Saigon House, Ho Chi Minh City by a21studio

New medium-density housing typologies could provide the density cities need with the amenity residents want, Sophie Solomon argues, drawing inspiration from a contemporary Vietnamese model. But planning controls need to change to offer more flexibility.

In this age of aspiration, where it seems the very purpose in life is to look better, feel better, live better, why can we not plan our city and its housing better?

Our cities’ populations are growing and will continue to grow. With five million people to house in Sydney, the current state government has acknowledged that urban sprawl cannot continue. Studies have shown that this form of development is not only costly to the economy but also costly to the health of the community.

The majority of new development taking shape across Sydney is in the form of medium density to high-rise strata apartments. This is a cost-effective, efficient way to house many people yet also poses many issues concerning both the shape and character of the urban environment, and the health of inhabitants.

What about medium density Torrens title?

While the majority of medium and high-density housing is done under strata title, individual ownership of a Torrens title terrace home could allow for a greater sense of control and opportunity for further enhancements that are currently not possible under strata title ownership, and could be developed with significant density if planning controls were tweaked.

The inner suburbs in which terrace houses were built have become gentrified over time, making terraces an unachievable option for many, despite their reputation as cold, dark, cramped homes with a small rear courtyard.

But access, privacy, connection to green, private open space, light, ventilation, a sense of ownership and community are all elements of Torrens title terrace houses difficult to achieve in high-rise apartments. Terraces are also a more affordable option to build than free-standing dwellings.

There’s more missing middle to tackle

The “Missing Middle” controls proposed by the NSW state government encourage terrace-style development for infill sites in Sydney. They acknowledge that urban sprawl cannot continue and that the benefits of creating denser urban environments at a low scale of development are vast.

While the government is making a step in the right direction, it is not nearly ambitious enough. Several limitations have been uncovered in both the current DCPs, LEPs and proposed Missing Middle policy document that greatly limit the opportunities for any significant innovation. This will be discussed further below.

To achieve higher densities, quality design outcomes and more affordable housing solution we need to look at the structure of the city and alternative housing typologies that can sit within a planning framework.

Many in the development field suggest we should be looking to Asian cities like Hong Kong or Singapore as exemplars of high-rise living. Perhaps instead we should be looking at other Southeast Asian countries where population growth is driving new development models.

Lessons from Vietnam

Thong House, Ho Chi Minh City

In Vietnam, particularly Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), development and modernisation is pulsating along to the tune of 10 million motorbikes. Yet there is a quiet resistance to Westernisation and overdevelopment that sees a reinterpretation of the traditional housing post-colonisation, known as the “shophouse”.

Contemporary versions of the traditional Southeast Asian shophouse create a unique streetscape and urban scale with interior spaces that are filled with filtered natural light, cross ventilation, connection to nature and spatial dynamics over a multitude of interconnected levels. They represent traditional Vietnamese culture with a contemporary ideology in response to overpopulation of the city, loss of green space and homogenisation of the built form.

The greater metropolitan area of HCMC has an average population density of 4000 people a square kilometre, while Sydney has 400 people a sq km. This incredible contrast is evident on the streets of HCMC. While they are indeed busy with people and traffic, their scale and structure enables a high level of amenity, access and connectivity for the pedestrian, with a consistent cover of mature trees, active street frontages and fine grain. Streets and laneways form an intricate web of connectivity across the city as they become public rooms for daily life and interaction. The sense of community is evident at every turn.

Street life, Saigon House

The built form is predominantly 3-4 storeys with a thin street frontage and long length. The allotments are evidence of the growth of the city from the country’s origins of cultivating rice paddies. The rooms of the house surround a courtyard for light, ventilation and privacy.

Q10 House by Studio8 Vietnam

There is no hierarchy of order to the urban pattern, in terms of “front and back” or “served and servicing”. The rear service laneways typical to the Victorian suburbs of Sydney are always subordinate to the street address. In HCMC the laneways serve a more public role as they frame a diversity of activity and provide connectivity at the pedestrian scale, as did the laneways of the rice paddies as they led back to the village of times past. The houses are designed to accommodate multi-generational living, culturally accepted and expected in Vietnam.

Instead of a single backyard, typical to the Australian terrace house, shared courtyards and rooftop gardens enliven each living space within the shophouse, providing well needed greenery, light and breezes to the interior while extending the rooms beyond the exterior walls. Spaces can adapt to suit the temporal and diurnal changes throughout the day and the year while shade is welcome.

Car parking is not seen as a constraint or blight on the streetscape; it is seen as a transitory, multi-use space that has evolved from a retail or commercial shopfront to activate the street or laneway and provides screening for privacy and noise control, always elevating the primary living areas above ground in the manner of the piano nobile. Contemporary examples have office space or second living space co-existing at the ground floor with car parking. Multiplicity and flexibility allows for diversity and improves affordability.

With the ground floor recessed 1.5-2 metres behind the front setback, as a legal requirement, and the 3-4 storeys extending forward above, there is both a sense of consistent urban form to the new residential developments and a human scale to the building envelopes. The streetscape is not dominated by garage doors – instead enlivened by the balconies of the upper floors.

Saigon House, a21studio

The network of streets and lanes in Ho Chi Minh City creates a structure that enables both a dense, medium-rise housing as well as a fine-grain sense of place and local community.

Could this be replicated here?

For Sydney to achieve higher quality, affordable and dense low-rise development in this style, it would necessitate analysis of each potential infill site to determine the existing and required street and laneway network to break down larger blocks and enable street addresses for each dwelling.

Gross floor areas and floor space ratios (FSR) are relatively flexible in the shophouse. Careful inclusion of areas for greenery, through courtyards, voids and terraces, enable good connection to the outdoors and better opportunity for sustainably designed dwellings. The voids are inserted over several levels to enhance the sense of space and connection to the outdoors.

Unfortunately, the FSR achieved in HCMC could never happen under current Local Environment Plan (LEP) floor space controls and Development Control Plan (DCP) controls for private open space in NSW. The built form, too, is limited by DCP and complying development setback controls.

Site cover is large in the shophouse. Courtyards and voids (traditionally designed to take roof stormwater) provide access to open space and greenery, whereas in NSW rear garden and front setback controls determine site cover. While courtyards and voids are promoted in the shophouse, it does not suggest that greenery or access to open space should diminish (as indeed it has with the oversized McMansions typical of suburban sprawl of NSW). Instead it suggests looking at different ways of connecting to nature and bringing greenery into the house.

Minimum site area and minimum frontage LEP controls in NSW restrict sites to a minimum 200 square metres with a 7.5 metre frontage (if parking is in the streetfront zone). HCMC sites range from 45 sq m to 150 sq m with frontages of 3-5m. This allows an incredibly fine grain of building across the street.

The LEP height controls for attached terrace housing in NSW also generally limits dwellings to two storeys. In HCMC there is a consistent 3-4 storey height limit, which allows for greater flexibility internally with voids and light wells while still retaining a human scale to the streetscape.

The shophouse typology and the urban structure of the streets and laneways of HCMC, as evolved over time, can be seen as a “supermodel” for housing that could potentially address the demands of a growing population, the affordability crisis and environmental concerns in Sydney.

Supermodel housing is a typology for improved affordability, cultural diversity, environmental sensitivity and sense of ownership to embrace and celebrate design excellence. Unfortunately it’s a solution to medium-density development that falls outside of what is possible under current planning controls. Perhaps it’s time we start thinking about changing that.

Sophie Solomon is principal of SSD Studio. She was recently awarded a Byera Hadley Travel Scholarship by the NSW Architects Registration Board to study housing affordability, density and sustainability in Vietnam in response to the NSW Government’s “Missing Middle” Controls.

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  1. This is a welcome addition to discussion of urban development in Australia. I feel there is what someone called ‘typological amnesia’ in Oz: we simply can’t remember how to build decent medium density housing any more. Hence the problem of the ‘missing middle’ that’s widely reported.

    However, shophouses were well-ventilated, as reported by Sir Joseph Banks when he visited with Cook. He even drew a plan to show how it worked! The only enclosed room was the front room, the rest of the space was open plan around a small rear courtyard, with a door to the rear laneway. Later additions and enclosure of the rear courtyard often wrecked it of course.

  2. Hi Frank, If you read my detailed report I discuss how this typology came about with floor plans for reference of exemplary contemporary typologies.

    The 20th Century shop houses of Hanoi and Saigon were poorly ventilated, however the new models Profiled in my paper look at the ways ventilation is achieved through central and rear voids and greenery to achieve better ventilation. The maximum height is usually around 4 stories.

  3. Frank, In most cases narrow residual side yards are a poor use of valuable urban land, and side ventilation is difficult without compromising privacy. Well oriented terraces with north and south facing openings and good building-to-building separation across streets and backyards will offer far superior amenity and privacy. Providing the ground floor is well designed for accessibility, stairs can be regarded as desirable in our obesogenic cities – or some of the savings in land cost could be splurged on a residential lift.

  4. AFAIK Vietnam’s narrow houses – as in Hanoi’s Old/French Quarter – were triggered by high taxes on property width – so some built 6 storey houses on narrow blocks to reduce their taxes.

    (In Halong Bay, floating fishing villages avoided that tax altogether – no land – no tax !)

    If you’re encouraging tall narrow houses in Australia the problems are many stairs, and the absence of side ventilation with party walls.