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Reflections on 'Social Housing Deserves Good Design' Melbourne Design Week event

Jesse Judd, Valli Morphett, Jack Panton and Vanessa Brotto speaking at Social Housing Deserves Good Design

This blog was penned in reflection of topics discussed at Village Well's recent event delivered for Melbourne Design Week, in May 2023, on Social Housing Deserves Good Design.

It was privilege to speak with an esteemed group of passionate professionals who came together to explore what good design really looks like for social housing. A week after the event, the presentations have really lingered in my mind, so I have captured my reflections in a personal blog.

Jack Panton, Director of Affordable Housing Solutions, walked us through why social and affordable housing is more important than ever and considerations in getting projects off the ground.

Jack shared insight into the macro-economic conditions that support investment in the sector include historically low vacancy, low unemployment, rapidly rising rents and political alignment at state and federal level.

We learned about the opportunity that could be unlocked by the Housing Australia Future Fund, facilitated by partnerships between community housing providers, developers, investors, and government to:

  • Deliver a high impact program to address the structural deficit of social and affordable housing, supported by a long-term Federal government-backed subsidy underpinning cash flow.

  • Grow a portfolio of social and affordable housing with expert tenancy management, place management and asset management.

  • Deliver a variety of housing typologies in metropolitan and regional areas across Australia.

Construction costs continue to escalate however, impacting the sector heavily. A turnkey development example provided by Jack saw costs associated with a 200 apartment, multi storey social housing developments coming in at over $500k per apartment (or up to $580k in other project circumstances).

It is getting harder to deliver housing ‘affordably’!

Jesse Judd, Director of ARM Architecture, walked us through a highly visual presentation on two recent developments they have delivered with Launch Housing (which Village Well supported). The award-winning Viv’s Place development was designed for survivors of domestic violence, and featured:

  • Decorative, textured panels inside and out, and a street presence that residents can feel proud of

  • Well-appointed, generous shared spaces to support social connection between residents

  • Dedicated spaces for children and teenagers

  • On-site social service provision for residents

  • Colourful gathering spaces, balanced with calm, homely residents apartments

  • High quality energy rating to minimise ongoing resident expenditure on heating/cooling

  • Concierge service to ensure vulnerable residents felt welcomed and safe at all times

The audience got an early look into Launch Housing's new Bellfield development, currently under construction. The new building features timber as a key construction material with a facade featuring large scale ‘wood ring’ textures. This is smart use of materiality as, we know from research work we have undertaken recently at Village Well, that when timber is used in built environments it is proven to reduce people's stress, lower heart rate and lower blood pressure (Fell 2022).

Vanessa Brotto, Chief Operating Officer of Haven Home Safe, shared gritty and pragmatic insights into design considerations from an operations perspective – something that doesn’t get enough airtime in my eyes!

Luxury can be triggering for some residents and make them feel like they don’t fit in.

We learned that:

  • Contemporary social housing residents have extremely complex needs. Gone are the days of these residents being ‘quiet old ladies that like to knit’

  • ‘Luxury’ can trigger residents to ‘act out’ because they feel like they just don’t belong

  • ‘Quality’ design treatments and materiality can provoke high-level of anxiety in residents who have experienced physical violence in their backgrounds. One chilling example was how concrete walls can trigger a significant fear and anxiety response, because having your head beaten into a concrete wall would result in a very different outcome compared to plaster board

  • Trauma-informed design needs to include avoidance of ‘institutional aesthetics’ This could include taking pains to select fencing types with no vertical bars, which can feel like prison aesthetics. Other considerations may include careful selection of light fittings (no florescent lights!), choosing globes that emit warm light (not cool) and, minimising the use of white paint on walls

And what did I talk about?

I like to watch my audience closely when presenting, and spend more time talking to the content that is of interest to the room. When discussing the topic 'what does great engagement and placemaking look like for social housing' the topics that the audience were most interested in are as follows:

Social housing residents have complex needs! Design must be tailored to meet their needs

  • Without a good understanding of your future customers needs then it is almost impossible to deliver design outcomes that are beyond passable. But there is a ‘chicken and egg problem’ in the sector where tenanting generally happens after construction, not during the design phase!

  • Beware accidentally falling into the trap of designing for yourself and your design team. Remember, you are not the target audience! If you can’t engage your future resident cohort then social housing residents from similar circumstances will provide beneficial insight. Social service providers are a rich source of intel

“Creating places that heal, rather than make people stressed and sick, must be a priority”

  • We have condensed our new health and wellbeing led placemaking, activation and implementation approach into a 4 x step methodological recipe that provides a staged pathway to social confidence, employment and independent living. Learn more about these approaches in our new training course or at an upcoming networking event

  • Ensure there are community managers in place to program activities to build social connection between residents. Vulnerable residents can be nervous of each other. It won’t happen if someone isn’t driving the bus!

In summary, what does good design really look like for social housing?

  • Strong partnerships and subsidies to help get projects off the ground

  • Deep engagement to understand complex nuances of future residents needs

  • Trauma informed thinking, tailored design response and sensitive use of materiality, to ensure good operational functionality

  • Wellbeing led activation and programming to provide residents with a staged pathway to social confidence, health, wealth and happiness

Thank you to fellow panel members, the South Melbourne Uniting Church and Melbourne Design Week for supporting this event.

Blog by Valli Morphett, CEO of Village Well

Valli is a placemaking thought leader, webinar guru and co-design engagement specialist who has spent decades driving systemic place-based change within Government & the consulting sectors in Australia and the UK.

As a ‘systems nerd’ she knows that sustainable citymaking requires an eco-systems approach that leverages local strengths to create economic, social, cultural, environmental and political value for urban precincts.

75 views2 comments


Cathy Walker
Cathy Walker
Jun 09, 2023

If these people making these statements are representative of the future of housing design we are in huge trouble. I have never seen such ill informed disrespectful comments about people’s housing needs. They should be ashamed.


Jun 01, 2023

There are some very interesting points. To pick up on just one idea: The lived process of ‘ownership’ in a home is so personal, so subjective, and so so important to be nurtured and encouraged for healthy re-connection with homemaking, particularly in healing cptsd. The ability to find a light shade, for example, at the opp shop that evokes a feeling of love, to be able to bring it home and have a willing BC help to hang it with you, safely. Where the trappings of the home are not so over designed and precious that they can’t be swapped out for personal aesthetics.. that’s good design for society.. diverse flexible and non prescriptive .

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