Small living? An architectural exploration of occupant experiences in medium-density compact housing precincts

  • Melinda Dodson

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Canberra, the national capital, is on track to meet its ambitious 2021 carbon emissions targets, according to Steffen (2019), as it progresses to net zero by 2045. To meet its population demands, Canberra will also build 100,000 new dwellings over a similar period (ACT Planning Strategy 2018). To do this, ‘liveable’ medium-density compact housing (medium-density) is crucial to its low carbon urban consolidation and suburban renewal. Yet despite a range of social, ‘sustainable’ and design advantages, community and occupant concerns persist with medium-density quality, changing neighbourhood character, and loss of landscape (Elton Consulting 2011; et al.). Compounding this, medium-density is often supply-led for an unknown occupant, with its design and delivery inadequately reflecting available research on occupant satisfaction. Such factors combine to perpetuate systemic design errors in this housing type (Sarkissian et al. 2004; et al.).
    This exegesis explores social research-informed design by a mid-career architect focused on the liveability of low-scale medium-density precincts. The title ‘Small living?’ frames inquiry for and through design. I developed post-occupancy evaluation (POE) techniques to reveal occupant-use requirements, creatively addressing them through design (Figure 2, right). The chosen case study precinct in Canberra (the ‘Village’), provided the setting for qualitative fieldwork on a variety of households and compact houses (townhouses, courtyard or terrace types sized around 125sqm. within a 19dw/ha precinct). Seeking to remedy the low take-up of POE by architects, I devised descriptive-depictive techniques to reveal findings. By ‘spatialising’ POE data, I distilled design-use patterns, opportunities and conflicts into a beneficial architectural format.1 I found that compact house design is complex and finely tuned; that is, how we prioritise space use and spatial characteristics, impacts the end-occupant. I also found that reduced house size intensifies the occupant experience and can adapt poorly to household change. My design responses sought to address these, and many other findings revealed through the research, culminating in several competition-winning and demonstration housing projects. The PhD contribution to new knowledge is an expanded definition of architectural practice to improve the design of compact housing, as seen through the POE research transformation of the Compass House creative artefact.
    Canberra presents a microcosm of the challenges faced by Australian cities. Compact houses offer one low carbon pathway, provided they are liveable. My user-centred approach offers techniques to reveal who will use compact houses, and how they will use them, thus adding to the medium-density design-use ‘knowledge frontier’ (Vischer 2008; Mjøset 2005; et al.). Therefore, as we strive to densify and consolidate Canberra, this research can assist policy-makers, planners, developers and architects, but more particularly, the occupants of compact houses
    Date of Award2021
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorSteve Basson (Supervisor), Lyndon Anderson (Supervisor), Andrew Mackenzie (Supervisor), Barbara Norman (Supervisor), Stephen Frith (Supervisor) & Michael Jasper (Supervisor)

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