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Design lessons from remote communities

Frog Hollow House
Frog Hollow House

NBC Aboriginal Corporation is an Aboriginal-owned organisation that provides architectural design and building consultancy services in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, with particular focus on Aboriginal communities and remote locations.

NBC manager Graeme Boreham told The Fifth Estate that projects go wrong when what is designed is not what is wanted or needed by the people or community.

He says it is not just about a project being fit for purpose, oriented correctly and having the right amenity for what it’s trying to achieve, it also needs to be right for people who are trying to connect with Country.

There are some basic practicalities such as a building needing to be easy to access, but it also needs to be “meaningful and inviting” and not “too closed in”, but very open and comfortable.

Design and delivery also needs to be “considerate of how the community will utilise it.”

Karrayili Adult Education Centre

Karrayili Adult Education Centre

The classic suburban home model simply hasn’t worked for most people out in remote communities.

That is because the end result hasn’t provided what the owner or tenant was looking for in a home.

For the outcome to be appropriate, there needs to be a consultation process to begin with. That is how an inviting space people feel comfortable in is achieved.

He says that in a lot of projects, a significant amount of external open space is called for.

That enables the building to have good natural ventilation, and spaces where people can take advantage of the sun as it is setting, he says.

The basic principles are to limit the walls, limit the floorspace and ensure nice, functional rooms.

Change afoot in WA with new procurement policy

Boreham says there is a shift happening in WA to more Indigenous involvement in project design and delivery. The change is being driven by WA treasurer and minister for finance, energy and Aboriginal affairs Ben Wyatt.

Wyatt is the state’s first Aboriginal treasurer, and is working to change the government’s own procurement model.

At the end of March this year, he officially launched the state government’s Aboriginal Procurement Policy.

“The state government is a major employer, investor and purchaser of goods and services in Western Australia,” Wyatt said in a media statement.

“Our Aboriginal Procurement Policy aims to leverage these roles to create opportunities for contracting with Aboriginal businesses, and should by extension create more employment opportunities for Aboriginal people.

“The benefit of contracting with Aboriginal businesses can extend beyond the successful delivery of contracts, by not only improving the economic prosperity of those involved in the Aboriginal business but the broader Aboriginal community as a whole.”

The policy requires that from 1 July 2018 government departments will be required to award one per cent of the dollar value of contracts to registered Aboriginal businesses. The target will increase to two per cent on 1 July 2019 and three per cent on 1 July 2020.

Imintji Campgrounds

Imintji Campgrounds

The policy applies to all government agencies and government trading enterprises when procuring goods, services, community services and works.

Boreham says the policy could mean more use of Aboriginal architectural firms, or Aboriginal planners and the engagement of local workforce on projects.

It will have benefits for project proponents too.

For example, if someone is planning a project in Fitzroy Crossing, they can go to a regular Perth architect and get some fairly standard designs. But under the policy, Boreham says, they might now think about using an Indigenous-owned architecture firm to help involve the end users and the community in the project.

The government is also looking at long-term training solutions, he says.

“There is a real opportunity to provide a result that’s desperately needed.”

This is not just in terms of the immediate benefit of creating jobs, but has other practical implications. If a local is trained to install door furniture during a building project, for example, in six months time if something goes wrong with the door furniture, they will have the skills to fix it.

“This gives the community a sense of ownership and builds skills.”

Anyinginyi Health Centre

Anyinginyi Health Centre

Challenges for remote projects

Working in remote areas also changes the game in terms of how projects are delivered.

For one thing, everything costs a lot more to transport, whether that’s an architect going to site to do inspections and design work, or bringing in materials.

There is not the level of infrastructure an urban project might take for granted. Boreham says he worked on one project where the nearest reliable phone reception was in a town 700km away.

Or a project’s nearest source of clean water for mixing concrete might be via 100 kilometres of dirt track to a source pumped by windmill – resulting in the project needing a water tanker for cartage and a fire fighter extractor pump to get the water from the source.

There are places where extreme weather can result in the community being cut off. As many of them rely on diesel generators for electricity, that can mean loss of power because diesel supplies can’t get through. That then can result in a loss of food supplies, or being unable to hook a newly completed house up to power.

From an isolation perspective, Boreham says designers need to be sure what they are specifying is fit for the environment.

It can also mean looking at unique ways to mitigate risks in those areas, so where flooding is an issue, perhaps putting the house up on steel stilts. Steel frame can work well for buildings in these areas, he says, as it is quite lightweight and robust. Colorbond is also a practical material.

Ananguku Arts

Ananguku Arts

Increasing use of solar

Boreham says solar PV is becoming more requested by communities, but it probably needs to be on a larger scale, such as a solar farm, to provide energy to the grid.

Design can either orient for passive solar or to make the most of PV, he says. It is extremely hard to do both.

“But there is the potential that a large solar farm with battery could hook into the [community] grid quite comfortably.”

Energy efficient design

When it comes to energy efficiency and thermal performance, the popular approach of sealing the home up tightly and applying mechanical systems is not ideal for the remote regions.

“Seal the box should not be a design decision anywhere in the tropics,” Boreham says.

In general, homes should be oriented to receive cross ventilation and utilise the sun in the correct way. Louvre windows work very well, especially in tropical areas, he says, even high-level louvre windows.

“Airconditioning only works if it’s used correctly,” Boreham says.

The minute a door is opened, its effectiveness is diminished and it has to work harder – this makes it less functional for a building where people such as children are coming and going constantly.

“It is very hard to seal a house completely unless you make it a box. But kids running in and out – that’s something we should all aspire to,” he says.

Training Centre

Training Centre

Translating design principles back to the city

One of the challenges with translating some of the design principles that work so well in remote communities to the capital city urban context is land developers introducing smaller lots, Boreham says.

On NBC’s projects, eaves on many projects are 900-1200 millimetres. This creates shading and more sheltered outdoor space. If a window is in the wrong orientation for passive solar protection, louvre panels or an awning might be added.

Mangkaja Arts

Mangkaja Arts

That allows the occupant to still get the perspective from the window while protecting it from sun, wind and rain.

But a lot of inexpensive home designs for suburban lots have eaves that are 450mm or even none at all. This leaves windows unprotected.

“It is an indictment of the space the lot allows for,” Boreham says.

If a lot does have the space, Boreham suggests designers could go for the “full wrap around verandah”.

“It creates shading, and space for kids to play or a space to just sit and have a chat.”

Lessons to be learned

There are some basic things urban development can learn from remote Indigenous projects.

“I think there is a level of simplicity in what’s needed,” Boreham says.

“There is no need to overcomplicate things.”

If a building is functional, and has got good ventilation and good solar access, that’s the basics. Just include what’s actually needed.

“It is also about providing an ongoing process of choice in the space,” he says.

“Consultation is very hard to do in mainstream development, but if they were to ask the question of their consumers about new designs, they would go a long way towards getting something more suitable for each individual person.”

When development delivers what “the community knows they need”, there is “invariably a good result”.

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