What is Bluefield Housing?

‘Bluefield Housing’ is both a land definition and an infill housing model, each created by Damian Madigan as an extension to the widely-understood definitions of Greenfield, Brownfield and Greyfield Housing. Damian is currently authoring the book Bluefield Housing as Alternative Infill for the Suburbs, to be published by Routledge New York.

"Bluefield" housing uses the existing fabric of widespread single-lot housing to create more resilient, sustainable and inclusive dwellings within our suburbs, where most people live.

- Guy Luscombe, Architecture Australia, Sept/Oct 2021

As a land definition, 'Bluefield' refers to low-rise suburban neighbourhoods that are excluded from strategic densification policies and targets, or where increased housing numbers can only be achieved through minor infill via subordinate housing add-ons such as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). As a housing model, the Bluefield approach sees new housing co-located on a site where the existing housing stock and landscape are retained and adapted into a unified infill housing development as an alternative to Knock-Down-Rebuild (KDR) development. Based upon the discoveries of his 2016 ‘Alternative Infill’ PhD thesis and follow-on design research projects, 'Bluefield Housing' was first defined and described in Damian’s shortlisted design competition entry for the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work 2021.

At its heart, Bluefield Housing is about increasing housing diversity and choice while retaining and enhancing neighbourhood character: infill that is low scale, low intensity but high impact.

Existing suburban housing policy in Australia largely falls into three distinct categories:

  • Greenfield Housing, where undeveloped land (most often on a city’s fringes) is developed for housing for the first time, extending suburbia;
  • Brownfield Housing, where redundant non-residential land is converted to residential use, often at a medium- to high-density scale; and
  • Greyfield Housing, coined by Professor Peter Newton in 2010 to describe the middle suburbs, where ageing housing stock is demolished and replaced with new medium-density housing on subdivided or consolidated allotments.

Each of these models, along with transit corridor apartment development, aim for density increases without negatively affecting the more established and character-laden parts of a city. However, these older ‘no-go’ suburbs nonetheless continue to face character and amenity pressures through ad-hoc redevelopment, whilst the avoidance of strategic change leaves them homogenised and at increased risk of gentrification and unaffordability.

Why ‘Blue’field? Associated with calmness, stability and tradition, blue represents the perceived immutability of established suburbs, while ‘blue chip’ acknowledges the values – both financial and emotional – in play.

The Bluefield Housing approach, underpinned by conceptually rigorous and multi-layered design research investigations, sees single allotments in older suburbs sensitively densified by using the tropes of suburban alterations and additions – the mainstay of practice for so many architects, designers, and home builders, and a vital contributor to the global construction industry. Rather than reading a site as divisible into pre-determined minimum allotments, a Bluefield approach treats the existing housing, new additions and private open space holistically, offering opportunities for ageing-in-place, working from home, build-to-rent, multi-generational, and cooperative living in older neighbourhoods where housing diversity is elusive, yet so desperately needed.

From the forthcoming book Bluefield Housing as Alternative Infill for the Suburbs (Routledge New York, 2023):

Using a design-led approach, the bluefield co-location method looks to the existing context of streetscape, landscape, house sizes, building forms, and site coverages to determine the capacity for a lot to support additional houses, even if the prevailing minimum lot size of the zone dictates otherwise. In short, for a lot that cannot be legally subdivided due to its size or zoning rules, the bluefield model allows the chance for it to be considered for additional housing through carefully designed co-location with the existing house on the property. This requires that the proponent demonstrates liveability, amenity, and neighbourhood fit. A bluefield redevelopment can be achieved by successfully retaining the existing house, re-configuring it to provide small footprint living, and co-locating one or more new dwellings in any combination of:

  • a division of the existing house into separate dwellings under the one roof
  • an extension to the existing dwelling, or
  • as a detached backyard home.

Smaller lots might only accommodate one of the three strategies, while larger lots will be able to use all three in combination. The appropriate neighbourhood fit is determined by the prevailing scale and site coverage patterns, and by the ability for the designer to demonstrate internal and external amenity coupled with functionality.

A single shared yard space, designed and integrated with the housing, binds the individual dwellings into a coherent whole. Whilst sharing the yard space is necessary for all bluefield developments, sharing facilities such as laundries or additional living spaces is at the discretion of residents and resolved at the point of approvals and permits being issued.

The bluefield housing model is based on seven design principles:

  1. Facilitate sharing in degrees determined by the residents.
  2. Ignore lot size and instead co-locate to avoid land division.
  3. Retain and adapt the lot's original housing.
  4. Leverage the prevailing pattern of alterations and additions.
  5. Create housing in a flat hierarchy as a middle ground between the single-family home and the ADU.
  6. Arrange housing around shared landscape in a unified design.
  7. Design for social, financial, and environmental sustainability.

Because bluefield housing is about tweaking the existing alterations and additions development models of the single-family home, it has the potential to introduce smaller and more affordable housing options in the absence of a speculative market housing developer. Homeowners can develop the model with a ‘light touch’ level of assistance from domestic construction companies, while larger developments could be undertaken by community housing providers, housing associations, or small scale ethical or socially responsible developers. The model offers the potential to sit in a suburban development ‘sweet spot’ between two- to four-bedroom profit-driven market housing at one end of the spectrum, and private ADU development undertaken by homeowners at the other, enabling small-scale residential builders to undertake the work within their existing skillsets and capacity.

Design research projects that utilise the Bluefield Housing model include:

Damian is currently working with the South Australian State Government on policy development to determine how the Bluefield Housing model might become a form of permitted infill development under the new state-wide Planning and Design Code.

'Ageing Well in the Bluefields', an Architecture Australia article written about the housing model and its use in the Cohousing for Ageing Well project, can be read online at Architecture AU.

Recommended citation: Madigan, Damian. "Bluefield Housing: Shortlisted Competition Entry, AA Prize for Unbuilt Work 2021." Melbourne: Architecture Australia, 2020. https://architecturemedia.com/events/aaunbuilt2021/

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