The MicroVillage project explored the viability of affordable houses for those with limited funds and a desire for modestly-sized homes that minimise consumption of building materials, land and energy, and which integrate and link with the community in meaningful ways.
The marketing and availability of so-called ‘tiny homes’ is readily apparent, by way of community groups, dedicated businesses, and Netflix documentaries. However, it is also increasingly clear that tiny-houses (often on wheels) are not a viable, affordable housing model to accommodate those with limited income and wealth. HOME addressed this by testing the viability of affordable tiny-house alternatives in relation to five key issues:
1. Regulatory barriers: state-wide planning schemes and local council regulations;
2. Environmental design performance: integration with passive and active energy systems;
3. Design for aging-in-place
4. Financial modelling: up-front, on-going (including maintenance) and exit costs (including depreciation and opportunity costs) for residents, and compared with available alternatives.
5. Community integration: ensuring that the model supports social inclusion both within the development and with the surrounding neighbourhood.
The project aimed to create an evidence base to enhance practice and research.
Our project consisted of two research phases, funded and run separately but with overlapping goals and outcomes. The first, Grey nesters: exploring the viability of affordable small houses for those with limited funds and desire for modestly-sized homes, is funded by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and will focus on the planning regulatory framework, financial modelling and viability, and design options for sustainability and ageing in place. The second phase, Homes for ‘Grey Nesters’: Social integration of a micro-village of small houses supporting community wellbeing in Geelong, funded by the Geelong Community Foundation, will then look at appropriate and effective ways to enable the micro-village to integrate and thrive within an existing community. As the evidence base develops, our intent is to begin discussions for future funding to partner and build the microvillage.
The research employed the STICK-E (systems thinking in community knowledge exchange) data collection method designed and developed in-house at Deakin, in conjunction with other qualitative and quantitative methods.
At a time when climate change requires us to significantly reduce our resource consumption, Australia is building the biggest houses in the world. The average new house built in 2019–2020 measured 235.8sqm, up 2.9 percent on the previous year, and the biggest increase in 11 years (James & Felsman, 2020). This expansion is occurring in tandem with widespread housing stress, with 11.5 percent of Australian households spending 30–50 percent of their gross income on housing costs, and another 5.5 percent spending 50 percent or more (ABS 2019).
Our findings show that tiny and compact homes are not currently a viable affordable housing option for people with limited funds who wish to live in sustainable and socially connected ways. We found that the viability of small-house models is being hindered by a range of barriers in four key areas: building and design (Including universal design (for ageing in place) and environmental performance), regulatory planning barriers, finance, and community integration.The chief deterrent is regulatory barriers, particularly in the planning realm. As a recently published study explains, there is clear scope to “review, simplify and change the regulatory regimes across Australia that affect tiny houses so that they are more consistent and so that tiny houses are not treated prima facie as undesirable or as a problematic planning outcome” (Shearer & Burton, 2021b, p. 17). However, in opening the way for building smaller homes, planners are advised to be wary of the possible gradual erosion of amenity standards.
After regulatory barriers, the next challenge is financial. Small homes are relatively expensive to build, and unless situated on owned land, offer little to no return on investment, so financers are unwilling to lend. In addition, small home designers have yet to prove that they can meet the diverse needs of residents at all life stages, or shift the attitudes of existing residents who see small homes as an inferior or low-quality form of housing. Our research participants have helped frame solutions to overcoming these barriers. These proposed solutions are captured in our Recommendations.
In brief, our Recommendations are to: advance the issue via research into and co-design of exemplar pilot projects; educate stakeholders to shift negative attitudes towards compact homes amongst builders, financers, regulators, and the wider community; undertake planning reform to permit tiny and compact homes to occupy space on appropriate properties; conduct research to determine actual demand for tiny and compact homes; and reduce costs, remove existing financial barriers, improve accessibility for buyers and renters on low incomes, and publicise the benefits of and demand for well-designed compact homes. To effect real and lasting change in the housing sector, these five Recommendations cannot be implemented in isolation, but must be actioned in combination, in a systemic and holistic way.
As Australia faces the dual crises of climate change and housing affordability, a radical shift is clearly needed if the housing sector is to provide an expanded choice of affordable, high-quality compact homes suitable for residents across their lifespan. This study provides an evidence base to inform the possible development of compact, affordable housing models. The findings are timely, given local councils in Victoria are now open to exploring innovative models for increasing the supply of affordable housing, and with passionate stakeholders eager to build a cluster of 6–12 compact homes in Geelong.
The eventual aim is for the design, construction and evaluation of a place-based micro village that houses 6 to 12 residents in the Geelong region, demonstrating a comprehensive and harmonious integration of the village with the local community and environment. This would be a “living village” model able to evolve over time to support people as needed, thus providing an opportunity for residents to age in place. The flexibility in design allows the accommodation to be adapted to support different age groups and modes of mobility as required in the future. Ultimately, the aim is to develop a community that enables strong community connections, which in turn support positive health outcomes and social engagement for residents.
In line with the goals and ideals of the HOME Research Hub, our project team is partnering with MicroVillage Geelong, a taskforce of like-minded individuals supported by the efforts of Geelong Sustainability, who will provide insight and guidance throughout the process. For more information about the taskforce, or the efforts and collaboration from our funders, please refer to the following links:
ACCESS THE FULL REPORT HERE: Microvillage Final Report
ACCESS THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY HERE: Microvillage Final Report – Executive Summary