Aboriginal Housing

Posted by : Ali Rajabipour Sept. 14, 2022

Contact : ali.rajabipour at cdu.edu.au Maps


There is a large body of technical reports on town planning and architectural design of Indigenous houses. These suggest guidelines for successful designs in remote areas. Readers are referred to (Fien et al., 2007, 2008a; Fien et al., 2008b) for details of these guidelines. After many years of building “for” Ingenious communities, we ask why isn’t this solved (Fien & Charlesworth, 2012)? Solutions from government or academia in this long battle of building “for” communities have not stood for long. There have been many proposals: some researchers believe Indigenous people should be involved in construction (Cox, 2014; DRD, 2016; Hay, Zuo, Han, & Zillante, 2017; MP&C, 2017; Seemann & Marinova, 2010; Stewart, Anda, & Harper, 2019); some believe physical engagement of Indigenous people is important while building for them (Burgess, Bailie, & Mileran, 2008; McDermott, O'Dea, Rowley, Knight, & Burgess, 1998; Rowley et al., 2008); some have concern of carbon emission generated due to remote construction (Altman & May, 2011) and some people think community houses should focus on yards (O'Rourke & Nash, 2019). The common thread in all solutions and policies suggested and implemented so far is that the problem has not been solved yet and the question of how to solve the under resourcing of houses, will remain valid for many years.

After countless failures in remote communities’ construction, we are being gradually convinced that when working across cultures, there is a long history of design strategies, materials, town planning and construction methods that needs to be explained, digested and agreed on in community meetings, not simply consulting in the design phase. After generations of mission and government intervention into community management there has been little incentive for people to take control of their living space, or to engage in the process of how they wish to join the housing market in Australia.

The housing situation in remote communities seems the visible part of an iceberg which arises from much more fundamental challenges that colonisation and aspirations to “modernise” (Nelson, 2011) have brought to Indigenous communities. Many previously well-established cultures around the world are dealing with the avalanche of “modernisations” or adaptions to western conceptual values; being either extinguished entirely or struggling to redefine themselves in the flood of new thoughts and lifestyles. While Australian Indigenous cultures were strong enough not to be eradicated in this flood, they were heavily hit by colonisation and modernity and Indigenous people throughout Australia have paid heavily dealing with the new life condition. Western culture, which was one day a guest, now controls almost all aspect of Indigenous life and is not able to offer much more than confusion, poverty, violence, and addiction to Indigenous people. On many occasions Indigenous communities suffer not because of our lack of intention or aspiration for a prosperous and happy life, rather from the challenge of coexistence of two cultures.

Here is a simple example of confusion that our construction policies make in communities. It relates to a visit to a community that was set up as a mission, drawing in people from many languages and forcing them to live with each other, until finally the community recently gained self-management of a sort. An old fellah spoke up during discussion about engaging community members in the construction and asked if the government worker had built his own home. The old fellah then asked why Aboriginal people should have to if non-Aboriginal people did not. This is a valid point, unless you go back into the history of construction in medieval England, where people in remote communities constructed their own shelters from local materials.

It is a long period since the time when Aboriginal people managed their own settlements and housing designs. Now the government aspires to hand at least some of this responsibility back to enable self-determination and appropriate styles of houses to be built. This chapter attempts to consider some aspects of the missing information and we believe there are many other lessons we have yet to learn for a successful construction in Indigenous communities.

We look here at the structural design in traditional Indigenous houses and explores ways to integrate those approaches into explaining the contemporary structural designs used in these remote houses. By contemporary design, we refer to the standard practices in Australia in construction. First, we introduce general forms of Indigenous structures and discuss their relevance. Options for integration of Indigenous structural design philosophy in contemporary structural design for remote housing are explained and new factors that a structural engineer should consider in this regard. Finally, in this chapter we provide a quick overview of some construction techniques which could be employed to enhance structural flexibility and community engagement, as being more relevant to Aboriginal community aspirations and priorities.

At the same time, we hope that an approach to housing from an Indigenous perspective will encourage engineering students to rethink their assumptions about the priorities of building, the need for more sustainable approaches and the opportunities to incorporate new materials and designs into our work. By acknowledging the approach to town planning and living areas used by Aboriginal people we envisage we can both respect the history of Australian construction methods and investigate new approaches that better suit diverse cultures and reduce waste.

Extract from Chapter 22, Indigenous Engineering for an Enduring Culture, edited by Cat Kutay, Elyssebeth Leigh, Juliana Kaya Prpic and Lyndon Ormond-Parker. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Authors: Ali Rajabipour and Michael Hromek

Location: Galiwin'ku