New Models of Collective Housing: Sydney!

The residents at Kapitbahayan have built their own neighborhood by sharing resources. Photo credit Mikey Chin.

The residents at Kapitbahayan have built their own neighborhood by sharing resources. Photo credit Mikey Chin.

Decades of  unchecked speculative land investment have helped to make houses in most major cities some of the most inaccessible and unaffordable in the world. This crisis of affordability hurts people who are least able to pay the most: people living on the fringes of the city, renters, new migrants and low-income groups.

Innovations are currently happening in housing that are concerned less with formal or material changes and much more with innovation in the ways we live together. It is in thinking beyond the exclusivity of private land ownership, that solutions to the vexed issues of housing are beginning to emerge.

I have worked with two groups in Sydney who have attempted to do exactly this. The first project—Kapitbahayan—combines government support with social self-management and architectural forms of sharing to create housing at the scale of a small neighborhood. The second project—Driveway House—demonstrates a way that scarce resources can be pooled to provide an infrastructure of mutual support within an extended family.

Exterior of Kapitbahayan. Photo credit Mikey Chin.

Exterior of Kapitbahayan. Photo credit Mikey Chin.

The question of how we house ourselves is usually treated as a private concern. Yet the way we buy, build and occupy housing has enormous political effects, tied up with contentious issues of land ownership, urban development and financial security. So what happens when we consider the housing question as a collective rather than an individual?

In Sydney—as in many places worldwide—we are deeply in need of new approaches to housing. Property developers often use the crisis of affordability to call for new land releases in the northwest and southwest. With Sydney’s agricultural food basin already almost completely paved over and a profoundly inadequate public transport system, it’s difficult to imagine how increasing the physical size of Sydney could make things better. Particularly given that the houses these same developers are building are now officially the largest in the world. Sydney’s new houses have more than quadrupled in size over the last fifty years. At the same time the number of people per household has steadily decreased.

Innovative solutions to these problems are coming from the very groups who often get blamed for them: Sydney’s immigrant communities.

From 2007-2011 I worked with Kapitbahayan, a housing cooperative of predominantly Filipino migrants living in Western Sydney, to design one such solution. Kapitbahayan has been operating for more than 20 years as part of a network of community-based housing cooperatives.

Kapitbahayan is a Filipino word meaning neighborhood. More than the physical proximity of houses, it symbolizes the social qualities of a traditional Filipino neighborhood where there is an abundance of community support, sharing of resources and democratic decision-making.

The cooperative is a form of public housing; the key difference is that it is is managed and maintained by the tenants themselves, requiring no ongoing expenditure from government. Far from the stigmatized public housing estates often represented, Kapitbahayan’s first property in Berala is a mainstay of the Auburn Council’s Best Garden Awards  and longtime host of the neighborhood Christmas Party.

Through the voluntary work of their members, Kapitbahayan accrued a large rental surplus, enough to buy a piece of land in Canley Vale and develop their own custom-made housing solution. This is the first time in New South Wales  that a housing cooperative has been able to completely own, design and develop their own housing project. It demonstrates an exciting new pathway in housing: a transition for low-income people from government support to self sufficiency through self-management, cooperation and hard work.

With the assistance of Common Equity NSW and in partnership with Van Lang (another, equally-successful local housing cooperative) Kapitbahayan successfully gained access to partial project funding from the National Rental Affordability Scheme which, through state and federal components provides up to 40% of the project costs and $6000 per dwelling for the first ten years. This funding guarantees the ongoing affordability of the housing.

The Kapitbahayan model effectively uses land to maximize common facilities and multi-function spaces. Courtesy of the author /    THE LOT   .

The Kapitbahayan model effectively uses land to maximize common facilities and multi-function spaces. Courtesy of the author / THE LOT.

Unlike most housing developed by government or private developers, the involvement of the actual tenants was fundamental to the entire design process. Though an ongoing series of meetings and workshops, the wisdom, common-sense and creativity of the cooperative members fundamentally shaped the architecture. All current tenants were invited to participate in the design process. This took many forms: from informal conversations over home-cooked lunches, to tours where residents showed me all various problems with their existing houses, as well as the many ingenious additions they had made. We also held formal design meetings where various options were discussed and the design of each apartment was refined.  

Rather than have each potential resident design a custom apartment, the coop wanted to design the housing as a group so that the design could work for future generations of residents. Through these interactions many unexpected elements were conceived: from the incorporation of a traditional, guest-oriented, entry sequence to the provision of secondary outdoor kitchens and culturally appropriate bathrooms. The six new houses are designed individually to make the most of their position on the site and provide for a wide range of tenants, accommodate a diverse backgrounds, family types, ages and levels of mobility.

The sheltered patio of a residence at Kapitbahayan, designed to take advantage of the natural environment. Photo credit Mikey Chin.

The sheltered patio of a residence at Kapitbahayan, designed to take advantage of the natural environment. Photo credit Mikey Chin.

The buildings are finely articulated to take advantage of the winter sun and summer shade. Each house has a sheltered patio, a private courtyard and a sunny deck providing a range of outdoor living possibilities. Together they share a range of common facilities including a library and meeting room, communal deck, vegetable gardens and many informal gathering spaces

Through this complex interweaving of public and private spaces, 6 houses fit comfortably on a site which would typically accommodate 1 or 2. The houses are individually much smaller than the average, but the spaces are better designed to serve multiple functions and there is a variety of communal and shared spaces open for use by the residents. Although they have less in terms of individual square meters, they collectively have access to much more.

By literally building its own neighborhood along with the physical houses, Kapitbahayan provides a prototype for financially-viable, socially-rich, resource-efficient housing management and development.

The Kapitbahayan project demonstrates the power of providing simple architectural support to dynamic community groups who already have the social and managerial infrastructure to innovate in housing. Yet, productive solutions can also happen by engaging at the even more commonplace level of the extended family, as has been demonstrated in another project: Driveway House.

A view of Driveway House from the shared backyard. Photo credit Heidi Axelsen.

A view of Driveway House from the shared backyard. Photo credit Heidi Axelsen.

This project represents a resourceful family collaboration in the face of housing unaffordability in Sydney. The client for this project could afford to build a house, but not buy any land. Her elderly mother wanted to stay in her home but was increasingly in need of care. The solution was to build the daughter's house on the mothers land, enabling the mother to remain in her lifelong home with family care nearby. The house replaces the garage and occupies the width of a single driveway.

Rather than push the secondary dwelling  behind the existing house, Driveway House sits alongside the existing house with clear relationships to both the street and the backyard. The house has a well defined address, fitting within the existing street grain as a kind of small neighbor. Careful planning and placement of windows was needed to add a sense of generosity to the minimum space standards required by the regulations.

The archetypal house form is stretched up to accommodate its occupants comfortably within its small 3 meter wide footprint. Primary entrance to the new house is from the front deck of the existing house, which becomes the common space for both homes. The second bedroom is located downstairs connected to a covered outdoor space providing autonomy and separate entry for the daughter’s adult son. The project enables all three generations of the family to benefit from shared proximity while also maintaining their individual privacy.

Taken together the two projects point to an alternative way that a city like Sydney may be able to accommodate its growing population without requiring the trauma of large scale reconstruction projects.

The first completed Nightingale building.    Courtesy of    Nightingale   .

The first completed Nightingale building.

Courtesy of Nightingale.

Progress view of Assemble Community’s Roseneath Housing.    Courtesy of Assemble Community.

Progress view of Assemble Community’s Roseneath Housing. Courtesy of Assemble Community.

While these projects are small in scale, they represent models which could easily be replicated across the outer suburbs of Sydney and in modified forms in many other places as well. They provide another level of operations, able to compliment larger scale forms of collective housing, such as the Nightingale self-development model and the Assemble rent-to-buy model both being pioneered in inner-city Melbourne. Even more possibilities emerge when models are able to overlap and support each other. Innovations occurring at the architectural scale, and the scale of development finance could be combined with innovations in collective land ownership—exemplified by  Community Land Trusts in the United States and United Kingdom, or the Mietshäuser Syndikat in Germany. These projects already have strong potential and have proven successful. Strategies that combine the different methodologies could create new solutions at the hands of the people, and in turn, benefit larger communities.

Hugo Moline is a designer, urbanist and researcher working at the intersection of community, architecture and social art practices. In collaboration with various groups and individuals he designs buildings, urban places and public artworks. More information on his work can be found at and