Gosford City Council has given the green light to a pilot tiny house project for homeless people on land adjacent to the Gosford Hospital, in what is believed to be an Australian first.
The project is being developed by the Tiny Homes Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that has partnered with Sydney studio NBRS Architecture to develop a design for tiny homes that is affordable, environmentally sustainable, easy to assemble and replicable.
Gosford City Council is leasing the land to the charity at no cost. A development application has been approved for a plan comprising four self-contained dwellings 14 square metres, a common lounge with kitchenette, a common laundry and workshop and community vegetable gardens.
NBRS director James Ward told The Fifth Estate the site was basically otherwise “undevelopable”, as while it had services, there was no direct street frontage.
He said the foundation aimed to scout around other councils for similar sites for further projects, as most councils had “pockets of land” that couldn’t be developed, or were no longer in use.
The designs, documentation and process for planning and gaining approval will all be made available as open source resources at the THF website.
NBRS’s lead designer on the project, Derek Mah, said one of the biggest challenges the project had in terms of gaining approval was that it didn’t fit the standard development typologies. In the end it was approved as a boarding house type project, he said.
The homes themselves, while being designed as stand-alone houses, did not need to have an established footprint, Mr Mah said. They can be moved to another site if required in future.
They have also been designed for the option of operating off-grid, with solar photovoltaics, solar hot water, rainwater capture and storage, and composting toilets as part of the prefabricated bathroom modules.
The kitchen appliances and LED lighting are all low-energy consumption, and a combination of appropriate solar orientation and the use of prefabricated insulated panels for the structure will make them thermally efficient.
Mr Mah said the large sliding doors at the front and louvre windows in the walls will mean the dwellings can have very effective natural ventilation for cool in summer, and in winter the heat given off by the refrigerator should be enough to warm them.
Mr Mah said the design was inspired by looking at other typologies such as caravans and mobile homes, and how they worked to provide functional spaces for living in.
All the technologies that are in the tiny homes are already available, he said, but people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness generally did not have the capital to buy a caravan or mobile home.
These homes can be built for under $30,000 – which is even cheaper than a caravan, he said.
The construction of the homes will involve a mix of prefabrication and on-site DIY.
“The challenge was how to make these things into components that can be put together on-site by low skilled labour with low tech equipment,” Mr Mah said.
The insulated panels provide a solution as they do not require a subframe structure – they are the entire structure. They can also be prefabricated into components light enough for two people to lift safely, flat-packed and delivered by truck.
“It’s like a lego kit that goes together; it’s self-supporting.”
Mr Ward said while half of the project was about the houses, the other half was about the social aspect.
Not only do homeless people lack financial capital, they also often lack the social capital to build relationships with others, he said.
“If you are on the outside of society, you are on the outside in a lot of ways.”
That is why the communal meeting space, communal laundry and communal vegetable plots are intrinsic to the project. Each tiny home will also have its own small private patch of land, so people have some “touch with the ground” they can call their own.
Mr Ward said a communal garden helped people build social capital, as they could trade and barter skills as the garden develops, and produce as it grows. It creates a way to contribute to the community, which is an essential part of social capital and belonging.
“No one works alone, but works together in a community,” he said.
“A single tiny home on its own would isolate the person… You have to put together a small community so people can respect each other and capitalise on each other’s benefits.”
Social architecture, he said, is something the practice is very strong on.
“There are spaces that make people’s interactions more effective.”
The site also has advantages to connect people to the wider community, as it is within 450 metres of Gosford train station and within walking distance of shops.
“The important thing is the planning model,” Mr Ward said.
“They are not out in the boondocks, but close to services. It is not shunning people and putting them on the outskirts.”
Having an address is also important for a sense of personal identity.
“The homeless and the aged [in residential care], when they lose the idea of the mailbox, of your address, they lose the sense of who they are,” Mr Ward said.
The practice has done a number of dementia centre projects, and has included within them individual mailboxes for the residents. This helps them know where they are, he said, and gives them dignity.
“Social capital is built up in many weird and special ways.”
This pilot project has a “housing first” approach that will be supported by a network of training, employment and support services ,Tiny Homes Foundation co-founder and chief executive David Wooldridge said.
Other partners of the foundation that have contributed to the project and support further developments of its kind include lawyers Clayton Utz, surveyors Chase Burke & Harvey, town planners Wilson Planning, employment and training organisation The Skills Generator, Hunter TAFE Outreach and social housing providers Pacific Link. Pacific Link will provide ongoing management services once the Gosford development is complete.
Tenants of the homes will be part of an equity participation scheme, with accommodation payments not applied to the cost and maintenance of the project made available as needed for their future housing-related expenditure. This creates a pathway from homelessness to self support.
“Solving homelessness is a question of will. Will we do it or won’t we? It can happen within the next three to five years – if we all really want it to,” Mr Wooldridge said.