The NSW Department of Planning and Environment wasn’t interested in a competition to design guidelines for housing types. According to state government architect Peter Poulet, they were instead interested in a competition that would allow them to “see draft policy in action, test it and get feedback”.

The resulting Missing Middle Design Competition sought designs capable of informing the final Medium Density Design Guide. From this, the aim was to “make well-designed, low-rise, medium-density homes a reality through Sydney’s middle-ring suburbs and beyond,” said Poulet.

Here’s hoping.

Entries came from registered, graduate and student architects – as well as some building designers – for terrace houses, dual occupancies and manor homes. Dual occupancy winner, Youssofzay and Hart Architects, had one larger and one smaller low-rise building sitting next to one another. According to the competition jury, this allowed single home owners “to develop extra housing on their own block [with] the new contemporary home sleeved beside the existing home. Three generations can occupy the block together, providing support through the varied life stages.” (Runner up: Trias Studio; Commendation: Eeles Trelease Architects.)

Manor houses category winner, Madigan Architecture / University of South Australia, showed a well-proportioned, “innovative, practical and ethical idea to make clever additions and alterations to two existing houses that make four houses from two,” the jury commented. Again, they noted that it makes for “flexible intergenerational living.” (Runner up: Kieran Ward; Commendation: Henry Foley and Isobel Lord.)

As the terraces category winner, Platform Architects’ proposal “balances private, shared and public zones [for] comfortable and generous dwellings that are applicable to a variety of sites”. Their layered look was reminiscent of the same architects’ apartments for the Sydney Olympic Village and onwards. (Runner up: Olivia van Dijk Architecture; Commendation: PH+ Architects.)

As well as Poulet, the jury included architects Rachel Neeson (Neeson Murcutt Architects), Timothy Hill (Partners Hill), Les Dickson (independent building designer) and Jan McCredie (service manager at Urban Design City of Parramatta).

“[The] tendency to create extremely dense, relatively small precincts at rail stations surrounded by low-density dwellings, the missing middle approach to retrofitting suburbia, is appropriate to the many precincts in Sydney that have large housing lots, smaller houses and housing stock that may be nearing its useful life or that could be adapted,” says McCredie. “This type of precinct is most often found in the middle-ring suburbs. The provision of housing would increase enormously if 50 per cent of the detached housing stock was increased to three dwellings on each site.”

McCredie is an architect and urban designer who has worked widely in local and state government, including on the retrofitting of suburbia. According to McCredie, the advantages of this model are numerous.

“It can be implemented over time and so can provide fine-grain intervention and interesting suburbs like Paddington and Balmain. Most importantly, the models can be used to provide Torrens title housing so that it gives people greater control over their housing.

“It does require a zoning mechanism. The Missing Middle as complying development only related to R3 (multi-dwelling) and there are not many R3 zones currently in Sydney. Also, some R3 zones allow units so the other housing forms are not pursued.”

The models would also need to be defined in the planning legislation and be able to be identified in the BCA for fire compliance and so on, she added.

“Local government should take the lead, work with a community and identify very clearly what typologies are suitable on which sites so that the approval process is relatively easy and a good outcome is ensured. This will enable the development of precincts with a particular character; retention of mature vegetation; a range of housing types; and housing with different amounts and configuration of private, open space.

“Current planning controls do not really encourage this approach because they all stipulate a minimum amount of private open space rather than, say, the Paddington model that has a consistent housing type but various types of external private open space.

“Competition feedback, among other things, showed that precincts need to be looked at holistically because existing subdivision patterns and street layouts have so much variation. It can’t be one size fits all.

“Ideally local government would undertake precinct plans that address the appropriate building typologies for the existing subdivision and ownership patterns,” McCredie says.

However, as history has proven, “[when] governments have rezoned areas to very high densities, the impact has been a large uplift in land prices and the removal of any housing typology options other than towers.”

Other housing types may well result from the the recent financial merger of the international design partnership DWP (Design Worldwide Partnership) with DWP|Suters. The idea is that DWP will be a global firm, spearheaded by Asia, but serving an increasingly diverse client base in the Australian market, said CEO Leone Lorrimer.  

According to Lorrimer, “[the] Asian design sensibility will help us create better buildings as our cities densify”. She points to Sydney’s Central Park, delivered by Singaporean-owned Frasers Property Australia, as a good example of density done well.

“Singaporeans have a much longer tradition of thinking strategically about development, because they have such little land and every square metre is precious. They are masters of delivering high-density development with beautiful gardens and shared facilities that bring with them high levels of amenity.

“Central Park does that. It is higher density, but it also gives more back to the public through the common areas, gardens and bigger-picture thinking around district services,” Lorrimer adds.

High-end apartment developments in Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai have “exceptional” communal facilities, she adds. They have much better “gardens, swimming pools and places to host dinner parties than could ever be within the reach of most Australians living in the suburbs”.

The challenge is on for all housing density design ideas to reach their full potential. 

Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma; [email protected]