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Housing with heart: inside Markham Ave

In Australia, housing affordability and availability are part of the daily news cycle, with the country at crisis point when it comes to providing homes for those who need them most.

Demand for housing support outstrips supply each year, with more than 174,000 households nationally waiting for social housing in 2022 and almost 68,000 on Victoria’s list alone in March 2023. The numbers reveal that the most frequent reasons for homelessness are financial difficulties and the need to escape domestic and family violence, with women seeking the most help.

This year the Federal Government responded, announcing it would invest $2 billion in a new ‘accelerator’ initiative to create thousands of homes for Australians on social housing waiting lists across the country. That’s in addition to the $5 billion already committed under the Victorian Government’s Big Housing Build – the largest investment in public and affordable housing in the state’s history.

Changing minds

With momentum building, we need to explore entrenched perceptions of this much-needed form of housing, including notions that achieving affordability means sacrificing quality.

In an Infrastructure Australia report on our most pressing challenges over a 15-year horizon, over 60% of community respondents rated the quality of social and public housing as ‘poor’ and ‘getting worse’, making it consistently the lowest-rated asset class in the report.

Markham Avenue is one of a new breed of projects designed to turn that around.

Located in the Melbourne suburb of Ashburton, it’s one of the first public and affordable housing communities created under the Big Housing Build, which is being delivered by Homes Victoria. The 100% government-owned development is a socially and environmentally sustainable place to live with quality at its core.

A new kind of housing

Once occupied by 56 time-worn public housing units from the 1950s, the site has been transformed into a vibrant, contemporary community with 178 ‘tenure blind’ homes spread across five buildings.

Defined by generous spaces and amenities, connections to nature, and lasting, quality materials, Markham Avenue represents a healthier, more inclusive form of higher-density living.

The community just welcomed visitors as part of the Open House Melbourne program. For those who missed it, three of our lead designers take you on a virtual tour below.

Urban Futures sector leader Dean Thornton walks through the community’s master planning, while Principal and Living sector leader Oliver Mayger covers the architectural highlights. Senior Associate and Living Interiors leader Madeleine Joyce then shares the inspirations behind the calming, light-filled apartments and common spaces inside.

Welcome to Markham Avenue.

The master plan: three key moves

Location, location, location

“Our whole approach revolved around connecting the built environment with the natural environment,” says Dean. “We capitalised on the site’s incredible location near a reserve, creek and community gardens.”

Integrated with the landscape

“Careful planning allowed us to retain many of the area’s mature trees, which are dotted throughout the community,” Dean adds. “We think we’ve achieved the right balance between development and biodiversity protection.”

Framed outdoor rooms

“Because they’re low rise, the buildings have a great connection to the landscape, with views from large windows and balconies,” notes Dean. “The large communal landscapes are easily seen from all around and provide a perfect place for kids to play and residents to socialise.”

Street to creek

“This is not a closed-off community – it’s very permeable. It has strong visual and physical connections to the creek, inviting people to move through the whole site,” says Dean. “There are also good access points to green space from the boundaries.”

The architecture: density in harmony

Stitched into its surroundings

“We’ve reduced the impact of density in this sensitive location through a transition in housing types. Along Markham Avenue, there are two storey, townhouse-style homes that reference the area’s post-war housing, while three and four level buildings are situated within the site,” notes Oliver. “We also created generous setbacks and space for ‘front gardens and gates’, reinforcing suburban character, scale, and connections.” (Image from Homes Victoria)

Community minded

“Two key drivers for this development were tenure-blind housing and equitable amenity,” Oliver points out. “The level of investment in design and access to views, outlook, or sunlight are consistent regardless of the social demographic of residents.”

“We’ve been told this doesn’t look like a social housing project – and that was actually the goal,” he adds. “We were designing homes, not social housing.”

A symbiotic relationship

“Everything at ground level is designed to have a relationship and physical connection with the outdoors. But the same goes for the upper floors, with their ample views and generous balconies,”
Oliver says. “This supports passive surveillance
of communal spaces, but, most importantly, it allows residents to connect with both their immediate landscape and the spaces and community beyond through the longer vistas.”

A pared back palette + natural materials

“We chose natural brick, concrete, and steel, and introduced three brick colours for some differentiation between the five buildings,” says Oliver. “Low-maintenance, highly-durable materials were important for budget and for operational costs.”

“Clever brick detailing in some key areas reinforces residential character and adds a playfulness that complements the natural setting and colours of the site and streetscape. The buildings have become a backdrop for the landscape,” he adds.

Looking out, looking in

“The buildings are outward-facing and connected to the wider community and natural context, but they also look inward to nurture residents, with great amenities including inviting balconies,” Oliver points out.

Public + private

“The buildings form the edges of the connected courtyards as well as the communal landscape and circulation spaces,” Oliver points out. “The courtyards connect to public throughways and beyond to Markham Avenue and Markham Reserve. Providing scale and enclosure to courtyard spaces, the buildings also ‘peel back’ to allow for wider connections and
vistas beyond. Ultimately, they mediate between public and private, communal and personal.”

The interiors: naturally calm and light

Blurring outside + inside

“Typically, transition spaces can be dark and gloomy, with little focus paid to the environment in which we move between spaces,” says Madeleine. “In contrast, we enhanced the user journey through lobbies, corridors and stairwells, flooding them with light through skylights and large portal windows. Continuing the external paving internally enhances a sense of connectivity and flow between exterior and interior.”

Expressing the unseen

“Exposing services within transition spaces was a deliberate move, celebrating raw materials in alignment with the architecture,” Madeleine points out. “Opening up the fire stairs provides a vertical connection, giving residents a choice of how to move between floors.”

Perfectly practical

“Taking small cues from how we design health projects, we introduced a datum through corridors, which can minimise ongoing maintenance costs. We used this datum throughout to help anchor the graphics,” Madeleine notes.

Room with a view

“The transition from the living space to the terrace is seamless. It feels so spacious,” says Madeleine.

Robust and no fuss

“Kitchens and bathrooms were designed for longevity and ongoing low maintenance. We limited applied fixtures, choosing to integrate handles where possible,” says Madeleine. “The three subtle colour schemes throughout the buildings connect back to the site’s context and form a calm backdrop within each apartment. We knew residents would want to personalise their space so we provided a neutral base.”

Stow aways

“Residential apartments are generally not known for adequate storage, so we maximised cavities to create generous usable space,” Madeleine points out.