Plateau Developments

Small homes for the aged and socially/financially disadvantaged.

The Plateau approach to social housing was created by an academic/journalistic discussion group initially during the Whitlam Labor years. These are principles, rather than plans; they were in response to the obvious need for small homes designed for the independent elderly, the disabled, and the general financially disadvantage (including some scholars and the homeless). Australian suburbs have mainly been built since the 1950s to provide family homes for a couple of adults and two-to-three children, with a dog, two-car garage, and a generous grassed garden area for exercise.

Because of general housing costs and lack of personal transport, the the socially disadvantaged generally need rental accommodation located near to shops and transport facilities. Many do not have a car, and very often, the independent aged can lose their driver's license or can't justify the maintenance costs of a car. In Australian suburbs, you generally need a vehicle to function.

However the prime suburban land near to the shops and transport hubs which would allow aged suburban residents to remain independent. Is mostly given over to bitumized car parks for local commuters sitting for 8 hours in the day in their city offices.

It appeared to us at the time (and this still resonates today) that utilizing prime small-home locations for all-day car parks, was a ridiculous misappropriation of what is essentially community-common land, which has been reserved over a century for the general good of the residents.

The Plateau's low-profile engineering approach to constructing small-sized housing was also a way to counter the councils' promotions of private development ventures ‐ mainly of high-rise glass-box apartment buildings -- which were often only purchased by moderately-wealthy young couples, and increasingly by fly-in/fly-out international speculators.

High-rise apartments are certainly a suitable form of housing for middle-aged couples in the dozen years after their children have left the family home, they are not ideal for the elderly ‐ either, surviving singles or caring-couples. This is especially evident for those with long-term family companion pets. In fact pets can be the most important factor being considered when the aged contemplate shifting to residential care or a retirement village (most won't take pets either).

Local councils generally favour high-rise development proposals for the potential increase in rate income. Also, this type of construction satisfies the State and Federal Government's instruction to councils that they must raise suburban population densities to make more efficient use of utilities and transport services. As a consequence, almost without exception, high-rise developments take over most of the available 'Common' space near to bus terminals and railway stations ‐ effectively crowding social housing out.

The Plateau Group operated at a time when major social-housing construction projects appeared to be supported by both Federal and State governments, and by both major parties, and so likely to proceed. However, situations changed, and eventually the Plateau Group dissolved (most have since died) and nothing along the lines suggested here were ever built.

The Plateau Group

(This was a discussion group mainly of journalists.

I was the convenor of the Plateau Group during the 1980s and '90s, and a few of us have continued to improve and expand some of the concepts over the years since. It is important to appreciate that this was never 'architecture'; it was basically an engineering proposal with aspects of community-development, and it included the potential techniques of political persuasion to get early development, and ways of finance and control to ensure that it would be retained for successive generations.

The concept is entirely feasible, even today in the financial sense, because it has the potential to generate its own financing through a mutual building society, with ownership and control exercised through a linked perpetual cooperative.

This cooperative aspect is important: if the aged local suburban resident is to move out of his/her home into a small-home development in the local CBD, they need to know that:

  • they can remain independent for as long as they wish (probably 5-10 years on average).
  • they need to stay close to friends, clubs, churches, etc. Loneliness is a major problem of ageing.
  • they have a guaranteed lease over their choice of small homes, until they make their own decision to move.
  • the house they occupy needs to be in their familiar area, with shops, service providers, etc that they know.

This means that the membership of each housing cooperative needs to be restricted to [say] a post-code and adjacent areas. The mutual building society which finances the developments would be a government guaranteed investment vehicle, paying standard bank term-deposit interest rates. This would be a much larger (State-based) organisation, which links the various housing cooperatives into a network. Priority to the home of the member's choice, would be related by an established formula to the amount invested, the period of membership, and the age of the applicant.

The other rental properties on the Plateau would be more normal rental agreements, and the commercial properties over transport corridors would require a State government agreement for cost and rental splits.

The cooperative structure for the housing can satisfy all of these requirement ... and much more. Members can be confident that:

  • The overall housing development complex can't be resumed, bought, privatised, or redeveloped by profit-making investors or sold off by governments.
  • The membership rights of aged residents in the housing cooperative means that they control their own destiny and have a say in the day-to-day community functions.
  • They know that residential assistance guarantees are available, when they later need this help.
  • When they eventually need a nursing home, they will be accommodated within the same general Plateau region so that friends and family can visit easily.
  • The cooperative will offer other semi-commercial functions and forms of assistance to the elderly members on and off the Plateau ‐ this type of development should create a mutual help environment and encourage membership and fund investment.
    • Hire of various items: from electric wheelchairs and gophers, to the possibility of cheap hire cars.
    • Part-time home help from the fit and able residents on the Plateau. (Both commercial arrangements, and altruistic.)
    • Basic home maintenance (fix dripping taps, etc) by a some of the jobless/homeless.
    • Help and advice on the thousands of other minor problems that worry the surviving singles when they suddenly find they need to live independently.
  • They are not forced to spend most of their days playing Bingo. Most aged people need to feel that they are able to occasionally use their skills and experience in ways that contributes to the general well-being.

What has changed today.

The term 'social housing' no longer carries a connotation of high-rise clusters of 10-story balcony-less blocks, seemingly designed on the cheap by a renegade reject of the Russian Housing Authority. It is also clear that the current economic and viral crisis may have modified political attitudes to high-rise living densities.

The society appears to have turned its attention once again on the need for specially designed social housing of all kinds, and specifically of residential homes for the aged. The free-market libertarian conviction of the Australian Federal Government seem to have swung in a social-democrat direction, and the Covid-19 crisis surely has caused everyone a rethink the value of unregulated for-profit aged-care facilities.

The Australian population is ageing fairly rapidly due to longevity. However bigger aged-care residential ghettoes (rather than mutual-help mixed communities of the disadvantaged) no longer appears to be the best direction to proceed. So this might well be the time to reintroduce some of these Plateau principles.

One problem that the independent aged do often face is in navigating their way on foot around the roads, kerbs, railways, steps and other obstacles in their shopping district. The Plateau concept involved ways to solve these problems also. Central business district land is too valu can be given guarantees of able to be reserved for transport traffic.

Transport corridor problems

The problems of all major cities have always hinged on the need for commuter transport service development, which unfortunately divide living and business areas by commuter and delivery vehicle transport corridors. The suburban shopping areas have the same problem ‐ made even more dangerous by their need to handle extensive pedestrian traffic.

The main city CBDs have solved their transport corridor problem by spending billions of dollars on elevated highways around the fringes, and by tunnelling their commuter rail lines and stations beneath the shopping/business district. Neither of these solutions is financially feasible for suburban CBDs. But why would you tunnel under a CBD, if you can deck over?

It is now possible to recover the air-space over rail and highway corridors without disrupting daily traffic flows by using craned-in, pre-stressed Hollowcrete decking planks. This relatively new construction approach is now widely used for warehouse and apartment construction.

The pre-stressed planks can support low-rise timber/steel/glass building, and span distance up to 32 metres ‐ more than enough to deck over each half of an 8-lane highway. A number of companies now make Hollowcrete decking and planks to order.

The prestressed concrete is not as cheap as normal poured concrete decking, but it allows traffic and parking space to be decked over at only a fraction of the cost of CBD land, and without disruption to traffic or normal business functions. It is strong enough to support low-rise, two-story shops and office developments, so it can create an open central mall-space atop a railway station. The other previous applications of this land (usually for parking, access roads, footpaths) retain their original functions.

In effect, this deck-over approach creates the cheapest possible land for any new CBD functions ... which, we suggest, should now be used for small business malls, outdoor recreation space (above the transport corridors) and for extensive small-housing development within a turfed/garden and pedestrian-only environment (above the old parking areas).

The focus of the Plateau Group was on the potential applications of this new building-space as ideal small home presincts for the independent aged. But we also recognise the value of the decking over the transport corridors to create easy and safe access for commuters, the disabled and children. There is value in maintaining a separation between the pedestrian traffic and the vehicular:

  • The deck provides easy (traffic-free) access to shops which remain on both sides of the old corridors. Small shop owners would obviously benefit from increased trade.
  • It creates a wide mall-meeting-coffee space in the centre of the business district.
  • It creates easy and safe access to railway and bus stations.
  • It will benefit government transport authorities financially benefit from both the increased usage and a share of the rental income from mall-businesses.
  • It creates a pleasant environment at the centre of the CBD for outdoor cafes, etc.
  • Some of the decked space can be reserved for recreational use. (kids playgrounds, tennis courts, bowling greens)
  • The deck area would be progressively extended as funding became available, and since it is raise on concrete pillars, it can present an easy-to-walk turfed-footpath surface, with more than one under-deck level if necessary.

It is important to realise that the Plateau is an engineering approach, not architecture. It is a way of recovering wasted transport corridors and parking space for secondary usage. As such, the development of much of the under-deck space would be progressive, and not require pre-planning in the normal sequence of development. Under-deck divisions of space are cheap and easy to make ... and to later change. This is why the development needs to be controlled by a cooperative based on aged and ageing members from the local community.

  • Daylight can be provided to under-deck areas through light-wells, atrium-style developments, and the use of light-pipes and ceiling lites.
  • Air is best controlled by ducted fan distribution. One major commercial advantage of Plateau-style development is the thermal mass, thermal deck insulation, and close coupling to the earth that results in cave-like temperature stabilisation without the need for air-conditioning, heating and cooling (water spray on the deck-turf).
  • Apart from car-parking, the under-deck spaces would provide student accommodation, meeting areas, gymnasiums/exercise facilities, an all-weather lap pool, serviced residential apartments ... and eventually nursing home and palliative care facilities.

Of course, there are always downsides. Most residents would live almost exclusively on the extended deck area, using the footpaths to reach the shops (walking, bicycle, wheelchairs or gophers). However they will occasionally need elevators (lifts for two or three floors) if they are unable to handle stairs down to their car park, etc. These should be of the hydraulic (highly reliable but slow) types now being installed at many railway stations.

Housing types

We envisage that the houses would be built into the plateau, rather than be built on the deck. The A modified version of the old Victorian terrace house (smaller than that pictured) is probably the ideal. It would have six or eight units side-by-side. Each ground-floor unit would be 4.2 x 16 m, which is enough for a second small bedroom for visitor, and with a small garden at the rear for exercising the dog and planting roses. The design of the various levels are matched for easy plumbing, and use of a fixed standard mass-produced kitchenette/toilet-shower divider unit for cost reasons.

This type of small housing complex provides the required variety of accommodation for the aged singles/couples and disabled on the 'ground floor' (deck level) where they have easy access from foot-paths through a turfed-garden environment, while the first-floor units (accessed by stairs on one end of the cluster) are suited to younger single parents with their children. Since the space below the deck is used currently for general commuter car-parking, this level would give way progressively to 'basement' type student and homeless accommodation, with some daylight entering each unit through slit ceiling lites at the deck level, alternately we could provide full light and air wells as in the old London terraces (2 up/1 down).

The main modifications to the traditional Victorian terrace design is the loss of internal staircases. This is replaced by much wider common front verandahs (say, 3 metres wide) which provide the access to each of unit on both levels. These also have value as shared general community socialising and play space: verandahs are a cheap way to get extra space that would use by the aged in summer, and the children in winter. This common access is also intended as a way to promote community exposure and participation to overcome isolation and loneliness.


There appears to be no financial reason not to introduce the Plateau approach in many of Australia's suburban CBD areas. In fact, the boost to aged independent living, and subsidiary benefits in aid to single families and other disadvantaged people would save State and Federal many millions of dollars annually.

The problems are mainly political:

  • The Plateau approach crosses the boundaries between State and Federal Department, where the department heads all seek to maintain control over their own bailiwick. Within the State's political jurisdiction, the departments of Transport, Health, and Community Services would all need to discover that there is a shared financial (as well as 'social') benefit.
  • The government's population density requirements can still be met by Plateau development techniques. The combination of transport/parking air-space recovery, and small terrace-style homes developed in a pedestrian/garden environment, matches the same population-density potential of conventional 7-floor high-rise apartments.
  • However, the main political obstacle, appears to be that this concept forces suburban local councils to do something different ... and to restore their primary mandate of serving their local residents and long-term ratepayers, rather than business and the developers.

[Declaration of Stewart Fist. :
I have no commercial interest in this idea whatsoever.]

Differences in construction and ways of thinking.

  Normal HouseHigh RisePlateau development
Main design sequence Ground plan up.
Car ports can be added later.
From basement and car park.
The basement carries the weight of the high-rise, so it needs to be completed first.
Deck level is completed first.
The deck construction sits on piles. The 2-up/1 down terrace clusters would be pierced through the deck and rest on concrete ground foundations.
UtilitiesGenerally underground or aerial cablesThrough the external cavity walls from the basement.From under the deck, through hollow wall piers up to floors above.
ElectricityIndividually metered.Individually meteredUse of Solar makes large batteries feasible. Probably a regular monthly electricity payment for any excess.
WaterIndividually metered.Individually meteredHarvest rain and store this free water for general use (toilet flushing, garden watering)
Temperature controlUsually fans and heaters or small airconditioner. Major air-conditioner unit. Air distributed by ducting system.Under-deck is a 'passive' unit with thermal mass, insulated by turf over the concrete deck and with earth-coupling below.
Above the deck houses: conventional but they will draw air from below.


Plateau Group Convenor: Stewart Fist
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