed all over the country.  Three drivers for the viability of this idea are: (1) the ability to build houses quickly in response to demand, (2) the adaptability of housing for differing needs and, and (3) the cost.  There are many reports extant of outback housing (particular that for indigenous people) costing much more than in the major cities but, leaving aside any questions of rorting the system, it is probable that these costs arose because builders were trying to transplant established building practices (timber frames, single-leaf brickwork cladding and so forth).  These are quite labour-intensive and require a number of different skills, resulting in expensive relocation payments and temporary housing costs. Well-designed prefabricated housing, transported on the rail services envisaged as serving these communities and erected by a small team of experts should go a long way to reducing these costs.

In many of Australia’s cities, there has been a substantial conversion of commercial and industrial properties for residential use.  This took several forms. Sometimes, an entire building would be bought by a developer and divided up into units that were then sold individually. On other occasions, an entire floor would be sold under a strata title and the new owner would then divide the area into rooms, build in the necessary services and so forth. The interesting thing about this process, is that sometimes the interior walls were permanent, while in other cases, they were secured in such a way that they could easily be removed and rearranged.  This last idea has suggested to me that ordinary houses could be constructed in the same way, so that over the years, they could be modified to meet the requirements of the day.  Prefabricated houses on the Huf model would lend themselves to this sort of usage.

Many commercial buildings (particularly offices) are designed with entire floors being single open-plan areas. These can subdivided at will with simple partitions to suit the needs of multiple tenants or to reflect the business practices of single tenants. The same methodology can be applied to residential blocks, provided that multiple connections are built in for services, which can be drawn on as required. Also, better use could be made of certain high-rise features.  For instance, many tower blocks sit upon a podium, which is a building a few storeys high which usually covers the entire site and houses commercial and retail enterprises. The residential tower is set back somewhat and the exposed roof of the podium is attached to the units on the lowest floor in lieu of a balcony. It is suggested that a better use of the podium roof would be as shared space, again for growing flowers, vegetables or small trees. In such cases, it might also be useful to use the floor above the podium for small-scale commercial enterprises servicing the residents. This resonates somewhat with the famous Unites d’Habitation buildings designed by Le Corbusier in the 1950s, though he carried the idea of communities totally self-contained in their buildings to a much greater length.

Here I will express the view that residential towers, where people live twenty-four hours a day, must be designed with more sensitivity than commercial buildings where people spend only a few hours a day.  The impact of high-rise buildings on the people living nearby should also be taken into account.  Here is one example. When I first visited Circular Quay in Sydney, the famous Opera House was readily visible from all points on the waterside. Later on, a high-rise building was constructed near to the Opera House, cutting off the views from the adjacent waterfront, causing great indignation from the local population. It occurred to me at the time, that if the developers had purchased air rights over Macquarie Street at the rear of the building, the building could have been constructed to bridge across the road, with each storey stepped back from the one below it. The view would have been preserved and the tenants would have benefited from the substantial balcony space (not to mention being relieved from sarcastic remarks by visitors!).

8.   HOUSE FEATURES.

As my analytical model is looking into the fairly long-term future, where we might expect considerable pressures on food supply, it seems to be a good idea to build as many units as possible with flat roofs, which can be used as gardens for growing vegetables or fruit. This has the additional advantage, that if extension is really required, an additional floor can be added (within reason, of course). In making this suggestion, I am assuming that, with the construction marketplace being driven by the need to transport prefabricated buildings over substantial distances to new or regenerated settlements, the most appropriate structural material would be steel. Furthermore, such houses would be much more robust and better capable of withstanding cyclones, floods and even fires, all of which may arise more frequently because of climate changes.

Because, unlike traditional house models, the cladding of a steel-framed house is not a major load-bearing element, there is much greater scope for varying the material and appearance in the walls (whether interior or exterior). Also, there is more flexibility in the placement and design of windows. For instance, the provision of corner windows would have much less impact on the stress in the walls and their consequent stability than in a conventional house. There might be a question as to whether large window areas are advisable in very hot areas, probably needing powerful air-conditioning installations to offset the radiation into the building. However, a recent blog post in Smart Planet (http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/pure-genius/-8216smart-8217-windows-in-the-works/6002?tag=search-river) describes research into coatings for glass surfaces that change their properties as the temperature rises. When cool, they let more light and heat in. When they warm up to a specific temperature, they start reflecting heat, so that the interior remains relatively cool. This would help to reduce the energy demand and hence the carbon footprint of the building.

The most interesting feature of the building models I have described is that they are very liberating in terms of promoting new ideas.  Rather than listing a whole lot of things that can be done with really sophisticated prefabricated buildings, I will leave it to readers to suggest ingenious improvements to the basic model.

One thing I will do before closing is to point out that there are a surprising number of Australian construction firms already involved in building prefabrication or who are considering becoming involved.  To be sure, some of them are still working with traditional wooden structures, but they will surely apply their imaginations in due course and meet the challenges of future housing needs, particularly in remote areas. Others are already starting to use steel structures as I have described, but the ones I have seen are mainly concerned with commercial structures.  However, as always, demand will promote supply.

Here are a few sites worth looking at. An internet search will reveal many more.

Local builders of prefabricated housing, etc.

http://www.swanbuild.com.au/

http://www.zenarchitects.com/

http://www.informdesign.com.au/home

http://www.prebuilt.com.au/

http://www.eliteoffices.com.au/index.html

http://www.imagedesignerhomes.com/

http://www.klmodular.com.au/

http://www.modscape.com.au/?gclid=CMT284Hz5qgCFQHhbgodHl8fCQ

Overseas builders of prefabricated housing, etc.

http://qdxgzex.en.made-in-china.com/

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About jimthegeordie

I was born in the north of England and am a Geordie. Geordies are celts who are noted for having long bodies with short arms and legs. After working in UK, Africa and Australia as a civil engineer and IT contractor I am now retired and living in a beautiful wine-making area. I am the patriarch of a wonderful family, of whom I am inordinately proud.
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