Apartments that can be easily adapted into various living arrangements may be the future of sustainable high-density living.

The University of Sydney’s Innovation in Applied Design Lab has collaborated with Lendlease to create a prototype for an adaptable, multi-use apartment made out of sustainable prefabricated timber elements.

The modular apartment design means the space can be quickly reconfigured to provide additional bedrooms or roomier living spaces as the needs of the occupants change.

Sustainability implications of such a design are wide-ranging, with perhaps the most obvious being the use of timber instead of concrete.

“Given that conventional concrete is one of the largest contributors to global carbon emissions in construction, the transformation achieved by the replacement with a renewable resource like timber is enormous,” said Daryl Patterson, head of operational excellence at Lendlease.

Flexibility keeps people in apartments

The ability to easily shift the building around to suit the needs of occupants also makes high-density living a more attractive option.

“In Australia, apartment or high-rise living is often seen as temporary. We approached the design from a functional perspective, to provide an environment for life – where residents can upsize or downsize, and where certain adaptations are possible,” said professor Mathew Aitchison, director of the Innovation in Applied Design Lab at USyd.

“It’s an inherently a better use of resources,” he told The Fifth Estate.

Innovation week installation at Tin Shed Gallery

Prefabrication can be more sustainable

The prefabrication element also saves on construction costs, which according to professor Aitchison, is currently a key talking point in the field of sustainable building and design.

He says there is currently a large amount of waste – both construction materials and human labour – generated by the construction industry.

“By having a more considered and rigorous construction system, which is linked into design, we can reduce this waste and simultaneously have higher performing apartments and buildings.”

The prototype’s modular design made out of prefabricated elements means around 40 per cent less waste is produced than current industry rates.

Professor Aitchison is “not necessarily an evangelical prefab guy” and says “there are problems that it will solve, and other solutions that it will not”.

“There will still also be room for bespoke buildings and one-off designs in the future.”

One problem that off-site, module designs and construction techniques might help solve is getting the cost of construction down, which may ultimately lead to more affordable housing.

Although the housing affordability crisis has focused on policies like negative gearing, professor Aitchson says he “hasn’t heard much about the rising cost of construction”.

“If you can get the cost of construction down different projects will be possible.”

He hopes that in the future homeowners will be more open to “interacting“ with prefabricated or off-site modular options as they become increasingly synonymous with thoughtful design, choice and flexibility.

Some types of prefabrication in construction are starting to become commonplace. Cross-laminated timber (CLT), for example, is starting to become a viable and cost-effective alternative for mass market commercial buildings.

The real-scale, 80-square-metre prototype “Future Living System” apartment is currently on display at the university as part of Innovation Week.

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