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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2004  
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The design and construction of Indigenous housing: the challenge ahead

This article was contributed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (Principle authors: Susan Etherington and Laura Smith).

With an estimated $2.1b required to address Indigenous housing needs, Indigenous housing providers must tackle the serious issue of housing sustainability (ATSIC 2000). Of the 21,287 dwellings managed by Indigenous housing organisations, it is estimated that approximately 8% require replacement and 19% require major repairs (ATSIC 2001). The majority (70%) of these dwellings are located in Remote and Very Remote locations of Australia, footnote 1 where approximately 106,000 Indigenous persons live (ABS 2001b).

Although there are many factors which contribute to the sustainability of housing, the adequacy of design, construction and maintenance of Indigenous housing plays a crucial role. When houses are not culturally appropriate in their design, are poorly built, or where there is no systematic approach to their repair or maintenance, minor problems can escalate over time and shorten the life expectancy of houses. Given the serious backlog of housing need in rural and remote communities, it is important that resources are well targeted and provide the maximum benefit to Indigenous Australians.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP) seeks to improve the living environment of Indigenous Australians, by providing appropriate housing and associated infrastructure (ATSIC 2002b). Through CHIP, grants are provided for: capital construction, purchase and upgrade of adequate and appropriate rental housing; supplementary recurrent funding for general administration costs of Indigenous housing organisations; recurrent funding for repairs and maintenance of existing housing stock where rental income and service charges are not sufficient to meet the costs involved; and funding for infrastructure, municipal services and program support.

CHIP expenditure between 1990-91 and 2000-01 for housing, infrastructure and related essential services included:
  • $725m on the construction or purchase of 5,901 houses
  • $106m on upgrades/renovations to 6,534 houses
  • $65m towards the cost of managing and maintaining housing stock
  • $645m on capital costs of housing-related infrastructure (i.e. water, power and sewerage)
  • $423m on recurrent costs of maintaining housing and infrastructure and municipal services
  • $23m on research and program support activities, such as the Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey and the Centre for Appropriate Technology.

One key strategy in improving the effectiveness of the CHIP program is ensuring capital construction and major upgrade projects using appropriate technical standards, design and materials. While constructing a house in a remote locality can be difficult enough due to professional building skill shortages, limited availability of materials and the expense and logistics involved, providing appropriate housing can be even more challenging.

Provision of appropriate housing is dependent on consultation and planning during the design process stage. A range of factors need to be considered and incorporated into design solutions. These may include geographic location, population fluctuations experienced in communities, family and kinship structures and the specific lifestyles of communities and their use of housing. The diversity of contemporary Indigenous cultures and the locations in which they live, means that what is appropriate will vary considerably between communities.

In some parts of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship structures may call for avoidance behaviour between people. Such practices will impact on the way in which housing is used. Population mobility and kinship structures can also affect the pattern of housing occupancy. Household and community populations may fluctuate quite dramatically for a variety of social, cultural or seasonal reasons. Providing accommodation for visiting kin or relations from other communities or outstations may result in the overcrowding of houses footnote 2 (ATSIC 2002a). For example, a death in a community may result in one house being temporarily vacated and another being overcrowded, because relatives of the deceased cannot live in the deceased person's home.

Assessment of the degree of community mobility and household size is vital in planning and designing the usage loads placed on housing, particularly health hardware facilities (i.e. water, waste removal and power). Should crowding result in the failure of facilities, a range of serious health problems can occur resulting in unsafe and ultimately uninhabitable housing. This, in turn, creates more stress on other services and facilities.

Geographical location, climate and cultural lifestyle also impact on the design and construction of Indigenous housing. For instance, rural and remote communities located in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, experience climate extremes. As a result people may choose to live outside the house in yard areas. In such climates an appropriate yard area should be included in the overall design layout of the site. This accommodates lifestyle and, incidentally, assists with overcrowding (Sinatra & Murphy 1997).

Another vital component in ensuring appropriate design and construction of dwellings is the role of building standards and codes. There are many situations where communities do not fall within the jurisdiction of a local government or where the statutory application of such regulatory processes is unclear (Bidmeade 2002; Morton 2002). It is essential that regulatory arrangements are sufficient to ensure that Indigenous housing and infrastructure is built to comply with the Building Code of Australia as well as design and construction standards set by state and local governments.

To improve housing outcomes and achieve appropriate, safe, healthy and sustainable housing for Indigenous communities The National Framework for the Design, Construction and Maintenance of Indigenous Housing has been developed (Department of Family and Community Services 1999a). The framework is complemented by the National Indigenous Housing Guide, which provides advice on the design, selection, installation, construction and maintenance of housing health hardware items (e.g. taps, showers and toilets) and other aspects related to promote healthy living practices (Department of Family and Community Services 1999b).

The framework is intended to complement mainstream regulatory building mechanisms where they apply and may be used to inform the development and updating of state and territory standards. Some jurisdictions have already produced building standards, which establish Indigenous housing requirements that are specific to their remote area(s). For example, the Northern Territory Government has produced the Environmental Health Standards for Remote Communities (Northern Territory Government 2001) and in Western Australia the Code of Practice for Housing and Environmental Infrastructure Development in Aboriginal Communities is in place (Environmental Health Needs Coordinating Committee Inter-governmental Working Group 2000).

Under the framework, everybody involved in the process of providing housing for Indigenous persons (i.e. designers, project managers, building contractors, community councils and Indigenous housing providers) are expected to operate in the spirit of the principles, which focus on the key issues of safety, health, quality control and sustainability. While the framework has no legislative basis, a willingness to embrace the principles by those involved in the delivery of Indigenous housing will be reflected in the improved design and construction of, appropriate and sustainable housing outcomes.

Endnotes

1 Remote and Very Rremote locations are defined according to 'Remoteness Areas', which are located in the Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ABS 2001a).

2 Overcrowding in Indigenous housing, in some parts of Australia, is already much higher than the national average. For example, in the Northern Territory the average Indigenous household size is five, compared to the non-Indigenous household size of 2.7.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2001a, Australian Standard Geographical Classification, cat. no. 1216.0, ABS, Canberra.

ABS 2001b, Census of Population and Housing - customised tables.

ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) 2000, Experimental Estimates of Indigenous Housing Need, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Canberra (unpublished).

ATSIC 2001, Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Canberra.

ATSIC 2002a, Average Occupancy Rates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Canberra (unpublished).

ATSIC 2002b, Community Housing and Infrastructure Program Policy 2002-2005, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Canberra.

Bidmeade, I 2002, in J Sinatra & P Murphy 1997, Landscape For Health - Settlement Planning and Development for Better Health in Rural and Remote Indigenous Australia, RMIT University of Melbourne.

Department of Family and Community Services 1999a, The National Framework for the Design, Construction and Maintenance of Indigenous Housing, Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra.

Department of Family and Community Services 1999b, The National Indigenous Housing Guide, Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra.

Environmental Health Needs Coordinating Committee Inter-governmental Working Group 2000, Code of Practice for Housing and Environmental Infrastructure Development in Aboriginal Communities, Ove Arup and Partners, Smith and Hooke Architects, Healthy Engineering, d’ENVIRON Health and Morton Consulting Group, Western Australia.

Morton, A 1997 & 2002 (updated), in J Sinatra & P Murphy 1997, Landscape For Health - Settlement Planning and Development for Better Health in Rural and Remote Indigenous Australia, RMIT University of Melbourne.

Northern Territory Government 2001, Environmental Health Standards for Remote Communities in the Northern Territory, Northern Territory Government, Northern Territory.

Sinatra, J & Murphy, P 1997, Landscape For Health - Settlement Planning and Development for Better Health in Rural and Remote Indigenous Australia, RMIT University of Melbourne.

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