09 Apr The Least House Necessary
Before I start this article, I have a confession to make. Shaneen Fantin and I have known each other since February 1989. We met as part of a first year architecture student gathering at Brisbane’s Tower Mill on Gregory Terrace. In 1991 I left with a Bachelor of Design Studies, while Shaneen stayed on to gain her Bachelor of Architecture in 1994 and PhD in 2003 from the University of Queensland.
Since then, Shaneen’s career has seen her working with Indigenous groups, primarily in Australia, as a program manager with Arup and the Queensland State Government and now in Cairns running POD – People Oriented Design – with business partner and fellow architect Belinda Allwood.
Shaneen describes herself as a designer, writer and innovator, with specialist expertise in housing and health projects, community engagement and design participation. It’s no surprise to me that the bundle of determined energy I met in our undergraduate degree – almost 30 years ago – is now Chair of the FNQ committee of the Australian Institute of Architects.
She’s also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Queensland and James Cook Universities, and a member of International Association for Public Participation. Her doctoral thesis examines the relationship between design and culture in Aboriginal housing.
Shaneen has applied her research knowledge to over a dozen Indigenous housing and health projects in Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Canada. A regular contributor to Architecture Australia and Houses and Sanctuary, I interviewed Shaneen in March 2017 about POD’s workshop The Least House Necessary™.
When did you start thinking about developing The Least House Necessary?
It began in 2011 and was the culmination of several things. I’d just come back from the Northern Territory where I’d been working and doing research remotely with Indigenous people. My work meant long stints away, living with communities where I learned to live more simply – in essence, to value people over stuff.
I find that interesting because in 2011 I was in San Francisco. At a cafe one day I struck up a conversation with a guy wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with two words: Less Stuff.
Yes, I always felt like there were too many possessions in my life whenever I came back from my times away. And I had this feeling over and over again. At the time, my partner and I had two small children and lived in a tiny workers cottage – about ninety square metres. It was our home for almost seven years.
How was that experience?
It was fantastic. It was a great house, easy to look after with a great connection to the backyard. I was never stressed and it felt beautiful and comfortable.
You mentioned a culmination of things creating the spark for the workshop. Can you expand on that?
Sure. In 2011, I was invited to speak at International Women’s Day, and the theme was Women with a Plan. I chose to speak about dwelling and housing, examining aboriginal and ethno-architecture along with contemporary dwellings.
Were you aware of the tiny house movement at the time?
I was aware of the emergence of the micro-house movement, watching from afar and curious about it. I didn’t, and don’t, necessarily agree with it. However, I definitely support the concept and the philosophy of simpler living.
What is it that disturbs you about these houses?
I don’t think they’re for everyone. In a micro-house you have to be very careful with your physical movements and very mindful. If you’re like me, you’d be running into, and falling over, things all the time.
Tell me how you set out to create The Least House Necessary.
The Least House Necessary is a facilitated workshop that invites people to consider their housing needs based on some key principles:
We design activities to help participants explore and challenge themselves about how important each principle is to them personally. Questions around comfort and privacy are always interesting, the challenge being, can you have both without creating a sealed building envelope.
We’ve talked about how dwellings have changed over time. Even the word ‘dwelling’ takes you back to a simpler time. What’s your take on that?
If you go back prior to the 1950s we’re talking about very different perceptions of privacy and security. In the workshop we take time to explore older house designs in particular – to find out what it meant to inhabit a house then, without air conditioning and three bathrooms.
In some ways, there was more flexibility in terms of how the rooms could be used, whereas now, every room has a designated use. As an example, a media room can’t easily become a dining room in current speculative housing layouts.
What else do you ask people to consider?
We ask them to undertake a behavioural analysis of the activities that take place in their homes. That includes things like sleeping and preparing food. At the same time, we remind them to take into account security and weather control. We ask them to prioritise what’s most important, from a secure internal environment to a more outdoor life with a focus on the garden, for example.
You’ve explained you then move this exercise from an individual to a group focus. Only this time you ask people to actually build a model house with materials you provide. I imagine that’s been interesting at times.
It’s been very interesting. It’s when you realise that people want so many different things from a house. It’s also when some of the participants themselves realise they may have been putting appliances and technology ahead of the relationship between the house and the garden. It certainly helps them think about space, and how spaces help create relationships, both with the land and between people – families in particular.
Often when people are looking to buy, build or renovate they’re drawn to a host of pre-conceptions about the best kitchen and bathroom, for example. They can be too easily consumed by all this amazing over-cooked imagery! (pun intended, well it is now)
It sounds like a lot of work and some of these questions sound like they could be from an info-mercial…
Haha. The workshop does have its ‘pressure cooker’ moments, and certainly runs at a fast pace, but it’s designed to be fun and energetic. People don’t think enough about what makes them happy as humans; is it really the 42-inch screen and leather lounge or how their kitchen interacts with their garden? We surprise them sometimes because what we’re actually asking them to consider is whether they’re investing in their happiness or a perception of success.
It’s important to keep in mind we’re not saying that what you end up with can’t be something beautiful. You can have something simple, and beautiful that’s also not massive and over-scaled – a place that meets your needs as a collection of people.
Volume, light, texture and people make a house a home, and there’s not much choice about any of these in a ‘spec’ home.
What plans are in place for you to help multiply The Least House Necessary?
We’ve run quite a number of workshops in Cairns and the far north. Our approach is to partner with regional or shire councils and other organisations and share our knowledge along the way. This has proven very successful in the past. In March this year, we held our first workshop in Brisbane through The State Library of Queensland as part of the 2017 Asia Pacific Architecture Forum.
People Oriented Design (POD) was established in Cairns, North Queensland in February 2009. It’s since grown into a thriving architecture business. POD’s two business partners, Shaneen Fantin and Belinda Allwood, are both registered architects in Queensland and descendants of local families.
Shaneen and Belinda have a great appreciation and passion for the landscape, climate and people of northern Australia. Prior to creating POD, each worked for more than 15 years as associates, senior architects, and project managers for a variety of local, national and international firms including Arup, Peddle Thorp Architects, Opus and Troppo Architects.
Describing POD as a multidisciplinary practice, Shaneen says their work involves: 70 per cent architecture – residential, community, health and education projects; 30 per cent consulting; community engagement and project management.
Shaneen and Belinda
With 20 years experience working with indigenous organisations Shaneen has a uniquely holistic view of Australian architecture. Along with her business acumen, Shaneen describes business partner Belinda as an incredible craftswoman and maker of things – from chairs and furniture to boats!
Shaneen’s just finished co-authoring a chapter of The International Handbook of Contemporary Architecture, an invitation that goes out to just 40 authors globally. Her co-author is local Elder Gudjugudju Fourmile.