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Imagine if remote community houses were designed by their Indigenous residents

Dr Simon Quilty -

Imagine driving into a remote town like Tennant Creek, half way between Darwin and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, if over the past 50 years Aboriginal people had been supported by governments, architects and the construction industry to develop communities in their own ways.

Homes would likely bear little resemblance to the nuclear-family types we know from bigger cities and towns.

They would instead all be wrapped in wide verandas to reflect outdoor living preferences and provided shaded cooler spots outdoors, surrounded by trees and with smouldering campfires cooking meat according to customary law.

The orientation of houses would all be north-facing to limit the hot sunlight on long walls. Aboriginal people are deeply aware of how the sun beats down on the earth and how to minimise the heat in their living spaces, and in Tennant Creek, Warumungu people have always slept oriented to where the sun rises.

There would be diversity in the houses reflecting culture and personal preferences, and they would be harmonious with, rather than in exclusion of, the environment.

But sadly the opposite is true today. Town camps in the NT look more like detention facilities than communities.

The architecture and layout of Tennant Creek is a living record of this history.

There are the 50 year old, uninsulated tin sheds still being lived in, with no concrete floors, power or water. The first brick houses from the '80s are usually surrounded by trees and sometimes gardens, possibly built with a conviction that families living in them might be able to thrive.

The '90s and 2000s saw a brief period of community agency that is reflected by a greater diversity of housing designs, and bigger verandas, with trees left standing in the yards.

But progress was hammered dead by the Intervention in the NT in 2007 when the government took control of housing and the entire architectural and design narrative became focused on minimising the cost of maintenance.

The housing crisis in Tennant is severe, with a 20 year waitlist, and the ten new public houses built over the past decade to meet this crisis are architecturally horrific to consider.

Sure they photograph well, painted on the inside and out with one of four standard government issue colours, all of which have dark tones and increase heat absorption as if no-one cared that this is Tennant Creek.

There's very limited capacity for natural ventilation with small windows and almost no veranda space, surrounded by death-bare yards with all trees chopped out and the earth compacted like concrete to ensure nothing grew to slow progress when they were being constructed.

The problem is that nothing will ever grow on this hard, sharp earth.

Government efforts and the remote housing industry have failed Aboriginal culture and communities.

The NT Government has set the lowest thermal efficiency building standards in Australia, despite the fact climate change is leading to increasing temperatures. New public housing projects push as close as they can to the lowest level possible to reduce costs.

These savings to the Territory government translate to costs borne by the tenants, among the poorest people in Australia, who have to pay exorbitant electricity bills to keep their homes cool and safe in hot weather.

Families in Tennant are regularly forced to choose between purchasing pre-paid electricity credit or food. When the credit runs out, the power is disconnected, and data shows that disconnection rates skyrocket in the hot weather.

Heat and hunger define life inside these structures.

Office Architects discuss design with Wilya Janta. Image: supplied.

It doesn't have to be this way. There are billions of dollars spent around a strategy of cost minimisation, but this money could be spent much more wisely.

The challenge is that there are few examples of architectural and town planning success, there's little to point to or find aspiration in that would guide better development principles that facilitate thriving families, communities and culture.

The Wilya Janta (Standing Strong) housing collaboration is paving a new way in remote Indigenous housing that recognizes and addresses the oppressive nature of housing delivery and the need to empower communities in concepts of design.

The Warumungu founders, community Elders Norman Frank Jupurrurla and his sister Patricia Frank Nurururla, are working with a team of architects, engineers and builders on the design of two homes that fully embrace principles of culture and climate, high thermal performance and solar power, as well as being affordable to build at scale.

They will be shaped by cultural principles such as strictly adhered-to avoidance relationships and spiritual cleansing, outdoor living and cooking preferences and other cultural practices and values.

The construction process will protect existing trees that might not be tall but have taken many decades to cast meaningful shade, and Patricia plans a bush medicine garden so that she can continue her cultural role in caring properly, in the traditional Warumungu way, for her grandchildren.

Towns like Tennant Creek can be beautiful places to live in and for culture to thrive, but there's work to do and listening to be done.

Dr Simon Quilty was a doctor in the Northern Territory for 20 years and has co-authored numerous papers on the impact of extreme heat on the health of First Nations and non-First Nations people in the NT with Warumungu Elder Norman Frank Jupurrurla.


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