Housing as a process in Central Victoria

The Paddock, a cluster housing project by CROSBY architects in Castlemaine receives a Planning Permit.

Much has changed since 2000, when the first national conference on The Future of Australia’s Country Towns heard a great deal about the decline of the bush, and many appeals against the callousness of governments.”  These are the opening words of the book The Changing Nature of Australia’s Country Towns[1] published in 2006. The conference, held in Bendigo, was followed by a second in 2005.

The Paddock, a cluster housing development to be built in Castlemaine just 35 km south of Bendigo, having been granted a planning permit this week, is a symbol of just how much has changed in the country. “I have never experienced a more positive response from both Council Officers and Councillors’ for a project application than we received from the Mount Alexander Shire Council for the Paddock” says Alex Winfield from Conceptz, the planning consultant for the project.

The project is designed by CROSBY architects with Emergent Studios as the landscape architects and Vivid Civil Engineers. It incorporates 27 dwellings of one to four bedrooms over two levels in six blocks of terraces horseshoed around stepped gardens.

Crosby took the Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi’s belief that housing should be seen “as a process and not a product”[2] to heart with this project. He was seeing the edge of Castlemaine subdivided and developed into residential land, the advertising on local radio ran “cleared and levelled ready to build”. Local builders were then doing spec homes to standardised designs and selling them. He wanted to offer something as an alternative.

With Bull Street Terraces Crosby showed that density could be increased in town without demolishing existing building fabric to accommodate it. He is restoring and renovating an existing weatherboard cottage on a corner block near the town centre and building a small two-storey house to one side and a row of four terraces to the other, all on a standard residential block of just over 1000 m2. The architect went to council with a number of arrangements and the Council officers were supportive of the highest density option which represented 165 persons per hectare. The elected councillors were not unanimous in their support but it was granted a planning permit in 2013. This project was registered with the Living Building Challenge that same year; the first housing development registered in Australia. It is now in construction.

The LBC, launched in 2006, comprises the most strenuous set of international guidelines for the built environment. Only a handful of projects have been certified under the LBC, 29 in USA and one in New Zealand, none are residential. The LBC is based on the belief that current ideas for defining sustainable development are at best only attempting to do no further harm. It sets the bar higher with a regenerative approach where the first priority of any new project is to improve the background condition, to make things better.

The owners of the site for The Paddock had approached CROSBY architects in 2008 to look at ways of developing the property where they had been living for over 20 years. They wanted something ‘sustainable’. They also shared a belief that there should be alternatives to the usual fare. They had previously had a sketch layout produced by a local planner showing a subdivision into 8 house blocks with a common area around an existing dam. At 28 persons per hectare this represented a lower density than the adjacent residential area. CROSBY architects suggested looking for a solution that created higher densities but with less site coverage.

Unfortunately the project was put on hold for a number of years as other projects the clients had in Castlemaine were completed, but this allowed the Bull Street project to become the testing ground.

Extensive analysis of existing densities and site coverage throughout the town were completed in early 2016 to justify the higher density approach. Through discussions with local real-estate agents a site plan was created to represent how other land was being subdivided. This provided 14 house blocks of around 400m2 each and pushed the maximum density up to 50 persons per hectare[3] and a site coverage of 21%. A financial model of this was used as a bench mark to better so as not to be left open to claims of subsidising the outcome. The final plan for The Paddock has a maximum density of 67 persons per hectare with a site coverage of 11%.

The Paddock was registered with the Living Building Challenge (LBC). The lessons learnt from Bull Street will feed directly into The Paddock.

The terrace houses from the Bull Street project became the model for The Paddock houses. The big difference though is the relationship between individual owned property, external space and common property. Because of the constricted size of the site Bull Street Terraces incorporated roof decks and small enclosed back service yards.

The Paddock is taking some of the lessons learnt from Co-Housing projects where the majority of facilities are held in common. The privately owned portion is around 100 m2 in both projects but the ratio of private to common is very different.

The architects have been working with Dr Dominique Hes and a team from the Thrive Research Hub in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. Dominique initially became involved on Bull Street and an off-shoot project with CROSBY architects and Coliban Water looking at water balance mapping for Castlemaine. The Thrive team have helped with material research and been a conduit to other teams working on LBC projects and the Living Future Institute Australia.

For The Paddock Dominique Hes introduced in to the team Cristina Hernandez a biologist from Biourbem, a consultancy in biodiverse urban design.  She has been coordinating the ecological studies to help increase biodiversity on the site post occupation. This process has among other things involved identifying species endangered in the area and not currently seen on the site. It has involved questionnaires to the future occupants as to what they would like to encourage to the site and then help design the ecology to support the particular species return

 Hernandez and a TAFE teacher working with locals on the site

A team from the Conservation and Land Management course at Bendigo TAFE have also been involved in a community science day on the site where data was collected from the soil, the water and the sky to set a bench mark for assessing the success post development and occupation. This is a world first for this type of project.

An integrated design approach has been used on The Paddock. Various workshops have occurred inviting into the process not only the consultant team but also the clients, the builder, prospective occupants, representatives of service supply authorities and academics.

Biophilia

A one day workshop was convened to tease out biophilic responses to the site and the brief. The architects presented a summary of the history of, and the ideas around, Biophilia to give a context. This was followed by a round table and open discussion about the opportunities and constraints perceived in the project. The architects then integrated this into an evolving framework based around both the 14 Patterns of Terrapin Bright Green’s approach and the six Elements of the late Stephen Kellert’s system.

Water and fire were identified as symbols for occupation; the waterhole and campfire which suited the arc of the site and the existing dam.

Water was seen as critical given its often rarity.  The site planning evolved from the contours and the ability to direct rain water into the dam, which will be converted into a wetland catchment and filter to, through gravity, water the productive gardens.

The houses become the permeable containers for the commons.

Materials

Another workshop was conducted that included; the builder, the Melbourne University team, the clients’ representative and the consultants. We looked at the way we were going to specify and use materials.

No toxic chemical, local as possible, no waste, ease of replication and demolition and reuse, as much recycled as possible, long life, affordable and doable by local trades. “Everyone knows the drill but we really want it to happen and we want the way to make it happen shared with the local community” says Crosby. This is borne out by the web site established for Bull Street that is seen as a resource; www.bullstreet.com.au.

The process is being tested on a smaller scale first with the renovation to the existing house at Bull Street where the builder and the architect are working collaboratively to confirm that systems and materials work and are affordable. For instance a special concrete mix has been developed, a first for regional Victoria, with high recycled concrete component.  These selections will then be honed on the four Bull Street terraces before being applied to the 27 houses at The Paddock.

Power

The area that is not replicable between the two projects is electricity generation.

Each house at Bull Street will supply the equivalent of its power requirements over a 12-month period through individual roof top PV installations. The Paddock aims for more, with the ability to use of a micro grid over the entire site because of the nature of the common property, it will generate more power than the occupants use. The project will be a nett exporter of electricity. Design of the buildings was predicated on the width of a standard photovoltaic panel, a lesson learnt from Bull Street where the terrace widths limited the number of panels and therefor the capacity of the system.

Figure 1 one of the architects early sketches for the site

Water

Castlemaine was established for one reason: Gold. There was no consideration of a water supply to sustain a town yet ironically much water was needed to extract gold and therefor channels and chases were run along contour to move water. This device is taken as a generator for the site planning of The Paddock.

[1] editors Maureen Rogers and David Jones, The Centre for Sustainable Regional Communities, Latrobe University, Bendigo (2006) published by the Victorian Universities Regional Research Network Press, in Ballarat.

[2] Dr Balkrishna Doshi, Indian Architect

[3] Calculations are based on full bedroom occupation and total project site areas including internal access roads.