“Get it right for women, and you get it right for everyone.” How can women architects can contribute to the low cost housing debate in Australia? Lee Hillam interviews four women involved in providing housing for the most vulnerable members of our society.

One of the most disadvantaged demographic profiles for a person to have is to be old, single, poor, female and in private rental accommodation…1

A number of recent reports confirm that women – especially single, older women and single mothers with children in rental accommodation – are one of the most vulnerable groups in Australia today. Consider this:

  • Homelessness for older women is rising. In 1997, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) said 33% of their older clients were women. By 2007, women were more than half of their clients. In 2009 data collected by the National Affordable Housing Agreement indicated that the proportion of women in supported accommodation is still rising.2
  • The 2006 census counted 12,045 homeless women in NSW alone (44%).3
    The risk of homelessness rises with age.
  • The intake of women 65 and older into nineteen women’s services doubled from 2007–2008 to 2008–2009. (SAAP data.)4
  • In 2008–2009 the Homeless Persons Information Centre received 14,000 calls from single women, most of them needing accommodation for that night. They were referred to motels, their stay paid for by Housing NSW.5
  • Even when low cost accommodation IS available, it is often not appropriate, and fails to build community in the way that it can, and should, do.

The changing picture of homelessness in Australia is being driven by escalating housing unaffordability in our major cities. This impacts most significantly on those who are financially disadvantaged – and the largest proportion of these people are women. We are already seeing the effects of the female half of the population having unequal assets, income, superannuation and education – for example, in their increased inability to provide housing for themselves in the open market.

How can architects better serve low cost housing communities?

This situation prompted me to ask how we as architects, and particularly as women architects, can intersect with this issue. How are we going to accommodate women, children and families in a housing industry that is already showing a shortage of good affordable housing? Can women architects provide better answers to problems associated with housing women? How can we design this housing better to take into account the specific needs of women and, in fact, what are those needs?

There have been countless attempts to provide new housing models for people in need. Many of them have failed spectacularly as they become the disenfranchised ghettoes they were always designed to be – collecting disadvantage in one place tends to act as a multiplier.

In the race to build the maximum number of homes for minimum cost, the fact that humans need balanced and diverse community is forgotten. Landscaping, footpaths, entrance awnings and balconies are scrapped in the process of meeting unrealistic budgets, and as a result inhabitants are left without the means to be part of a community.

To get some perspective on the issues for low cost housing design for women, in mid 2012 I interviewed four women working in this area, specifically in housing the most vulnerable parts of society. They are:
Bobbie Townsend, CEO of the Women’s Housing Company
Ruth Kealy, an architect working within the Women’s Housing Company
Lin Hatfield Dodds, National Director of Uniting Care Australia
Kristi Mansfield, Executive Director of the Sydney Community Foundation

I asked my interviewees about how well architecture and housing were serving the women they deal with, and if there were in fact any specific gendered needs that could be more adequately provided for. Each woman I spoke with has her own perspective and concerns, however, their views are surprisingly consistent: all four agree that we are failing to design low-cost housing in a way that meets vulnerable women’s needs and, as a result, we are failing whole communities. The ‘accidental’ or unintentional impacts of the way most low-cost housing is designed are clear: poor design can undermine relationships and fail to build ‘community’, further reinforcing women’s low status, making access to participation in society difficult and ensuring the next generation suffer the same.

Each interviewee spoke at length about the problems inherent in existing housing stock, the shortage of well-designed, low-cost housing and the urgent need for better designed housing that connected to place and community.

Each of the interviews mentioned many ways in which housing design further disadvantaged those who lived within them. This impacts across the board – from the Bobbie Townsend’s community housing provider, The Women’s Housing Company, to the families in the new developer suburbs that are assisted by UnitingCare Australia in their welfare programs, to the women leaders in disadvantaged communities working in collaboration with the Sydney Community Foundation.

Townsend noted that single women were given apartments with bedrooms so small that you couldn’t get a double bed in them. It shows that an apartment can, simply by its layout, downgrade you from a person as an active part of society to a person apart from it, where your sex life and intimacy, social life, pride and privacy are deemed unnecessary luxuries that community housing need not provide for. Townsend comments:

The argument they gave me….was this: you have single people, why would you need a double bed? And something as basic as that stuck in my head. The next argument was about construction in this particular development, about the bathroom being off the bedroom. Any visitor had to go through the woman’s bedroom to use the bathroom.

Lin Hatfield Dodds spoke of ‘aspirational’ Australians who, swept along by a strong Australian narrative about the desirability of home ownership and with the encouragement of financial institutions, have burdened themselves with unserviceable debt and are thus the front line of housing stress. What is more frightening is that the houses and the suburbs they have bought into are likely to create new waves of social problems. Lin says:

Not only do the houses isolate people from the community around them – the physical and social community – the design isolates themselves from each other.

Lin also commented that housing design – and the way the individual housing units relate to each other – reinforces isolation:

 These housing units contain so many ‘breakout spaces’ that people never actually interact… When you think about what children and teenagers need – the kind of inputs and opportunities they need to develop into reasonably well adjusted social people – these homes are not helping at all.

The (built) communities themselves also don’t help because in they are greenfields areas [with no infrastructure]- –there’s no public space to gather in, and this is not even considered in the design stages.

The situation is being replicated in the much smaller, but otherwise similar, social housing stock, where Lin says:

There’s too often a tiny kitchen that’s separate from the gathering space, whether it’s a lounge dining room or a lounge room or whatever, and the bedrooms at one end … So for families that are struggling to function as families anyway, particularly single parent families headed by women with teenage children, the kids just go up one end of the house, the mum ends up in the kitchen – there’s no interaction.

So all the work [that we are doing in the community services]is trying to get that household to function as a family, and build those relationships up. The way the house is designed is often actually a barrier or disincentive to that.

Kristi Mansfield reports problems not only in the provision of housing, but within the place or the wider suburb, where housing has been built with no consideration for the workings of a good community. Kristi’s organization, the Sydney Community Foundation, believes it is increasingly important to work within the structure of the community in crisis. They call this ‘place-based philanthropy’ – taking into account the holistic problem and the links to education, health, housing, employment and social enterprise. The Sydney Community Foundation identifies community leaders and fosters their ability to make the changes that they know are necessary, but finds that there are basic obstructions – many of them related to design. Kristi asks:

Where can this community level work with these women leaders be done? … We don’t have spaces for that, we don’t have adequate place for that – we don’t have gathering places, we don’t have rooms, and shared buildings.

All participants acknowledge that the problems these communities and women face are complex and are intertwined with government policy, economics, drug and alcohol abuse and just about everything else. But it is also clear that some of the obstacles faced are actually an outcome of the architecture and planning, not the other way around.

Affordable housing policy and how it impacts community

Much attention has been given to the idea of ‘affordable housing’, whereby people of modest means can afford to stay in suburbs where the market value is outstripping the existing residents ability to buy into it. As a strategy to deal with this, many new developments come with a condition that they must include a set percentage of affordable housing. Ruth Kealy says in Ireland this is twenty percent and part of that must be run as ‘social housing’. At Barangaroo and Green Square in Sydney it is just three percent, with no requirement for social housing.

The idea of integrating affordable and social housing into new developments is a response to a long history of damaging social housing developments, but it is also an outcome of the increasing awareness that diversity in our suburbs works better for everyone. We know we need to provide housing close to employment centres. We know that encouraging people to live where they work and shop where they live is a crucial element in reducing our reliance on transport and is thus a step towards slowing climate change. We know there is more sense in allowing decentralized villages to form within a city, rather than to have an entire population looking inwards to the CBD for all their needs and identity. Fostering something as intangible as community has positive flow-on effects, reducing people’s reliance on welfare and allowing them to participate fully and creatively in society.

So, when government puts these minimum requirements onto developers it is not just reducing the government’s own costs and obligations – it is important social policy, and therefore deserves significant economic support. In any case, architects are adept at this kind of multi-faceted brief and, I think, are generally excited about the role of architecture becoming again involved in the frontline of making the world a better place (rather than just making some people richer).

The role of architects – consultation is the key.

How architecture is practiced – and the processes involved in designing and building a project – have a strong influence on the eventual and long-term success of that project. Some of us are highly consultative, spending long periods refining the parameters of the project with pattern language, relational art practice, focus groups, longitudinal studies all being fed into the design process at varying degrees. Others approach the job in different ways. We all would like to think that we listen to the client and we respond to the brief (even if that is to take a nonsensical brief and re-write it!). However, when it comes to housing the most vulnerable people in our society, architects often never actually meet the building’s future inhabitants face-to-face. In many cases not even the housing managers are consulted. The building is built, then the housing companies fill it.

So my question is this: is it possible to build a successful housing project when the process is so sterile, so theoretical, so detached from the people who will live in it? When Bobbie Townsend was asked the one thing she would change to make big improvements for her sector, she said that while it might be nice to have more money and to have changes in policy at a government level, given one wish she would have consultation. “Let’s have consultation with design,” she said emphatically.

Build for women and you build community

Housing at the basic level is shelter, safety and territory. What gets built for women is the same as what gets built for men. At a basic level, that is fine. But good housing is more than a roof over your head. We need to identify with where we live, to feel safe, to be given the confidence to interact with the wider community (work, school), and this comes from how well we are able to interact within our immediate community (our family, our building, our street).

Primarily, women are the drivers of community. We organise the barbeques, the community gardens, we police the children (ours and others), we notice when the old man across the corridor hasn’t picked up his paper from the front door, we cut the oranges for soccer practice (and sometimes volunteer our partners to coach the team), we hassle the council about new pedestrian crossings, we bring the cake to work for someone’s birthday.

This may be because we have an intuitive talent for looking after the people around us or it may just be because women do what we can to make our lives better. Historically we’ve not been allowed into positions of power where we can, for example, design a better suburb from scratch, or change the legislation to enforce equal pay or make sure men are doing their share at home. Whatever.

The result – a good strong community – is good for everyone. This, I think, is why Bobbie Townsend says: “someone said to me many many years ago, ‘if you get it right for women, you get it right for everybody’.” This could mean a couple of things, but I choose to have it demonstrate my point above. Women are intrinsically linked to the life of a community, which naturally includes men and their needs. So, design and build housing right for women and you give us the facilities to build a community for everyone.

Are women architects better at designing for community?

Finally, I asked our panel if women require different things to men, when asked. Did they want things that could be seen to be for the good of the whole community, rather than themselves as individuals? Did they say, I need a spa bath, or did they say we need a table for the community centre? While undoubtedly the spa bath would be nice, most answered in ways that showed their priorities were not self-centred.

Kristi Mansfield from Sydney Community Foundation said:

[A client] might answer: I need good storage, I need a functional space to put my pram, or make sure the kid’s toys are put away. I need safe space in my own environment, and once I’ve got all of that, and a dishwasher or whatever, I then need good schools, good safe places for my kids to go after school.

Lin Hatfield Dodds reported something very similar:

‘They’re focused on their children and their children’s future, and so they prioritise things like safety, proximity to schools, proximity – although negative proximity I suppose, or distance – to places where their kids are going to get into trouble … So if they’ve got kids that have already had brushes with juvenile justice, they don’t want to be near where the local drugs are being sold, the big shopping mall or whatever. In terms of actually sitting down with someone and designing a physical space, and both genders are getting fully engaged, it’s probably focused on different things.

It is unclear whether women architects, purely by virtue of the fact that we are women, are better able to design and get built the kinds of places that address the needs of other women. There is a general view that we are better at listening, and empathizing – however, do these things translate into better built projects…. Or in the end, does the budget rule all?

Junee Public Library by Dunn and Hillam. Photograph KIllian O'Sullivan.

There are many examples of consultative practices where community is given a high priority. I want to reflect on some of the work of my practice, Dunn & Hillam.  In the community-run Junee Pre-School and Junee Library projects the primary drivers were:

  • Longevity. In both cases we were working with buildings that had been build at least a hundred years ago. This was the first major work done to them since then and would likely be the last for another hundred years. It had to function well for that time and be flexible in use as the community demanded it.
  • Ongoing costs (they didn’t want to rely heavily on community or government support).
  • Opening the buildings to everyone, and making them work for as many people on as many levels as possible.

The community was not concerned with resale value, impressive finishes or achieving the maximum development on the block. The Preschool raised $80,000 of the funds themselves (the remaining amount came from DoCS) – this from a student population of 24 in a town of 4,000 people – and spent it happily on building quality.

We designed both the Junee Pre School and the Junee Library in the full knowledge that this set of buildings would be used by the whole community for a range of purposes and that there was need to consider the functioning of a lively community. For example, the foyer and entrances are spaces designed to allow lingering, chatting, exchanging of vital information, gossip, peer support, networking, lobbying, exchanging of favours- the basics of community. The Library’s children’s space has it’s own separate entrance and access to the kitchen and bathroom so that it can be used after hours for movie nights, committee meetings, craft nights or anything else the locals can dream up.

It is in all ways they were community driven projects, which defied the traditional model of the architect as detached consultant. The result is loved and well-used buildings that the whole community can feel they contributed to and are part of.

I believe that community capital – libraries, parks, multi-function community centres, community gardens and everything around and in between our houses – should be given the highest priority when considering how to make our societies sustainable in social, environmental, political and economic ways. And it seems to me that women architects are really in a good place to work in this field combining our high levels of education with our empathetic understanding of the needs of other women. However, it is indisputable that a good architect can be either gender. It just might be that the world is coming a round to a way of thinking that is slightly more female, and we should all be standing up to show how that’s a good thing for everyone.


Further references

Melanie Dodd, “Cultural Sustainability” Architect Victoria (Spring 2010): 8–10.

Melanie Dodd, “The Architecture of Action” Architecture Review Australia 113 (Summer 2010): 26–30.

Hanover Welfare Services, Precarious Housing and Health Inequalities: What are the links (University of Melbourne, University of Adelaide, Melbourne City Mission, 2011).

Lin Hatfield Dodds, “Equality for women? Don’t make me laugh”. Online Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate. Posted Tuesday, 28 June 2011.

Helen Kimberley and Bonnie Simons, The Brotherhood’s Social Barometer (Brotherhood of St Laurence, 2009).

Professor Tim Jackson, Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy (Sustainable Development Commission, March 2009).

Ludo McFerran, It Could Be You: Female, single, older and homeless, (A collaborative project of Homelessness NSW, the Older Women’s Network NSW and St Vincent de Paul Society, 2010).

Dr Selina Tually, Professor Andrew Beer and Dr Debbie Faulkner, “Too Big to Ignore: Future Issues for Australian Women’s Housing, 2006–2025” (AHURI Southern Research Centre, 2007). ‘The data collected in this report tell us that, in Australia in 2009, excluding the Indigenous population, one of the most disadvantaged demographic profiles for a person to have is to be old, single, poor, female and in private rental accommodation.’(p. 47)

Alison Ziller and Elizabeth Delaney, Background paper 4: Women and Housing in Greater Sydney (Sydney Women’s Fund, January 2012).

  1. Helen Kimberley and Bonnie Simons, The Brotherhood’s Social Barometer (Brotherhood of St Laurence, 2009).
  2. Ludo McFerran, It Could Be You: Female, single, older and homeless, (A collaborative project of Homelessness NSW, the Older Women’s Network NSW and St Vincent de Paul Society, 2010). Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Homeless people in SAAP: SAAP National Data Collection annual report. SAAP NDC report series 13. Cat. no. HOU 191. (Canberra: AIHW, 2009).
  3. Chris Chamberlain and David MacKenzie Counting the Homeless 2006: New South Wales. Cat. no. HOU 204. (Canberra: AIHW, 2009).
  4. Ludo McFerran, It Could Be You: Female, single, older and homeless, (A collaborative project of Homelessness NSW, the Older Women’s Network NSW and St Vincent de Paul Society, 2010)
  5. Ludo McFerran, It Could Be You: Female, single, older and homeless, (A collaborative project of Homelessness NSW, the Older Women’s Network NSW and St Vincent de Paul Society, 2010)