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My Home: design-led housing for the homeless

Architect Michelle Blakely leads ‘My Home’, a philanthropic development company that combines private funding, unused government land and good, sustainable design to address homelessness.

The recent ‘Tent City’ crisis at Fremantle’s Pioneer Park brought to attention the acute lack of emergency and long-term housing for the homeless in this State. Long before the story hit the front page of The West, architect Michelle Blakeley set out to address the issue. ‘My Home’ is a philanthropic development company that combines private funding, unused government land and good, sustainable design. Emma Brain sat down in conversation with Michelle to learn more about this ambitious project. 

This is a brave thing to take on, Michelle. How did you get involved?

It started with an ArchitectureAU article about Launch Housing getting together to build houses for homeless people on road reserve land in Melbourne. Vic Roads had leased the land at a peppercorn lease. Geoff Harris, the founder of Flight Centre, contributed $5m for construction and the result was 57 houses. I thought it was such a simple, sensible idea. Government has lots of vacant land and it doesn’t involve asking the government for money.  

Two hours later, I am walking down William Street, Northbridge, to a meeting in the city and was so aware of the number of homeless people curled up in the doorways of empty shops. I came back from my meeting and sent an email to Geoff Warn, as State Government Architect, asking if we could meet to discuss the idea. I thought he might be helpful in introducing me to government department heads. That was two and a half years ago.

Who will live in the houses once they’re finished?

The houses are for homeless people or those at risk of homelessness. “My Home” is a philanthropic developer. Once we have built the houses, a Community Housing Provider (CHP) takes on the management of the property and the tenants. They select the tenants on a needs’ basis.  “My Home” and the CHP work with Housing First principles: if a person has a safe, secure, permanent home then the delivery of support services is much easier, and the person has a much greater chance of regaining independence and an improved quality of life. 

Colour render of a ‘My Home’ house

Global precedents show that Housing First has an 80% success rate i.e. people don’t regress back to homelessness. Statistics also show that visits to emergency medical centres and other crisis services are dramatically reduced as well as significantly less involvement with the justice system.

The usual practice for placing people into social housing requires them to clean up their act i.e. stop drinking or using drugs and when a house becomes available, they must take it or miss out, regardless of where it is located. With Housing First, there are no pre-conditions, the tenant chooses where they want to live, the homes are in residential areas and there are wrap-round support services which is key to success. The CHP has outreach workers who have ongoing contact with each tenant. The tenants enter a standard rental agreement and the rent is about 25% of their income, which is usually their social security benefit payment.

What has been the benefit of having an architect involved in the project from the outset?

Huge benefit! Because we had to build a very cost-efficient house, I brought together the project manager, structural engineer, pre-fabricator and four builders very early in the design process. We had several think-tanks. 

The starting point was my designs for small single bedroom houses, and together we arrived at the most cost-efficient model, without reducing the design to a bland box. I was able to determine what was worth retaining for the comfort and joy of the living space. For example, the builders pointed out that we could just about halve the cost of the glazed French doors that I had opening from the living space to the verandah if it was a single glazed door with a side window. I can accept that sort of compromise. There is always compromise in any project. 

If the architect is present from the outset, then the architect can manage the compromises and retain the integrity of the design.

Tell us about the houses? What design features have you used to mitigate their modest size?

The houses are 31m2 with a 11m2 verandah across the front facade. There is a living area with kitchen, bedroom and a bathroom with washing machine and dryer. My key design driver was to create a house that the resident would enjoy coming home to, not just because it is safe and secure and protects from the weather, but also because it is a welcoming, joyful and embracing. 

The footprint is small, but the house doesn’t feel small. The model we are now working with has a raked ceiling up to 3.2m which gives a much greater sensation of spaciousness, further emphasised because the wall between the living area and bedroom is only to door height so you are seeing much more space above and around you. There is only one internal door, to the bathroom. Circulation space around the bed and in the bathroom and door sizes are to Liveable Homes Gold Standard. 

Michelle Blakeley with Jim DeBaughn (Highbury Homes) and Brian Hancock (Rotary)

We have built a demonstration house in the yard of Offsite, the pre-fabricator. Invariably, visitors are surprised at how big the house is. We have had several people asking if they can purchase a house for a weekender or holiday home.

The houses are designed and built to Passivhaus principles with timber framing, UPVC windows, double glazing, very good insulation and an air exchange system. There is no air-conditioning, virtually no thermal bridging, the double glazing and insulation also perform as acoustic attenuation, as does the rainwater tank which is always on the side closest to the road or railway.

Solar panels act as the roof for the verandah, they don’t sit on a roof, they are the roof. With each site, we can change the external cladding and colour palette to suit the surrounding houses.

How did you select the sites where the homes will be located? Has there been any pushback from locals?

We have not selected the location of our sites. We asked the WAPC for sites, gave them a brief, and they came with five sites initially. For various reasons, we now have two sites which will proceed, in North Fremantle and Victoria Park. Both are ideal locations for us: close to public transport, in a residential area, close to retail precincts and smallish in size. We don’t want enclaves housing homeless people. We want to integrate the houses into the community, we want people to walk past the houses and think they are private group dwellings.

North Fremantle will have 18 houses which as many as we would want on one lot. Victoria Park is a standard quarter acre block and has five houses. We are also in discussion with the Churches about land around Perth. WAPC has said that once we prove the model on the first site, they will offer more land.

I think we were spoiled having North Fremantle as our first site. There is a strong progressive community spirit in Fremantle. The development was published asking for public comment and we had no objections. Other sites have had push back from the local residents, typically a NIMBY response.

We like to end our interviews at DF by asking three quick questions related to our two favourite subjects, design and Fremantle!

What does the phrase Design Matters mean to you?

Design adds sensuality to an object: visual, audio, aural, touch, smell. Without design there would be no experience of the object. It would just be.

What design object brings you the most joy and why?

A thoughtfully designed functional object. I love that Philippe Starck can transform a citrus juicer into an object of incredible finesse. I love that Jony Ive designed such tactile objects for Apple.

Tell us something that you love about Freo.

I love the steel giraffes stretching above the harbour.

Published 28 January 2021