- Yanyu Sun
Opinion 05: Community Housing in Melbourne: Assemble is paving the way to real user driven outcomes
What is innovation in housing development? In community housing projects, who are architects really designing for? Assemble is a housing developer and community management initiative in Melbourne, Australia. Introducing a new pathway to homeownership, the Assemble model bridges the gap between renting and buying, at the same time, delivering affordable high-quality homes. Away from conventional housing development, Assemble sits at an overlap between affordable housing and Collaborative Housing. In the investor-dominant housing market of the 21st century, these innovative housing models are what is looking at our living environment critically and promoting ethical and affordable diversities. We caught up with Lily Townsend, a future resident of 15 Thompson Street Kensington, by Assemble, to hear about her reasons for choosing to invest in this lifestyle.
My interest in Assemble first stemmed from an undergraduate design studio at the Faculty of ABP at The University of Melbourne on the topic of Collaborative Housing (CH). CH is a broad term in its definition. Darinka Czischke, an academic at TU Delft, describes it as an “umbrella term” covering a variety of derivations from its origin. The roots of CH trace back to the late 1960s in Denmark, when 50 families with the help of architect Jan Gudmand-Høye, built housing to live closer together and build a greater sense of community. This became effective against the isolating nature of individual homes that was experienced during suburban sprawl. The evolution of CH led to a variety of forms, current development models have shaped the definition of collaborations among residents and external stakeholders in housing provision to build properties for community living.
“When you think about a property development company, it's not really what you think Assemble is. They have really pushed that stereotype of a property development company and gone the other way where it's about community values, accessibility to affordable housing and financial autonomy.” - Lily Townsend, future resident of 15 Thompson Street Kensington by Assemble.
Assemble differs from regular housing models where they are not only developing apartments for sale, but focusing on the experience of residents. “A unique pathway to home ownership” is a key ethos of Assemble. The property price is fixed upon renting, away from being affected by property values in the housing market. Residents have the opportunity to rent up to 5 years before buying the property, making it affordable and flexible for young populations like Lily, who are dealing with uncertainty in savings and future plans. Lily has been working with a financial coach at Assemble, on her savings towards buying a home in the future. In addition, she mentioned there are group financial workshops every three months, “They are really trying to cover all aspects, making the journey to buying a home an experience.”
Lily showing me her apartment allocation in 15 Thompson Street. Kensington
Having their apartments allocated marks a significant point on this journey, “There is this balloting process,” Lily explains how residents collaborate together to select their future apartments. “On the day, all future residents of 15 Thompson Street came together and Assemble had a floor plan laid out. We were asked to put our name down next to a preferred apartment. By doing this we entered the ballot with the rest of the community.” For more popular apartment choices, people would work together to decide on the best fit, based on each candidate’s financial capabilities and future needs. The cooperation between residents drove me to learn more about what is like in the Assemble community. “We now have a facebook group for 15 Thompson Street. There is always someone in the group trying to organise things and connect with others.” Besides, community meetups are organised by Assemble in or near their office in Richmond.
Core values of Assemble Communities, images by Assemble, diagram by Yanyu Sun
The engagement of residents in the building process of Assemble projects was something that I particularly was curious about and led me to consider Assemble from the perspective of Collaborative Housing. For Lily, regular email updates are provided to future residents of 15 Thompson Street, letting the residents know the stages of projects - theirs is soon to start construction. “The last email I got was about them choosing a builder for our project. These are reassuring as you know they are going through the process to find a best fit.” Other engagements with residents include making personalized design choices. Residents get to choose preferred finishes for their apartments. Sometimes there are polls happening on instagram for communities to choose design and function arrangements for shared spaces.
The inclusiveness of residents in Assemble’s projects pushes the boundaries of typical housing development and shows commonalities with the CH model. Some elements, such as inviting the community to vote for their preference on design of shared spaces, reminds me of the CH model Baugruppe in Germany. It emphasises on close collaboration between residents and architects to collectively make decisions in designing the apartments. The process takes a workshop approach. It can be challenging for the residents to arrive at a collective decision, but the individual endeavour that is put into this can also enhance a sense of belonging to the community.
My understanding the relationship between Assemble and different housing models referencing Andy Fergus’s article Redesigning the Housing Market, diagram by Yanyu Sun
Assemble’s model also resembles that of the Co-operative rental housing in Zurich, Switzerland, which initially developed as a response to the 1990s housing crisis in the city. Housing cooperatives are self-help and non-profit resident groups that collaborates with other professional bodies, such as design, community management to develop community housing. They are supported by the local government by building the housing on land leased from the city. Residents sign up to become members of the cooperatives, which ensures low entry costs and security to homeownership with flexibility to rent. They also become an autonomous group in the cooperative to help improve future projects. With support from government policies, It has now taken up 25% of the housing market and functions as a large-scale system of long-term sustainable rental housing.
It appears that Assemble is adopting some of these approaches and also developed its own characteristic in the Australian context. Andy Fergus, the head of urban design at Assemble, wrote in his article Redesigning the Housing Market, putting it under a category of Ethical Market-Based Development. As part of an ethical movement in Melbourne, the Assemble model primarily responds to the contemporary housing crisis. Within an investor-dominant housing market, housing has become a commodity and continuously inflating. High-rise apartments in the city often adopt speculative development, where there is no formal commitment for any end users. Assemble is challenging that by engaging residents in the process to build housing with care. And Lily’s experience really emphasized that:
“I think if you introduce residents to the property before it is actually being built, people start to develop a sense of responsibility. You will see this site and want to follow the building that will be built, and look after the plants that will grow together as a community.”
Living with a community can also promote affordability and enhance the sense of home ownership. As a large group, Assemble communities partner with local companies to bulk-buy goods of daily use, helping residents save their living cost up to 20%. Lily praised the mechanism that Assemble appeals to make sure residents are a right fit for long-term renting and buying. To be qualified for buying in the end, residents have to live in their apartments for at least three years within the five years of renting. “They really try to foster a strong community, and living together enhances a sense of collective home ownership.”
At this point, my exploration opened me up to a new scope of housing, beyond the building that I learnt to design in architecture school. Concepts such as affordability, home ownership and community life do not just sit in the subject guide anymore. They are now guiding me to consider the challenges that contemporary housing faces. Moreover, as I am graduating from my bachelor’s degree, I begin to think about what kind of practice that I want to go into; to help create positive social outcomes through architecture and shape a better future for the built environment.
Read more about Assemble’s projects at the following link:
Assemble Communities: https://assemblecommunities.com/
Assemble Papers: https://assemblepapers.com.au/
 Darinka Czischke, Claire Carriou & Richard Lang. “Collaborative Housing in Europe: Conceptualizing the Field.”, Housing in Europe: Conceptualizing the Field, Housing, Theory and Society, Volume 31, Issue 1, Pages 1-9. DOI: 10.1080/14036096.2020.1703611
 “Assemble Futures,” Assemble, accessed on 5th of August 2021, https://assemblecommunities.com/assemble-futures/.
 Helen Jarvis, Towards a deeper understanding of the social architecture of co-housing: evidence from the UK, USA and Australia.” , Urban Research & Practice, Volume 8, Issue 1, Pages 93-105, DOI: 10.1080/1753069,2015,1011429
 Manuel Lutz, “Lived Solidarity: Housing Co-operatives,” Assemble Papers, published on 20th November 2019,
 Andy Fergus, “Redesigning the Housing Market,” Assemble Papers, published on 21st Feburary 2019, https://assemblepapers.com.au/2019/02/21/redesigning-the-housing-market/