Building a better future

Alan Gordon is a North Coast based building designer with more than 20 years experience.

If the new Housing Strategy adopted by Lismore City Council this month succeeds in its aims, it's easy to imagine Lismore being a lot more comfortable and safer for many in the future.

It didn't really need a study and public consultation to identify the fact that our young people and our aged in particular are not well served by the current housing stock in the city. The housing analysis which underpins the strategy, however, has defined and quantified the problem. It was always obvious; now it's undeniable.

In its action plan, the strategy encourages a more diverse mix of housing stock. It refers to options including multi-unit dwellings and eco-housing communities and enunciates measures to encourage their adoption.

As a designer, I welcome acknowledgment that the 'classic three-bedroom dwelling' does not suit every situation.

That fact is disturbingly evident in some of the housing let to our students and young people. I look forward to the day when our own youth and those we invite here to study can easily find suitable, affordable and safe accommodation. All the better if that housing inspires, stimulates and educates.

Groups of unrelated young people and their guests behave very differently to the families these houses were meant for. The social, health and safety issues this creates can be easily addressed in the design. Blaming the lifestyles of young people is denial. Design simply must suit the purpose.

I imagine share housing with multiple bathrooms and toilets, appropriately designed kitchens and food storage. Secure, private, well-insulated rooms, where students can study or rest, no matter what their co-tenants are doing.

I imagine a city where slumlords can't profit by letting vermin-infested firetraps to young people with limited choices.

The dearth of suitable housing also forces many mature-age singles into share housing. Imagine a city that provides quality, affordable housing for this growing demographic. Small, liveable, energy-efficient, homes in the community - not in van parks or glorified donga estates.

Imagine a city where groups could form intentional, or unintentional, communities without being blocked by archaic building codes.

The aged and the disabled have different sets of needs again. Conventional family homes can be improved by adding ramps and handrails, but they will never equal the amenity of purpose-built homes in which universal design principles have been applied.

Imagine housing that allows our elders to live in the community rather than being shunted off to geriatric institutions. Imagine housing that applies all we know about minimising limitations and impediments for people with physical and mental challenges.

While we're at it, let's imagine a city where the planning code itself prioritises quality of life. A living, growing garden of a city that places the essential above status and fashion. Perhaps a city where people who don't want 'those types' in the neighbourhood can be gentled off to gated communities. They'll be happier there. We could always throw away the key.

I'm loving Lismore 2020. Let's hope enlightened developers and investors take up the challenge. Just as our community is richer for its social diversity, our built environment will be richer for re-thinking our ideas about housing in that light. Our housing stock and town planning could become as iconic as our music and our rainbow-tinted culture.

In response to the strategy and to help kick along the conversation, I've put some concepts up on the 'design ideas' page at alangordon.com.au. They include a multi-unit dwelling I'm working on for an extended family on a Moreton Bay island, a north coast eco-village and an autonomous micro-home. I invite interested readers to view and comment.


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