By Ian Stephenson, President, Bulletin 6/2023, August

On Tuesday 18 July I represented the Society at No more demolitions! Alternatives to public housing redevelopment, a forum organised by Action for Public Housing.

Architects Hannes Frykholm, Hector Abrahams, Steve Mintern and Simon Robinson provided case studies demonstrating that it was better to retain, repair and reinvest than to demolish and rebuild. 

Dr Hannes is based at University of Sydney where he is researching new ways of urban transformation. He started by explaining that every new building involves the extraction of resources from another place. ‘Towers appear in one place and holes appear elsewhere.’ It brought to mind a friend who lives on a dairy farm on the south coast. Her family has been there since the 1860s. For over forty years they have endured constant blasting from the neighbouring blue metal quarry which is deemed an essential industry for building materials. Nothing about the connection between building and mining would be new to them.

Hannes said the extraction of cement represents about 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. For this reason alone, we must explore alternative strategies to demolition.  He then spoke about Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s transformation of five hundred and thirty 1960s public housing apartments at Green Parc, Bordeaux. 

Rather than being razed and rebuilt, which wastes resources and disrupts the lives of tenants, the buildings were refurbished by the simple expedient of adding an external layer of winter gardens and balconies.

From 27 July to 23 September Sydney University’s Tin Sheds Gallery is holding an exhibition about the project: Lacaton and Vassal Living in the City.

Steve Mintern and Simon Robinson of Office, a Melbourne based not-for-profit multidisciplinary design and research practice, spoke about their Retain, Repair, Reinvest approach to renewing public housing in Victoria. They provided several case studies from Melbourne which demonstrated that refurbishing and adding additional density produces better results on every level including environmentally, socially and economically, than demolition and rebuilding.

At the 40-year-old Barak Beacon estate in Port Melbourne the Victorian government has argued that the buildings are not fit for purpose and should be demolished and replaced by energy efficient and environmentally sustainable homes. Office’s feasibility study shows that better results can be achieved by refurbishing, retrofitting and extending with a saving to government of an estimated $88 million and without forcing tenants to leave their homes.

In his aptly titled presentation, A Sensible Approach, Hector Abrahams of Hector Abrahams Architects outlined his scheme for refurbishing 82 Wentworth Park Road Glebe and adding additional density at the rear of the site. He noted that the existing building is well built – ‘they are built like tanks’, and that his new building is designed to complement the existing houses in Bellevue Street and is stepped down at the centre to preserve views. The new building will have a lift and every apartment will have north facing windows. Refurbishing the existing building produces great cost savings, means tenants do not have to be evicted and does not, as demolition does, actually reduce the supply of public housing for several years.  

Hector Abrahams; Bellevue Street
Hector Abrahams scheme for infill housing in Bellevue Street at the rear of 82 Wentworth Park Road. (Image: Hector Abrahams)

The Challenge

We wrote to the Minister for Housing, Rose Jackson, on 15 June requesting that she defer consideration of the NSW Land and Housing Corporation’s (LAHC) development application to demolish 82 Wentworth Park Road (see our letter). She replied on 24 July via our local member Kobi Shetty (see the Minister’s letter).

The advice she has received from LAHC that refurbishing the existing building and erecting infill at the rear of the site is not possible or economically efficient is wrong.

As we wrote in our letter to her on 15 June,

the Abrahams scheme demonstrates that there are options that would be significantly cheaper than the current development application thereby providing the NSW Government with significant savings (estimated to be in the order of $10 million or more) which could fund more housing than the current scheme for the same cost. We request, as a matter of urgency, that you advise the City of Sydney that you wish them to defer consideration of the current development application for 82 Wentworth Park Road, Glebe (D/2023/21).

At a time when there is a desperate shortage of public housing and carbon emissions must be reduced to control global warming, the NSW Government needs to lead the way in taking a new approach to revitalising its housing estates by retaining, repairing, refurbishing and adding density through well-designed infill, rather than adopting the approach of total demolition, which is expensive, actually reduces the supply of housing for several years, destroys communities and is bad for the environment.

Also in the August President’s Report, Ian recognises Peru Perumal, former Glebe Society President and Planning Convenor, who recently passed away.