With escalating housing affordability in capital cities outstripping income growth, there is a downward trend in housing ownership amongst under-45s. As a result, we are heading towards a crisis where something needs to (and will) change.

Should we wait for that change, and see what the Federal and State Governments do to address this issue? If we do, we risk losing value from our industry as taxes and statutory rules are applied. The alternative is to lead the charge ourselves, with the knowledge that while both statutory controls and finance models are politically willing they are extremely adverse and slow to change.

I’ve always found that it’s better to take control of your own destiny, even if the odds are against you. So, let’s discuss how we could approach this affordability crisis, without losing sight of the needs of our community, the rules that exist or the need to finance the change.

We have been clustering our dwellings for thousands of years. As we migrated from hunting and gathering to farming and producing, access to a market – to infrastructure, transport and community – became valuable. You didn’t need commerce to achieve this, however – indigenous Australians lived nomadically and survived for more than 40,000 years with a strong social framework and culture, as well as an understanding of and connection to country.

The need for shelter, social connection and safety are intrinsic to human kind, and are the foundations on which the first cities were created. In a way, the internet provides us with a virtual version of those foundations, but while access to knowledge, connectivity, trade and commerce can all be achieved online, social connection and inclusion on its authentic physical level cannot.

But as we’ve migrated from rural life to suburb, suburb to city, our dwellings have become about more than providing shelter and security. They have become fundamental symbols of status; of vanity.

Our dwellings are too big, too spread out, and our desire is has grown far beyond our actual needs. Space consumption is a core contributor to the escalating cost of shelter because space is a valuable and scarce commodity. Not using it efficiently wastes a valuable resource. Infrastructure costs, too, are impacted by our demand for larger dwellings and our propensity to sprawl.

In all other sectors we pursue productivity, reviewing areas where we can remove redundancy or apply multiple uses. Look at the workspace sector, for example. There, activity-based solutions can mean that only a percentage of workers (70-80%) on any given day will have access to a desk. It’s a notion that recognises a percentage of the team will be travelling, in meetings or absent. Why have a desk for everyone when you can supply enough for the community to share, and invest in better communal spaces instead?

On top of this, desks have become smaller and the spaces both within the workplace and adjacent to it have become more vibrant and flexible. The outcome is both efficient and responsive to a deeper understanding of behaviour, one that focuses on giving more to the customer where it is valued most.

Looking at dwellings, it is fair to say that while evolution has occurred, revolution is still possible. In fact, it is needed.

Evolution has been responsible for much efficiency – the best examples make things like verges, streets, rooms and dwellings smaller, trading space for quality. But to create a revolution, we need to look at the core issue. We still have some of the biggest dwellings in the free world; just because we, as a country, have the space, we shouldn’t feel we have to use it.

The basic dwelling may be made up of the following elements:

  • Living
  • Dining
  • Kitchen
  • Laundry
  • Bathroom
  • Bedroom
  • Theatre/media
  • Garage/car park
  • Shed
  • Veranda
  • Deck/porch
  • Backyard/court
  • Front yard
  • Robe
  • Ensuite
  • Formal dining
  • Formal lounge
  • Studies
  • Spare bedrooms
  • Storage

Think about percentage of use: if a dwelling were a workplace, a shopping centre, an education building or a warehouse, anything not used more than 50% of the operational period might well be removed or multi-purposed. In housing, there lies the opportunity to share, creating human contact and social worth. This means that as well as efficiency there can be further focus on the quality and the experience of the SHARED REALM.

Millennials are driving this change. Disassociated from the customary norms of recent history and past value paradigms, they have the freedom to redefine how we live together and where we source human interaction.

So, what defines need rather than want?

We need to sleep, we need to wash, we need to eat, and we need to dwell.

Kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and an intimate communal space are needed. The other things are nice to have, and are accumulated by those who can afford to waste space; those driven by perceived social expectations of peers and society (me included). This is an extreme point but it is the place to start: everything not on the list of needs should be considered for inclusion, sharing or deletion.

However, change is difficult and our desire to have more than we need is ingrained in our customs and values. We must shift this before applying the physical change, but how?

All change has a process attached. First, the early adopters adopt and the “movement” begins. Then the followers join, and the change happens. Who, then, are our early adopters? If it’s our customers who will enable this change to happen, where do we look for them?

The nuclear family structure has exploded and the dynamics of what constitutes a “family” is more dynamic, accepted and diverse than ever. We also have a new generation that has established its beliefs and values on global connectivity, enabling them to be far less obligated by the singular communities that shaped their predecessors. This is an audience that will not only accept a new product and approach but that yearns for it.

Creating the change with them is necessary to offset risk and reduce the unknown. We must not design and create for the silent, unknown customer; we must find these early adopters and work with them on this journey of revolution.

The Nightingale approach on development – to find the occupants first and create with them – needs to be reviewed; the Baugruppen non-for-profit model also needs to be considered, along with Build to Rent.

With the right consumer and the willingness to change, exemplar projects can be established; the early adopters and early followers within our financial, political and planning systems can be convinced to accept the new norm. Let’s control the future as much as we can rather than wait for it to be imposed on us.

Let’s also speak less ill of the millennials. Instead of their perceived negatives, we should see them as bright-eyed consumers, unencumbered by archaic norms, hungry to experience and set new examples of lifestyle and values. They will be the adopters of change, enabling us to create it and continually educating us on how the world is evolving. They will deliver a new paradigm that will literally bring us closer…

…allowing us to live together rather than adjacent but apart.

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