The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1893] Making Architecture a verb...


Out of sight out of mind:

Its 5pm, full rush hour in the center of Sydney.Im standing at a major intersection as it begins to

pour-torrential rain. Out of the corner of my eye a man in the foetal position squirms over a metal grate trying to maximize heat gain from the trains rumbling underneath.Around him,black figures dash backwards and forth ducking from the downpour now lashing their crisp suits.

No one seems to notice the man and those that do,don’t seem to care.

Mainstream society remains blissfully ignorant of the plight of the homeless,despite the fact 100,000 people were recorded as such in the 2001 census(1).In such an affluent nation as Australia the fact that these people are beyond access to the most basic of human rights such as health care,education,clean water,food,shelter and privacy,remains a national disgrace.

This ignorance(my motivation to research this

topic)mirrors that of the Australian Architectural profession,of which a majority remain unmotivated and/or unconvinced of the power that their expertise and experience can have in the thoughtful manipulation of resources to construct healthy and sustainable communities for all,opposed to those that can simply afford it.

Architects “solutions”to homelessness remain at most,objects floating in space(2),similplifying the solution down to an issue of shelter without acknowledgement of the broader social programs vital to a homeless clients overall qualtiy of life.As well,Architects exclusivity(the main attraction to use one in the first place)ensures their services are kept out of reach of those most in need of them.

Despite this,the Architectural profession has recently experienced a paradigm shift with regards to how their design expertise can be mobilised for the greater good of the community.Over the last decade,socially conscience design professionals have been developing new models of organization and consultation with that section of community traditionally excluded from the use of their services.These organizations(such as Architecture for Humanity and Architects without borders)utilise a participatory planning design approach also called“community design”.They have developed new ways of communication and documentation that empower all members of a community(expert and layman)to contribute to the overall design scheme irrespective of geographic location or socio-economic standing.Also significant is the fact that Architects are beginning to tap into and provide incentives for,the private sector to help them alleviate such problems as homelessness in our community.

The homeless experience in Sydney:

Public and private sector responses to homelessness continue to marginalize an already depressed minority.

Recently,the State Library of NSW spent $500,000 erecting “Cold-Steel Triangles”banishing an established homeless community from its protective alcove(3).Mean while publicly funded homeless Hostels(mostly charities)have taken on characteristics of a public good,become susceptible to free riders,and fallen into disrepair.

Sydney specifically,is facing a major public housing crisis.Rents are the highest they have been in almost a decade and the housing market is the most unaffordable in the country(4).The fact that 120,000 properties lay vacant across the Sydney Metropolitan area alone,only compounds these problems(5)

These factors contribute to New-South-Wales having the highest percentage(60%)of people who, after making valid requests for accommodation,are turned away from homeless accommodation services each night(6)

Two of the most dire issues afflicting the homeless In Sydney include,the inability to find a satisfactory solution to youth homelessness,as well as the rising incidence of chronic street drinkers in the inner city

Youth Homelessness:

In Sydney,“single homeless”(commonly youth between the ages of 18-25)have the greatest difficulty securing affordable accommodation suitable to their needs through public housing simply because it is more efficient to house an entire family unit as opposed to,a single occupant.

Representative of this difficulty,of 20,000 calls for emergency accommodation by“Single Homeless”to the Support Accommodation Assistance Program in 2006,over a 2 week period,only 9000 beds were available(7)

Deppression turns many homeless youth to alcohol and drugs,resulting in the deaths of 67 youth each month from drug and alcohol related problems(8)

Many youth become “sofa surfers”turning to friend’s houses for food and shelter.Lack of a permanent address results in great disruptions to their education and job prospects.98% of homeless youth who attend school suffer from learning


Other homeless youth who view such a strategy as demeaning have opted to form themselves into cooperative’s and squat in vacant property.Although living in a cooperative community can provide the yearned for feeling of security these youth yearn for,the risk of criminal prosecution and even personal injury from choosing an unsafe site remains high.

Chronic street drinkers:

In Sydney approximately 75% of the entire homeless population suffer from a mental illness with 49%of men and 15%of woman suffering from an alcohol abuse disorder(10)

Because of this,homelessness services,boarding houses and other community facilities do not allow homeless people to drink alcohol and a model that provides for a place to do so has yet to materialise in the Sydney context.

Chronic drinkers have no other option than to drink in the streets and parks where urban consolidation policies have brought increasing numbers of people to share the same limited open space often leading to open conflict between residents and the local homeless population.It is not uncommon for local residents to encounter anti-social behaviour from street drinkers including,violence,oral abuse,urination and defecation in their already limited options for local parks.Inversely inebriated homeless become susceptible to assaults and in extreme cases even murder.

Scarce police resources are wasted dealing with this health and social problem,moving-on intoxicated people,and removing their alcohol.Councils also loose money as they are forced to continually clean the spaces street drinkers congregate in.

Furthermore,recent changes to Intoxicated Person's

Units(which traditionally provided a place for intoxicated homeless to stay overnight)have reduced the number of beds leaving drunk people out on the streets or in police cells.

Opportunity for socially conscience design:so close but no cigar:

Over the last 5 years steps have been taken to address both of these issues.

In 2002 a series of highly publicised projects in inner city Sydney,revealed a new and highly effective strategy to house the cities homeless was born:CRASH-Sydney(Construction_Industry_Relief and_Assistance_for_Sydney’s_Homeless)sought to engage the private sector property industry in supporting homeless persons with medium-term shelter in vacant buildings in Sydney city. Initial pilot projects have worked with groups of 18-25 year old homeless persons without medical support needs,to incorporate,to take up no-cost property leaseholds and to undertake caretaker training,while fitting out their own spaces with assistance from architects and builders.The model was developed from a London precedent,CRASH(UK)and the Sydney Housing Action Collective’s recent occupation of vacant buildings in the inner and eastern suburbs of Sydney.

Likewise, in 2004 the mayor of Sydney,Clover Moore organised an open forum to help try and find a solution to the chronic street drinking problem and conflict with residents afflicting the inner city.

A proposal to open a trial “Wet Activity Centre” was warmly received by local residents and businesses,buoyed by the success of similar projects in the UK, specifically the Booth Centre in


It was proposed that such a project would provide a much needed place for chronic drinkers to go to safely drink,socialise,get help with accommodation,health/welfare,and ultimately to stop drinking altogether.

Not with standing the short term merits of such initiatives,lasting sustainable plans for both models have yet to materialise.

To ensure the future success of legalised squatting,as well as Wet activity centres,it is imperative that architects work with the city of Sydney in order to develop Local Environmental and Social plans which identify sites,that are not only areas traditionally frequented by the homeless but also possess the real/potential vacant private property stock to pilot such projects.

These plans would effectively define local urban areas so if the criteria were met,the caretaker and Wet activity centre model’s would be incorporated into this area.Incentives trialed overseas,such as the taxes placed on vacant properties in Boston(11)would also be developed in order to motivate private property owners/developers of these vacant sites to take part in such projects.

My Proposal:The intervention:

In Nov 2006 the opportunity to materialize a vivid architectural precedent that innovatively dealt with the specific issues faced by the homeless in Sydney,presented itself in the form of the 150 year old abandoned Crown Street Reservoir and pumping station located in the inner city suburb of Surry Hills.

The half-acre site which includes 3 storey’s of office buildings and adjoining work shops,is a publicly owned asset that remained vacant for the last 15 years.In October 2006,Sydney Water made an open call for submissions of possible scenario’s for the redevelopment of the site.It is located within a 3km radius of several established social service providers(a critical success factor for previous successful cooperative housing and wet centre models).Despite the trendy café’s and boutique clothing stores,this area has remained a nucleus of Sydney’s homeless population and associated social ills.

Given the previous vocal support and urgent need to pilot such projects as discussed above,I believe such an undertaking is both highly logical and its materialisation,realistic.

Architecture for Humanity would be utilised to mobilise socially conscience Design professionals through their “open architecture network”and help materialise the project through participatory planning/community design principles.

My proposal is to redevelop the site in two stages.Firstly,transforming the vacant buildings into cooperative housing in the short-medium term(sponsored by NRMA insurance)for non-dependent 18-25 year olds incorporated through a Caretaker Tenancy Agreement,negotiated between homeless tenants and Sydney Water(analogous to previous projects managed by CRASH Sydney).This model will ensure Homeless Youth have an affordable option for housing that acknowledges their singular nature,Developers will gain positive PR outcomes and incur reduced insurance premiums/security expenses as well as help reduce the cost to the public sector to provide expensive hostel accommodation,as more private property owners/developers allow access to their vacant properties.

During the sites use as co-operative housing,a Local Environmental and Social Plan for the site would also be drawn up in order to validate the specific need for and give incentives to owners/developers of the site to participate in the second stage of the development,that is,into a Wet Activity Centre.

This period of consultation by Architects with the broader community would provide an excellent opportunity to develop environmentally and culturally appropriate design outcomes for future clients.This is especially relevant for the large indigenous homeless population contributing to the chronic street drinking problems in the local area and most likely to utilise its services.

The Wet Centre will appropriate the effective characteristics of other successful programs piloted overseas such as,the Booth Centre in Manchester including:its relatively small size(<25 clients),high staff to client ratio(1:5),central location to other social support services and its diverse range of activities away from the centre including harbour fishing, city gardening and bushwalking.The Centre will ensure less nuisance and lower costs to local businesses, council and law inforcement,residents will gain improved access to open space,Alcohol services will get better access to chronic drinkers and Street drinkers will gain a place,where they are welcomed,safe from violence and abuse,and can gain companionship.

Architecture for humanity’s online “open architecture network”would ensure greater speed and efficiency of communication and documentation throughout the entire project.

This ‘open source system’ will give invaluable help with project management,file sharing,a resource database and an online collaborative design tool specifically tuned to support socially conscience Architecture projects.

When combined with Architecture for Humanity’s informal monthly “meetups”,their model becomes a highly effective tool for mobilising a diverse range of skill sets,applied to the common goal of bringing design services to those most in need of their help.For such a project where numerous Architects,builders,students and social services will be involved this model will be critical to its ultimate success.

In stage 1,professional Architects,builders and design students from Sydney,organised through such a network could help renovate and train tenants in general caretaking skills.In stage 2,design professionals have the opportunity to become more involved with the overall masterplanning,detailing,construction and project management of the Wet activity center.The “open architecture network”will provide incentives to and ensure smoothness of collaboration between all parties involved

My personal involvement as installation artist for the exhibition “People,Places,Situations:Responses”( Sydney University’s Architecture faculty affirms the effectiveness of such a model.It exhibited architectural interventions to humanitarian disasters, around the world,by mobilising Like minded design professionals,through Architecture for Humanity’s Sydney Chapter,who in any other situation would never have met.The exhibit went around Australia as well as overseas as part of Global Studio at the 2006 World Urban Forum.

Two important characteristics of my intervention will also help publicise the project to the broadest number of people as possible greatly increasing the chances of its final success.

Firstly,I propose initiating a design competition for the Wet Activity center open to all Design Students/Professionals,distributed to Architecture for Humanity chapters and affiliated Architecture schools around the world&juried online by experts in Architecture for the homeless,cooperative housing,Wet Centers,and adaptive re-use of heritage listed properties.

My second strategy will be the design and construction of a vivid mobile exhibition built and curated by local Architecture for Humanity members in Sydney.The interactive exhibition will present the proposed development along with precedents of similar projects in a format that is accessible to the wider community:3D graphics,projection’s and hand made models.

The “Parasitic”intervention(12)would plug onto each “host” building it is exhibited at,initially the Crown street site,until the negotiation of the Care Takers Tenancy agreements are finalised at which stage it would be transported to other vacant inner city sites around Australia afflicted by similar issues in their own communities.

In order to materialise the exhibition I propose utilising prefabricated cardboard technology developed by Visy industries and already used in two significant projects at USYD:The Cardboard house for“Houses of the future”and Adriano Pupilli’s 4thyr project(2004UCBerkeley

travel-fellow).Cardboard would be an ideal building product because it is unconventional,extremely low cost,transportable,lightweight and 100% recyclable.As exhibited in the above projects,the opportunity would arise for Architecture students and other lay people to get involved to broaden their skill set in regards to building.Also,The project would provide a vivid platform for industry to showcase experimental new building materials/techniques while helping publicise models of treating homelessness to the broader community.

The workshop/charette-like format of the exhibit would provide a great forum for Architects and the general community alike and would be vital to the development of context specific Local Environmental and Social plans for other communities wishing to address similar issues around Australia.

For a city such as Sydney to effectively deal with the issues faced by the homeless,we must first step beyond the provision of simply providing shelter and into the design of self-sustaining communities.A roof over the head alone,is doomed to failure unless the physical intervention is integrated with broader social programs,weighted to the specific circumstances of the local homeless and implemented as part of a city wide plan.

Such a vivid architectural precedent in the heart of Sydney would not only document but also offer a solution to,youth homelessness and the chronic street drinking problem afflicting the inner city.It will allow its citizens to see with new eyes,to ensure that instead of stepping over or hurrying past the broken bodies in the street,we will stop,take notice,listen to their needs and collectively as a city formulate a plan to end their suffering.



2),Bus Shelter/Park_Bench_House,2001

3)Daily Telegraph,“Heartless answer to homeless question” 21_feb_2006

4),“Most_Expensive_City_in_the World”,Feb_2006

5)Senior_lecturer_Col James,IB_Fell_Housing_research_centre,interview,15_Feb_2007


7),Sue Cripps,executive officer_HomelessnessNSW.ACT

8)Sydney_City_Mission_1995_Shadow_People:The_reality_of homelessness_in_the_90s

9)Hanover_Welfare_Services_1996,Can_we_stay?A_study_ of_ the_impact_of_family_homelessness_on_childrens__health_and_well_being

10),"Wet_Centres_Should_be_Tested” Media_release,Feb_2004


12)Parasite_Las_Palmas _&_Michael_Rakowitz's_parasite_shelters

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