Will the transformation of car use and ownership be permanently recorded by housing typographies that demonstrate how awkwardly planners and subserviently policy makers navigated this period of urban planning history? It’s time for a rethink.

Every block of land these days is precious and we run the risk squandering a once in 50-year – or possibly 100-year – opportunity to get ahead of the game. This is not a discussion about housing affordability or the developer driven hyper-developments occurring along the paths of new infrastructure and city centres. This discussion is about the current medium density alternates rightly being proposed by state planning agencies.

In NSW, 725,000 new dwellings are estimated to be needed by 2036 – that’s over 36,000 dwellings each year. A draft Medium Density Design Guideline sets out a framework for unlocking the further potential of new green field sites and recycling urban land to add supply and diversity to housing choice. The guideline describes developments of this type as typically being of less than 10 metres in height and yielding 25 to 45 dwellings per hectare.

The guideline makes provision for new supplies of:

  • errace style housing on torrens and strata titled lots
  • dual occupancies and semi-detached dwellings
  • villa and town house developments
  • community titled, master-planned and medium density developments
  • manor houses and ‘one on top of other’ dual occupancies of between two and four dwellings.

None of these typologies are new, and you can see examples of these in almost any new subdivision these days. The guideline should open up the added potential of grey-field lots. It could motivate owners of existing inner ring housing to redevelop older dwellings where over 75 per cent of the property value is more likely to be found in the land component.

Medium density of this type could make it feasible for owners of these properties to unlock some of their property’s value and potentially build a smaller dwelling where they have lived and want to live in future. The guideline could open up a host of housing formation and delivery options that do not depend on the traditional developer delivery model.

These are all worthy planning and policy aspirations, but is the housing industry up for it?

The housing industry’s capability is potentiallyy the biggest challenge to achieving the potential of the many medium density housing initiatives being encouraged by state governments in Australia and New Zealand. The housing industry has been shaped by the traditional trade-based skills of builders who are proficient at detached and attached cottage construction methods. These skills are tested when new multi-level construction methods are required to get the most out of higher density housing formation.

The most resistant feature of traditional detached home builders is their dependency on or at least preference for flat blocks where every house can start from a slab on grade. This dependency was fine when 12 to 20 dwellings per hectare were the norm and governments continued to support massive new infrastructure to maintain the spread of city edges and play into the dream of home ownership on a quarter acre block. While governments were criticised heavily by the housing industry for not maintaining the supply of new urban edge land, the community’s love affair with motor vehicles overcame the tyranny of its distance.

Now, our preferences for ever increasing house sizes (average 231 square metres, the second largest in the world) and the multiple car ownerships needed to get around is starting to play out differently. Our ever growing housing stock mismatch, the congestion of cars on our freeways and the cost of car ownership is causing a recalibration of housing supply choices and a focus on medium density alternates. Many have elected to make the shift to higher density, but here too, there is dissatisfaction with what’s on offer. The rising costs of high density, delays and diminishing amenity is increasing pressure on planners to do better.

It was way back in 1910 that the cross over from horse drawn carriages and mass produced cars gathered pace. Just before that time, horse drawn carriage owners only wanted faster horses, and the rest is history. A hundred years later, it’s apparent that the same sort of cross over is occurring as the era of mobility services is reshaping all the boundaries of transport. A long-term decline in personal car ownership is gathering momentum. It is coinciding with a decline in home ownership as owning a home becomes less achievable. Rethinking how to get the most out of the new medium density housing formation is very important at present.

Unless policy makers take a more informed approach to all of this, we may be creating a problem akin to ‘trying to shut the garage door after the car has bolted’. There is sufficient evidence to suggest to planners and developers that the dominance given to car parking should have less impact, at least visually. Consideration should also be given to how the sharing, ownership and adaptation of car parking may occur as needs change.

There were three standout presentations at the recent HIA Housing Summit in Sydney. Urban Growth’s Steve Driscoll revisited the successes of its predecessor Landcom in raising the bar for transformative urban development at the urban edge, in urban regeneration of brownfield sites and in preplanning for disposal of surplus public owned sites. Key to these successes was building trust with the community and consent authorities that the high standards promised would be delivered. Landcom was known for staying in its projects long enough to make sure the essential enabling infrastructure was put in place while maintaining control in collaborations with private developers to lock-in the promises.

Dr Peter Newton from Swinburne University presented his research along with considered conclusions about the potential of medium density to create housing the community wanted and how the best delivery of that housing may be facilitated. Newton identified where the most prospective locations in our major cities were to harvest what he described as grey-field land that could be managed to deliver a new generation of medium density housing that was more diverse, sustainable and harmonised with neighbourhood precincts.

Professor Geoffrey London from the University of Western Australia shared his experiences as a former Victorian government architect. London outlined an urban infill study he is working on with Monash University in Western Australia for the WA Housing Authority. Of great interest were his insights into the potential of Baugruppen, or co-initiated residential and owner occupied developments to build suitable homes in well-designed neighborhoods. London is coordinating a Baugruppen demonstration project with LandCorp on their land.

London drew together the common themes argued by Driscoll and Newton. Using his collaborative development delivery model, London was confident of lowering the purchase price of new multi-unit dwellings by 15 per cent, achieving greater variety and choice of dwelling types to a meet the needs of a wider range of household types and sizes.

“Putting urban change into the hands of people who have an on-going stake in the livability and success of their neighborhoods could be encouraged by local authorities offering access to professionals, providing incentives such as public realm upgrades, rate holidays and when possible, making demonstration land available on deferred land payment terms,” he said.

All of this seems a far cry from the reality. The making of flat builder lots remains the core feature of most current land subdivision. Land developers still argue that flat blocks and car parking at the surface is the cheapest option. That is despite subdivided land retail prices exceeding $1,250 per square metre on most recent Sydney estate releases. That is despite the land consumption of new vehicle related footprints consuming at least 20 per cent of these subdivisions. That is despite the construction costs of the inter-block retaining walls needed to create flat blocks and consign the completed typography to nothing short of dull. That is despite huge costs to cut and fill pre-development terrains that could have mostly stayed.

Snout houses are typical on blocks ranging in size from 225 to 350 square metres, and they are common in neighbourhoods where the streetscape is dominated with tandem stacked cars, or hollow rear lanes where garage entry and the odd garage top studio flat attempt to activate a Luna-scape. On a 225 square metre block, the garage and driveway consume more than 20 per cent of the block or over $65,000 of the land price. All the while, developers and house builders argue this is cheaper.

Many will argue that the main dwelling construction costs range from $1,750 to $2,250 per square metre depending on finishes and site conditions, while the cost of the garage build is only $1,250 per square metre by comparison. If the construction of below grade car parking occurred without all of the elaborate efforts to make flat blocks, better urban outcomes could be achieved, and possibly as much as 30 to 40 square metres could be added to external amenity, more cheaply.

Surely, turning around this wasteful method of garaging cars must be the objective of any new medium density planning guideline. Urban planning departments all attest to their commitment to excellence in appropriate, sustainable and better value for money housing outcomes. They seem to me to be spending too much time in their offices, only popping out to officiate at ribbon cutting events long after the carnage has been cleared.

Or maybe they just lack the ability or gumption to take it to developers to say ‘this is not good enough.’ Or maybe they are happy to go down in history as being the last proponents of ‘snout houses.’

Australia’s housing industry has some serious shortcomings that can no longer be avoided. This goes beyond the way land is subdivided. The capabilities needed to design and build small scaled medium density housing projects of three to 10 dwellings up to three storeys atop below grade parking have yet to be developed. If medium density dwellings of the type described here are to make up a third of the housing landscape, a new marketing platform and delivery model will be required.

These will not be offered from the traditional builder display village. New design, procurement and construction skills will be necessary. Only financially viable builders who display a new level of professionalism will be trusted to take on these projects. The industry must shift from its current level of denial of these realities.

If governments are seriously minded to harvest the potential of grey-field sites and the urban middle, they will not only need to bring the community along in support of these more modest densification initiatives, they will need to be proactive in making sure the housing industry has the capabilities to deliver them.

This is a challenge for the housing industry. It is not a market that general contractors understand or have an aptitude for. This is an opportunity for the first movers in this space to realise the potential of adapting their old project housing delivery model into a modern version of ‘build to order’ multi-unit.