Behind the Melbourne Housing Expo

Posted Thu 22nd Dec 2016 | efront

When realised in 2018, The Melbourne Housing Expo will comprise a major built exposition of place making and housing which will be displayed for two weeks before being sold. These 60 to 100 dwellings will explore different types and forms of housing. In the lead-up to its launch, a program of events, exhibitions and seminars will be held. The organisation’s Chair, Professor Alan Pert, was appointed Director of Melbourne School of Design in October 2012. He spoke with Liza Power from Kerstin Thompson Architects.

Interview extract from the 2016 Open House Melbourne printed program.


Why does Melbourne need a Housing Expo?

A lot of issues are being debated in relation to housing in Melbourne: a lack of diversity in the housing models available, affordability, amenity and issues relating to place making. In universities around Australia there’s a tremendous amount of research being done in these areas but an Expo offers the opportunity to demonstrate this knowledge in a real and tangible way. It’s also a chance to bring together a diverse range of groups from across the housing industry — from planning and technology to engineering, finance and social policy — to get them to talk and work together to find solutions.


Where did the idea for the Melbourne Housing Expo come from?

I’ve worked on two previous Expos in the UK. In Europe, particularly in Finland where they’re held every year, they are very much a tried and tested model.


People commonly perceived Expos as architectural zoos, but there’s a lot more to them than that.

It’s true they’re often seen as having a design focused architectural agenda, but the more interesting parts of the Expos I’ve been involved in relate to changes to policy. In Scotland in 2010, a huge amount of work went into master planning, infrastructure, roads, parking, shared space and refuse collection, and its biggest success story was in terms of changing attitudes to those.


Tell us a bit more about Scotland

The Expo was delivered in an economic downturn so the Scottish government chose to underwrite the value of the properties, which was an amazing gesture. It was also quite controversial. People expect Expos to happen in the major cities but we chose to target Inverness, which at the time was the fastest growing part of Scotland. Our focus was low-density housing — the cookie-cutter developer-led model of low volume cul de sacs; very generic, low levels of amenity and a real blight on the landscape. The goal was to take on volume house builders and demonstrate there were other ways to do things.


What did this involve?

Landscape and place making were a huge part of it. We looked historically at settlement patterns in Scotland to understand orientation, landscape, culture and materiality — very basic things that had been lost in the volume model.


What were its successes and failures?

The greatest success was that the policy on master planning and infrastructure developed out of the Expo went on to become the model for the Commonwealth Games Village in Glasgow; it was the first major development built around that policy. Its failings related to the supply chain; there needed to be a greater focus on innovation and construction technology. Perhaps its greatest benefit however stemmed from the positive conversations and workshops after the Expo that involved government, architects, planning officials, construction companies, and developers working together to address these successes and failures. A Construction and Innovation Centre grew from that, and it’s now building homes, creating jobs and exploring advanced off-site construction methods, which will have a massive impact on the industry.


The Melbourne Housing Expo started when the Scottish Government Architect came to Melbourne for a series of workshops and seminars in 2013. People soon became very enthusiastic about the idea, and it gained momentum. What happened next?

We all began thinking about what an Expo would mean in the context of Melbourne and what kinds of issues it would need to address: the lack of choice and diversity in a developer-led context where affordability is a huge issue. The idea gained traction at the same time I gained interest in Merchant Builders and began working on a publication to celebrate 50 years of their legacy. Their work was incredibly innovative and globally significant for its time, and it addresses similar challenges to those we face now. It also offers lessons we can use today. I got to know David Yenken and he’s come to play an integral role in the Expo.


Behind the Expo is an impressive brains trust drawn from universities across Melbourne. How important is this wealth of expertise in developing progressive housing models?

It’s invaluable because this cross-pollination of ideas doesn’t happen enough and opportunities to demonstrate research through building are rare and very hard to finance. At the moment, housing models are led by real estate agents who in turn tell developers what they can and can’t sell which dictates everything from the typology of a development to the way it faces the street and whether it has two bathrooms and parking.


Various models such as The Commons are slowly showing developers that better models exist.

Exactly, and they’re also prompting people to think differently about shared space, and relationships between indoor and outdoor space.


Melbourne, indeed all cities around Australia, are facing huge demographic shifts in coming years as a result of an ageing population, tremendous increases in population, vital upgrades and upscaling for existing social housing and the desire for increased amenity. Will the Expo address these?

It will, but it will also address the change in attitudes required to accommodate these changes. There are hundreds of years of ownership here — everyone wants to own a home, but in the world’s biggest cities the majority of housing is rented accommodation; it’s not all private ownership. Issues relating to an ageing population — downscaling or ageing in place — also need to be explored. So too the generation shift of children in their 20s still living at home because they can’t afford to buy. Maybe they will need to accept that rental accommodation is fine. The Expo also has a strong focus on construction technology and new job creation. Yes, and this was a real point of interest when we met with the Ministers for Housing and Planning minister earlier this year. With the funding they’ve provided we’ve now formed a Strategy Board bringing together representatives from academia and industry, and working towards a business plan that will be submitted in August. We’re also in the process of exploring potential sites and looking towards establishing a Review Committee, which will be absolutely critical in helping to formulate the Expo brief.


What’s the ultimate aim of the Expo?

To drive a shift in the way we design and deliver housing and to establish a pan-institutional research and industry cluster that will deliver a workable, replicable Expo model. The goal is to develop a model that’s self-sustaining and will continue to deliver innovation and new ways of thinking for years to come.

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