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Avi Friedman's outside the box thinking on affordable housing

After having attended a lecture last Tuesday at the University of Melbourne presented by Avi Friedman, Professor of Architecture at McGill University, many questions on housing affordability were posed in general and specifically relating to Melbourne. Professor Friedman is best known for his pioneering housing affordability work in Montréal through the creation of the Grow home and the Next home concepts which started out as pilot projects on the grounds of McGill University's campus and has since evolving to many thousands of individual units delivered in Montréal and further afield.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's case study states that Grow homes are targeted at new home buyers "to create an affordable ownership housing form where the interior can be finished incrementally to match the space requirements and financial circumstances of the homeowners".

Architects like to talk about their craft with all its processes being a journey and as Professor Friedman noted in his lecture last Tuesday, he wasn't on a journey to land himself into glossy Architecture magazines (although he now is) – he wanted his work to make nations and markets change.

In the Western World, a car and white picket fence in a far flung suburb has been the predominant housing development pattern for the best part of half a century and yet when the conversation switches to housing affordability, it's generally this outer suburban development which gets categorised in the “most affordable” method.

But is it truly affordable?

Professor Friedman's work on the Grow home and the following incarnation - the Next Home - challenges the notion that when you buy a dwelling the internal fit out must be entirely complete upon picking up the keys.

In a nutshell the Next homes work like this: narrow - 6.1 metre wide - modules built with timber frames can be stacked both vertically and horizontally creating a diverse amount of unpartitioned internal space. The prospective buyer then proceeds through a formula of choosing a) how many floors they would like to purchase, b) how each floor's layout will be configured and c) how much of their dwelling they wish (and can afford) to fit out from the day they obtain the keys. Think of an IKEA catalogue for dwellings - refer to the 9th page, numbered 111 here for an example.

The whole concept forces the buyer to sharpen their focus on what they can truly afford.

Apart from empowering the purchaser with multiple individual choices to suit their needs and budget, the buyer in essence enters into a longer-term relationship with the developer than what currently is the norm, rather than the traditional method where which involves the purchase process, build, occupancy followed by the parting of ways upon completion. Next home buyers are instead encouraged to adapt the space they own as their needs change and financial position dictates.

Professor Friedman drew inspiration from the Car Manufacturing industry where buyers are given an inordinate amount of choice on exteriors, interiors, engine and various other other bells and whistles like GPS and iPod connectivity. Where you wouldn't want to buy a car with 3 wheels (when there's space, and a requirement, for 4), someone might want to buy 100 square metres of adaptable space and only partition and fit out 50% of it from day one.

The example Professor Friedman talked about in his lecture was a young couple selecting only a kitchen, bathroom and living area partitioned initially whilst having a second floor left unpartitioned and used as a giant bedroom. Over time as the young couple's space requirements and financial position evolves - such as when the family unit grows by 1 through the birth of a child - the couple can start to partition the second level accordingly. The home evolves with the occupants.

Even the cost of installing individual rooms has many different price points, the kitchen being a prime example - costs can be reduced by opting to have shelving instead of cupboards above benchtops with incremental change over time by purchasing cupboards from the developer at a later stage or by taking DIY route.

The Next home concept directly responds to changing demographics both on a neighbourhood basis and right down to a building level. Initially designed to cost $50,000CAD per floor (75 square metres) with land (Montreal prices at the start of last decade), 4 level buildings - perfect for the new Residential Growth zones being rolled out around Melbourne - could have a mixture of uses: ground floor retail, a 1 bedroom unit or office on the first floor and a 3 bedroom family unit on floors 2 and 3. The configuration of every individual building is solely reliant in the needs of a group of buyers.

In the Australian context, there are many issues to confront before we could ever hope to have affordable housing such as the Next home concept become mainstream. This mainly revolves around illustrating to the wider public the benefits of not necessarily "smaller" housing, but more compact housing and ensuring NIMBYism doesn't get the upper hand beyond the implementation of the new Residential Growth zones.

By all accounts, the NIMBY problem exists in Canada just as much as it does here however compact and higher density housing is far more prevalent right across Canada - something Australia would do well to learn from, mimic and even enhance the Canadian experience.

See below for a video of a similar lecture given by Professor Friedman at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlOWpmN6nXI

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