Architecture as a tool for social and environmental change in regional Australia

28 November 2023
Studio projects making in impact in regional communities
Three studio projects at the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning are teaching our students the role of architecture in addressing cultural, environmental, and social issues in regional Australia.

Studio projects are the lifeblood of architectural education, where students receive hands-on instruction and training to conceptualise designs that address real-world problems.

Let Every Voice Be Heard (BDES2027, Unit Coordinator Michael Muir), Conflux/antiflux and The Future of Towns (MARC5010/5020, Unit Coordinator Dr Maren Koehler) are three project briefs offered by the University’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning that provide our students with experience working on real sites with real clients to solve nuanced issues in regional Australia.

Each brief challenges students to deliver practical solutions while navigating the human impact of their designs, building awareness of the architect’s role, responsibility, and agency for designing equitable and sustainable landscapes.

Community-led design creating safe havens for those most at risk

Student designs for women's housing in Hobart

Student designs for women's housing in Hobart. Image: Maja Baska

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children globally. Research underscores the disproportionate impact of economic stress on women and children, particularly when confronted with external factors such as the housing crisis, inflation, and the recent global pandemic. Amidst the outbreak and lockdowns of COVID-19, UN Women declared the intensification of domestic violence towards women and children as the shadow pandemic, highlighting the prevalence and severity of the issue.

Tara Sydney, Justine Anderson, and Caitlin Condon from Adjacency Studio are three inspiring young women advocating for new and sustainable ways of practice for architecture, by suggesting that housing should be viewed as a fundamental human right, rather than a means of building wealth.

The three-woman team teaches Studio 2B: Let Every Voice Be Heard in the University’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning (ADP), where students design long-term housing for women and children at risk of homelessness in nipaluna (Hobart). The studio collaborates with the Hobart Women’s Shelter, ideating and building model designs to help the shelter's mission of doubling its permanent housing units by 2024 for the provision of safe, emergency accommodation for women and children affected by family violence and/or homelessness.

In Tasmania, as is the case with most of Australia, there is an affordable housing crisis. Yet the number of women who are turned away from emergency accommodation in the island state is more than double when compared to the national figure.

“In 2021/22, seven out of ten women and eight out of ten accompanying children were turned away from the Hobart Women’s Shelter due to a lack of space,” Tara said. 

Through research and consultation with experts, students are encouraged to think about trauma-informed design principles and the relationship between people and place, to conceptualise dignified spaces that are safe, comfortable, therapeutic, and nurture a sense of community to support vulnerable women and children.

“Our students’ work is shared with the Hobart Women’s Shelter and their architects to help test ideas such as site strategies, spatial organisation, material choices, landscape design, et cetera. Each cohort that has worked to this brief has produced an incredibly thoughtful and rigorous body of work to pass on to the client.”


Exhibition of student works explores social impact of architecture

'Tapestry' features students’ efforts to design affordable long-term accommodation for women and children at risk of homelessness.

One of the key objectives of Let Every Voice Be Heard is to teach students the advocacy and agency of architecture to confront complex societal challenges.

“When students are able to engage with real projects and real communities, especially those that focus on designing with empathy, they can begin to appreciate how architects can operate as advocates for promoting a better and more equitable world,” Justine said.

“It is pertinent to find new ways to empower the next generation, as we need architects who are committed to promoting social justice through their work. Through this studio, we have not only seen our students engage with the active and effective role they can play in more equitable futures through design, but also recognise the necessity of good design to be championed by architects advocating for and working intrinsically with the community,” Caitlin added.

Ted Dwyer, a student from the 2022 Let Every Voice Be Heard cohort, initially saw the brief with the Hobart Women’s Shelter as daunting, but found the experience ultimately indispensable for their education on how designers can become agents of social change.

“This studio was a wonderful lesson in how design decisions at nearly every scale can have tangible, positive impacts on people’s lives,” Ted said.

“It was the most meaningful period of learning that I have encountered so far in my studies.”

Challenging the way we think about landscape

The conflux of rivers is where two or more bodies of water meet, creating a charged zone that can be a dangerous place. In 2022 the Hawkesbury-Nepean watershed, a large territory in Western Sydney defined by its many river confluxes, flooded as water saturated the river system after excessive rain. This resulted in mass evacuation orders, extensive riverbank erosion, and the destruction of many homes and businesses.

The extreme flooding was driven by climate change, but the impact of this flooding was exaggerated by decisions to build, farm and plan upon an area that is and has always been a floodplain.

Conflux/antiflux, Studio Brief 7 in ADP, asks students to consider architecture’s role and agency at points of river convergence like the Hawkesbury-Nepean region, and how to respond to natural disasters, whether stemming from climate or the cyclical nature of the geographical area.

“Our studio asks students to reconsider both architecture as a discipline and the architect as a professional figure,” said Oskar Johanson, brief leader of Conflux/antiflux.

“Many of the decisions about how and where a city is developed, including in dangerous areas such as floodplains, take place without the involvement of architects. But architects possess important skills that can be useful in visualising spatial issues and in advocating for just urban policy.”

Students of the studio engage with the environment through site exploration at key locations within the Hawkesbury-Nepean River Catchment Area. They learn Indigenous perspectives on the concept of Country and how this knowledge resulted in working with, rather than against, flood-prone landscapes for thousands of years.

They also hear from expert architects, design practitioners, and researchers on how to use the recovery following crises as a catalyst to question orthodox practices and implement prevention and planning measures to avert repeat disasters.

From small to large scale, students use the practical and theoretical knowledge gained from these field visits and in-classroom discussions to develop a framework that critically considers the local landscape and community when designing equitable, ecological spaces. Projects ranged from investigating flood and fire-resilient adaptation of heritage buildings, to ideating schemes for water filtration and storage, to finding alternative approaches to connecting with Country and decolonialising the landscape.

“Thinking through these diverse issues at multiple scales, the students proposed all sorts of intriguing ideas and frameworks that would make a significant impact on the Hawkesbury-Nepean region,” said Sophie Canaris, brief leader of Conflux/antiflux.

“The proposals considered flood risk and the needs of the river to recognise where a building or urban design scheme wasn’t appropriate – that sometimes less architecture is needed, not more – and who better to advocate for that kind of position, a radical position in a pro-growth world, than an architect,” Sophie added. 

By imbuing a sense of agency to redefine and reconfigure their roles away from an anthropocentric, pro-growth lens in favour of sustainability and conservation, students are equipped to confront compounding environmental issues like climate change and societal issues like population density and housing affordability.

“Even as propositional ideas, these projects challenge the way we think about this landscape – not just the Hawkesbury-Nepean but other larger environmental structures like watersheds and river systems that big cities depend on,” Oskar said.

“It is our hope that students will take these tools into their professional careers and argue for their future agendas with authority,” Oskar added.

Reviving place and identity

Remember wandering through the centre of a regional town, streets lined with charming window displays of the local businesses, old historic buildings, and welcoming bank entryways? Over the past 50 years high streets have been in sharp decline, leaving a slew of empty buildings in what once was a bustling area of activity in regional communities.

The decline of high streets can be attributed to several events: the economic downturn of the 1980s, rising interest rates, the devastating drought through the 1990s, the introduction and proliferation of out-of-town shopping centres, and the growing prevalence of online shopping. Regional communities started to fracture, town centres emptied out, shops closed, and social networks eroded, with discourse around placemaking and housing focused on urban cities.

However, 20 years on and after the COVID-19 lockdowns, there is renewed interest in our regional centres.

“With the construction of large infrastructure projects such as the Inland Rail Project, the boom in primary industry creating jobs throughout inland NSW, and the improvement in digital connectivity, there is enormous demand to move out of the city and into our regional centres,” said Ashley Dunn, brief leader of The Future of Towns.

“But there is not enough housing or investment in building and strengthening the social networks and infrastructure in these areas.”

This presents the opportunity for a radical rethink of how we can rejuvenate regional town centres, to build structures with wide-ranging public, social, and environmental value, promoting both a greater sense of community and a sustainable way of life. 

The Future of Towns, Studio Brief 5 in ADP, asks students to design an experimental, mixed-use building on the high street of Cobar, NSW (approximately 690 km from Sydney) as a prototype for regional town centre rejuvenation.

 “We need to develop a new set of metrics and models of purpose-driven development that quantify public value through the provision of social capital to support and help rebuild thriving communities,” Ashley said.

“Far from being behind the cities, regional centres are in the ideal position to adapt to accommodate a circular consumer and business economy of recycling, reuse and waste management, and can lead the way in developing new models that deal with climate change and set new benchmarks for sustainable living.”

Sustainability is a key focus of The Future of Towns, with the brief calling for a social and affordable housing scheme that considers the environment when choosing materials and construction methodology, while simultaneously exploring other uses to increase the building’s public value and social capital.

“Provision of high quality, geographically and climatically appropriate housing is symbiotic to the provision of public and community services within the town centres,” Ashley said. 

“To make architecture that is appropriate and belongs to a place, it must respond to and add to the culture of that place. Sporting clubs, music groups, arts societies and so on all provide forms of social capital through local networks – they provide a sense of identity that is directly linked to place and add richness that is not readily quantifiable in narrow economic terms.”

Students visit key locations in Cobar for site analysis and to get a sense of the community. They also visit Bourke, 160 km from Cobar, to study the Bourke Court House and the Lands Department Building, precedents of geographically and climate-specific architecture that were built before air conditioning, and examples of passive climate control and sustainable design. The lessons students learned from these precedents were then applied to their designs.  

“Connecting students with the community in these regional towns allows them to understand the similarities and differences compared to people that live in the cities,” Ashley said.

“Experiencing first-hand the climate, the light, and the air gives students the intimate and practical knowledge to then be able to make design decisions in direct response to specific local conditions and to a regional communities’ needs.”

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