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Gen Y / Step House by David Barr Architects and LandCorp.

With population growth and housing affordability major problems for our cities, an increase in density is no longer optional. It’s unavoidable, experts believe.

However, densification does not necessarily mean more high-rise apartments. In fact, it cannot be the only, one-size-fits-all solution for our urban spaces.

“If we get densification right we have the opportunity to address both housing affordability and what’s referred to as the ‘missing middle’, a diverse array of housing options to meet the needs of a diverse community," professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) says in its 2017 report, A Place For Everyone. 

“Housing options such as townhouses, terraces and manor houses can provide places of high amenity, where communities interact in public and private realms, and where services and jobs are within proximity.”

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The ‘missing middle’: The lack of housing options in between single-family detached homes and apartment towers, such as townhouses, terraces and manor houses. Graphic courtesy of the NSW Government’s Low Rise Medium Density Design Guide.

Some of the key benefits of medium density housing include improved variety and flexibility for changing demographics, as well as better energy efficiency than detached single-family homes. Their ability to help shape and create community is another key advantage. Just take Stockland’s recent announcement of building 100 terrace homes in a 2.84 hectare site in Glendalough, WA as an example. The developer’s first medium density development in Perth, the proposal is set in a “high quality, liveable and walkable community setting”.

Three design tips

“Medium density housing” may be a self-explanatory building typology, but creating a successful project is not necessarily as straightforward. A 2015 report by architect Daniel Parolek—a driving force behind the ‘missing middle’ housing movement after coining the term in 2010—sets out a number of characteristics of well-designed medium density housing, such as ensuring they are built in a walkable context.

However, the report also highlights three mistakes Parolek, founding architect at Opticos, finds design teams often make when trying to fill the missing middle.

1. Forcing a square into a circle

Trying to force suburban unit types and sizes into an urban context and housing type is one of the “most common mistakes” made by architects and builders, Parolek notes.

“The starting point for Missing Middle Housing needs to be smaller-unit sizes; the challenge is to create small spaces that are well designed, comfortable, and usable.

“As an added benefit, smaller-unit sizes can help developers keep their costs down, improving the pro-forma performance of a project, while keeping the housing available to a larger group of buyers or renters at a lower price point.”

2. Too much emphasis on parking

For units built in an already walkable urban context, making off-street parking a driver of site plans risks buildings becoming inefficient from a development potential or yield standpoint.

“As a starting point, these units should provide no more than one off-street parking space per unit. To enable these lower off-street parking requirements to work, on-street parking must be available adjacent to the units,” Polarek explains.

“Housing design that forces too much parking on a site also compromises the occupant’s experience of entering the building or ‘coming home’ and the relationship with its context, especially in an infill condition, which can greatly impact marketability.”

3. Complicated design and construction

Another mistake teams may make is creating designs that are overly complicated and expensive. For medium density housing to be effective, increased density must be balanced by decreasing costs.

This is best achieved by designing buildings that are simple in form, small in size, but still high quality. This maximises affordability for homeowners, and returns for developers, which creates further opportunities to expand on these ‘missing middle’ housing stock.