“Let’s talk about why we’re here. Our architecture practice received 40 enquires in the first six months of this year, and the majority of those were for projects under $500,000. We loved 90% of the potential clients we spoke to but ended up working with none of them. Why? Architects require between 10% – 20% of the overall budget to deliver a custom-built project and the majority of people we spoke with simply couldn’t afford us. New Resident is our response to this issue. It’s about delivering our best work, to the people who need it, at a price we know they can afford.”

And so began DesignFreo Conversation05, an evening with Kate Fitzgerald, a Fremantle-based architect intent on reshaping the way we think about housing through her architectural studio, Whispering Smith and sustainable development company, New Resident. Warmed with wine from Old Bridge Cellars and party pies from Little Loaf, our audience were primed to hear what Kate had to say. 

A report delivered in 2019 suggested that Perth has the longest suburban sprawl in the world, describing it as ‘a design disaster and failure of modern development’[1]. Infill and medium density development are essential to ensuring a more sustainable future for our city, however, many people fear what this means for the character and identity of their suburbs – and with good reason, given the poor quality of much development in Perth. 

Kate was frank in her assessment of existing suburban development in Perth, stating that she ‘understands at an economic and planning policy level why housing in Perth sucks’. Using satellite imagery to make her point, Kate showed what happens under current residential planning codes when existing homes are demolished and blocks are sub-divided. Monotonous, villa-style developments replace character, and battle-axe blocks become the norm in a treeless, paved landscape. 

‘If we keep going the way we’re going, over 50% of Perth’s tree canopy will be destroyed within 15 years in urban infill areas.’

Kate’s slide: what in-fill looks like under the current Residential Planning Codes – trees razed to the ground and replaced by wall-to-wall boxes surrounded by hard paving.

What might save us from this hellfire? Enter WA’s new Medium Density Policy. Currently in draft form, DesignWA, under the auspices of the State Government, has revamped the Planning Codes to place good design, neighbourliness and sustainability at the heart of all new medium density developments. According to David Caddy, Chair of the WA Planning Commission, the key motivation of the new policy is to improve quality of life for individuals and communities across the state.[2]

Kate used the work of Whispering Smith to demonstrate the potential of the new policy. House A, B and C in Scarborough prove that it’s possible to build sustainable, affordable and beautiful homes within a suburban infill setting. New Resident goes one step further through its mission to ‘upend the WA property market with affordable, sustainable, architect designed house and land packages.’

House A: a modest, concrete one-bedroom loft house in Scarborough and Kate’s first development. Orientated to the north, allowing doors to be opened to the sunshine at least nine months of the year, and built using affordable and unpretentious materials.

There were a huge number of take-aways from Kate’s talk, and we know a lot of people have been thinking about it ever since.

First, the soulless streetscape that makes up many of our suburbs is largely driven by the existing residential codes. Kate pointed out that for decades, developers and building designers have not been building homes but designing to numerical tables in a policy document. Fortunately, the Government is addressing the inadequacies current policy with the new DesignWA Medium Density policy.

Second, as individuals, we need to think differently about the sorts of houses we want to live in. The time has come to accept a new language for small to medium sized dwellings – to stop trying to make our homes feel like ‘high-end palaces’ – and instead embrace quality of space, good materials and amenity over size. 

We can’t wait to see where Kate takes these ideas next. 

[2] https://aca.org.au/medium-density-symposium-recap/

[1] https://nowhereandeverywhere.co/change/longest-suburban-sprawl-world/

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