A crucible for new housing typologies

Knox Schlapp Housing Project, Port Melbourne | Peter Elliott Architecture and Urban Design | Ministry of Housing 1985 | Photographer John Gollings.

Faded photos of public housing projects from the early 1980s line the corridor walls of the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, marking the time since the medium density infill housing program, led by John Devenish at the Ministry of Housing. The program became a crucible for new housing typologies as it pursued a policy of diversification through infill, opening up the opportunity to commission emerging practices.

Delivering public housing is a significant responsibility for government when, according to the Grattan Institute, at least 50 in every 10,000 Australians are homeless with “rough sleepers the most visible”, but they account for only 4% of Australia’s homeless (Coates, 2020). Housing fulfils many objectives, from basic shelter to emotional security as a safe refuge. For these reasons, housing is considered a fundamental human right under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights – subscribed to by the Victorian Government through the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act.

In the 2020 State Budget, the Victorian Government announced a commitment of $5.3 billion to build new social housing – the single biggest investment in social housing in Victoria’s and Australia’s history. The package aims to boost the state’s social housing supply by 10% in four years.

A new government agency, Homes Victoria, was established to work across government and sectors to deliver this package and manage existing public housing. The program, called the Big Housing Build, will construct 12,000 new homes across metropolitan and regional Victoria comprising 9,300 social housing homes replacing 1,100 old public housing units that are no longer fit for purpose. The Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) has had significant involvement in the Big Housing Build’s projects known as the Public Housing Renewal Program (PHRP) which will deliver 1,200 new public homes, including social, private, and affordable housing.


Selecting a Public Private Partnership (PPP) as the preferred procurement method to deliver the Big Housing Build demands that government is a smart client. Research by the Association of Consulting Architects Australia shows that the cost of bidding typically costs the consortia 1% or more of the construction cost (Gorey, 2015). During the competitive phase, the impact on architects and the commercial terms on which they are engaged, can present considerable risk. Another key risk with a PPP is that it does not necessarily guarantee that the best design will be selected. The new edition of the OVGA’s procurement guide, Government as Smart Client, states that “the State may not get the best design team due to the commercial offer preferencing a particular consortium”. Further, as observed by previous Victorian Government Architect (2006–08) John Denton, “when it comes to choosing bids, money, not design, tends to win out” (Millar, 2008).

PPP’s claim to bring greater innovation than standard procurement processes. Further documented evidence is required to support this notion. If innovation is requested it may reflect that the agency does not know what is needed, or that it is looking for new ideas and is relying on the market to research alternatives, precedent projects, or to investigate, evaluate and provide another possibility.

The rewards for the private sector, from a PPP, are considerable. The Kensington Housing Project completed in 2012 piloted a 50:50 social-mix model to inform future estate redevelopment projects in Melbourne via a PPP approach. Studies found that the private developers involved in the project collected net profits of more than 37 % (Shaw, 2013).


Masterplans for existing and future public housing estates need to be prioritised by government and committed to as a fundamental design exercise. An effective masterplan can have significant benefits when underpinned by an intelligent brief from the delivery agency and skilled consultants to inform the design process. Masterplans can de-risk the long-term viability of new housing and protecting public space when project delivery times and yield compete for attention. Masterplans are a critical part of any future work and cover project staging, latent conditions, audits, natural landscape systems, tenure equity, planning controls, car parking impacts and a long-term vision for more resilient and sustainable communities. A carefully considered masterplan that involves all stakeholders will protect future opportunities and avoid abortive works.

Design life

Designed and constructed in the 1960s, there are more than 40 high-rise towers at 20–30 storeys across 19 suburbs in Melbourne. Most are well beyond their projected design life of 50 years. The towers were constructed to the minimum required structural tolerances, raising the importance of audits across the existing housing stock to understand the potential for adaptive reuse and capture the benefits of embodied energy from a sustainability perspective. The risk of not getting the design fundamentals correct upfront, across orientation, function and form, can result in a legacy of buildings without the structural bones, such that any notion of a Lacaton Vassal style refurbishment is at best, tenuous. The towers remain an ongoing concern during the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic and their suitability in avoiding infection among residents.

Smart client

Government can only act as a smart client when there is a commitment to design capability within the delivery agencies. Each delivery agency in government needs in-house design champions who will advocate and hold a consortium to account for the quality and scope of each drawing package. Equally, the profession has a responsibility to remember who the client is: the homeless. A client who may live in such a building for their lifetime because there is no other opportunity. The houses architects design must become their homes and avoid being dictated to by market forces, where the focus is on yield and return, rather than amenity.

It is critical that government delivery agencies provide leadership through detailed briefs and clear policy in defining what it means to be tenure blind. If housing projects are to be design-led, the profession needs to push back on the unreasonable demands of the consortium, articulate the unintended consequences of cost savings and challenge government agencies when faced with ambiguity. Architects who can deliver detailed, accurate and fully scoped packages will avoid opening the door to cost savings that impact quality. The OVGA will continue to advocate for good design outcomes but it is only warranted by a project’s significance and our ability to influence it.

Whether the current program will leave an enduring legacy for Victorians, government and the profession to celebrate, is yet to be seen. The challenge remains, for a design-led housing program that ensures the best possible amenity for tenants, which is adaptable into the future.


Brendan Coates, Jonathan Nolan, and Tony Chen (2020), Tackling homelessness in Australia Submission to the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs’ inquiry into homelessness in Australia, Grattan Institute

Ann Gorey, 13 April, (2015), Public Private Partnerships for Procurement, Association of Consulting Architects Australia

Royce Millar, July 26, (2008). Departing architect warns state to keep watch on its legacy, The Age

Shaw, Raisbeck et al. (2013) Evaluation of the Kensington redevelopment and place management models, University of Melbourne

David Islip FRAIA is Principal Adviser, Architecture + Urban Design for the Office of the Victorian Government Architect.

Published online:
12 May 2021

Architect Victoria
Edition 1 /

More from Architect Victoria

Balfe Park Lane: Kerstin Thompson Architects

Considered across the scales of the neighbourhood, building and apartment, Kerstin Thompson Architects’ recently completed Balfe Park Lane is a demonstration of medium-density housing that is contextual, amenable and lasting. The project lies on a rapidly densifying section of Nicholson Street, where the facades of new developments jostle for attention above nondescript ground floors.

Read more


Through process and approaches that engage with multiple notions of heritage including problematic ones of environmental and cultural destruction, architecture can participate in the widening of a heritage discourse.

Read more

Maggie Edmond: Edmond & Corrigan

Edmond & Corrigan has employed an incomparable number of young architects who have gone on to have prolific careers with their own practices or as sole practitioners. Daniel Moore asked practice director Maggie Edmond some questions.

Read more

Napier Street for Milieu: Freadman White

Freadman White’s simultaneous development of Napier Street and Whitlam Place harnessed unique efficiencies and resulted in a highly efficient model for project delivery.

Read more

Amelia Borg, Kushagra Jhurani and Peter Elliott: How to get a job

Early career professionals are often guided by a practice’s development guidelines. Many help by pairing graduates with an experienced graduate, registered architect, or even an architect who has achieved the highest levels of success in our industry. It becomes apparent that the practice of architecture is very different to studying architecture.

Read more

Lovell Burton: Springhill House and Barwon Heads House

Lovell Burton grew organically from a conversation over many years. We share a common endeavour to shape the built environment with a social, environmental and fiscal approach.

Read more

Emerging Architect Prize: Alexander & Sheridan Architecture

In 2021, Jacqui Alexander and Ben Sheridan were the Victorian recipients of the Emerging Architect Prize. With a diverse CV of research, publications, exhibitions, and built work, Daniel Moore spoke with Jacqui about her achievements in the time that she has been emerging in the architecture profession.

Read more

Calk House: Mani Architecture

Putting strong relationships with their clients at the forefront, and remaining bonded with their projects after completion, the Mani Architecture team are “reminded on how we have changed our clients’ lives for the best”.

Read more

Ozanam House: MGS Architects

Joshua Darvill, coordination, engagement and participation manager at Ozanam House provides a snapshot of the services provided, long-term sustainable outcomes and reassessing the needs of the community.

Read more

Architectural photography

A photo essay of architectural photography. Daniel Moore asked established architectural photographers about their first memorable project, finding their way into the profession and/or working with early career architects.

Read more

Investment in affordable housing quality: Why the industry should support it

Recently, we have seen many news stories pointing to the bounce back and now surge in house prices in our capital cities. With this, a host of public servants, politicians, residential property investors, and homeowners sit back content, another KPI met, clearly all is well in the garden. The low interest rates, the decades-long incentives rewarding this investment are working. But are they? Are we getting the housing infrastructure we need, in the locations and in the form and tenure required to build the Australia we need economically and socially?

Read more

Building a folio

We fell into our practice with little planning, much optimism and a dose of imposter syndrome. Our first project was to blame; a friend was starting a cafe and bar in a beautiful art-deco building on Carlisle Street and we were doing the fit-out. With the promise of a prominent built project on the horizon, we felt sure that we were on our way (spoiler: we were pretty wrong).

Read more

Homelessness and social housing

Arron Wood, former Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne, on how architecture and good urban design can have a positive impact on the supply of social and affordable housing.

Read more

Richmond House: Therefore

Director Alex Lake shares how Therefore has spring boarded into residential architecture from a prior base of commercial work – “an atypical direction given most small practices begin with residential work”. 

Read more

NGV Triennial Outdoor Pavilions: BoardGrove Architects

For the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2020 Triennial outdoor program, BoardGrove Architects designed a collection of transient pavilions situated in the gallery’s Grollo Equiset Garden. Drawing on their diverse experience, BoardGrove designed a novel response that skillfully responded to the project brief’s size and budget.

Read more

Revisited: Some aspects of housing overseas

With more funding available than we’ve seen in a generation, there is the will to reimagine social housing sites. Architects, urban designers and public servants have duly taken up the subject. But how to frame the problem?

Read more

Generation Exchange

In the rapid exchange of information that is now a daily reality of contemporary practice there seems to be little time for wisdom. Speed rules. Communication is dynamic. Considered correspondence remains an obligation of our profession yet the hourly deluge of emails that we all deal with in practice is anathema to this fundamentally important component of our practising modality.

Read more

Brunswick Lean-to: Blair Smith Architecture

Brunswick Lean-to is a discrete addition to a heritage-listed weatherboard cottage. The project draws upon the ubiquitous lean-to it replaced; a colloquial structure often overlooked or demolished in the event of an extension. Blair Smith Architecture demonstrates sensitivity and depth of thought, addressing opportunities and constraints through site-responsive spatial planning and the packaging of multifunctional elements in a robust, utilitarian structure.

Read more

Process over product

Breathe’s project for Aboriginal Housing Victoria has been approached with rigour to deliver a high-quality project embedded with sustainable design principles and cultural engagement.

Read more

This is not my Country

This is not my Country, and because it’s not my Country, I cannot speak on its behalf. This statement is true for me, and almost every built environment professional in Australia, so how can we work on and with the Countries that we are responsible for fundamentally modifying?

Read more