How to Design Indigenous Housing to Withstand Climate Change

Take the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in northwest South Australia, where maximum temperatures are rising. Summer periods of sustained high temperatures start earlier and last longer.

A rapidly warming planet presents a significant challenge for the design, delivery and maintenance of habitable housing across Australia. Yet few analyzes consider Indigenous housing and climate change together.

A new report, Sustainable Indigenous Housing in Regional and Remote Australia, fills this gap.

Explore sustainable housing for First Nations communities

This new report examines the role of housing in remote and regional communities, given the increasing pressures of climate change. It shows that existing and new housing can and should be better maintained for these communities. We have found that managing aboriginal-managed rentals is part of the solution.

At Gunnedah, we have partnered with Aboriginal society Gunida Gunyah, an indigenous community housing provider in New South Wales. The houses managed by Gunida Gunyah vary in age and quality, which all housing organizations need to negotiate as they take responsibility for ongoing maintenance.

Unfortunately, the legacy of inadequate housing construction is not a thing of the past. What is built or renovated today could haunt residents for decades. So, will attempts to revive old dwellings using existing national building guidelines be sufficient to ensure future livability?

We used simulation software to understand the impact of climate change, especially increased heat, on Indigenous housing. This software examined the effectiveness of existing home renovation strategies to improve thermal performance and energy efficiency. This simulation was modeled for the tropical, dry and hot / mild climatic zones of Australia.

After 366 simulations, our results showed that modifying or renovating existing homes and even building new homes to meet recommended standards are not adequate measures for current or future climate change. Even if existing homes were to be upgraded or new homes built to current national building code standards, at best the benefits would be short-term.

In addition, whether the houses are old or new, overcrowding is a critical limitation for thermal comfort—The technical term for not too hot, not too cold. So even if the units were greatly improved in design, overcrowding would negate the benefits.

The solution is a combination of improved design and construction standards, increased housing and restoration work on existing housing, with well-funded repair and maintenance programs to ensure continued operation.

Basic housing needs are not being met

As Health habitat has long demonstrated that basic household needs, such as the ability to bathe, wash clothes and bedding, and store and prepare food, require things to work inside and outside the home. House. Decades of data shows the impact of restoring the function of health equipment (washing facilities, safe food storage systems, etc.) and reveals that the main reasons for housing malfunction are poor original construction and repairs and inadequate maintenance.

Some governments respond to evidence of poor maintenance by claiming that the rent they can charge is not enough to cover the expenses involved, or that record-keeping systems to show what needs to be fixed are failing, especially in remote areas. However, our APY Lands file shows that the holy grail of proactive and planned housing maintenance is perfectly achievable and can generate savings.

A preventive maintenance program is economical. It minimizes major hardware failures, consolidates work orders (so more is repaired in less time) and reduces travel costs. By dedicating three-quarters of its APY Lands housing maintenance budget to planned work and working closely with the group controlled by the indigenous community. Nganampa Health Council, Housing SA retains the travel costs of repair and maintenance of APY Lands housing at less than 11%.

This contrasts with national research revealing that travel costs consume up to 96% of unit costs for emergency repairs in Indigenous housing, leaving only 11% to 37% of budgets for planned repairs and maintenance.

More national funding is needed for better housing designs, associated construction and ongoing maintenance work to provide year-round seasonal comfort and protection and to alleviate overcrowding in residences.

Australia could lead the way in meeting these needs, but first the political challenge of addressing housing, health, heating and climate change together must be openly recognized.

This is the way forward to achieve climate change mitigation rather than forced migration. Housing, health, maintenance and climate must be thought of together to enable people to stay in or near their country and their connection sites, now and in the future.


Tess Lea is professor of anthropology and cultural studies at the University of Sydney; Arianna Brambilla is a lecturer in architecture at the University of Sydney; John Singer is CEO of the Nganampa Health Council, Indigenous knowledge; and Liam grely is a researcher at the University of Sydney.

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