‘Design a house we want’: Push for climate-ready homes designed by and for Indigenous Australians

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In summer, as the fierce sun bakes the ground, temperatures can sit above 40 degrees for days on end. In winter, a cold wind – known locally as the “Barkly breeze” – blows constantly from the east.

Despite the extreme conditions in Tennant Creek, the largest town on the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin, local Aboriginal people had never been asked what type of housing they want to live in. This is true for many First Nations communities across much of remote and regional Australia.

Rembarrnga elder Alfred Rickson talks through the design of the first Wilya Janta home with Dr Simon Quilty.Credit: Eddie Jim

“We want a house we can design as we want, to suit our environment and our culture,” says Patricia Frank Narrurlu, a Warumungu elder from the area.

A new housing organisation called Wilya Janta (standing strong) driven by First Nations people from Tennant Creek, wants to change that by designing culturally appropriate houses that can weather Australia’s warming climate and dangerous summer temperatures. The houses will be solar-powered, well-insulated and water efficient.

Wilya Janta co-founder and Warumungu elder Norman Frank Jupurrurla and his family have collaborated with supporter Dr Simon Quilty to design the first demonstration home, which will be built in Tennant Creek and constructed with bricks made locally from anthill and spinifex.

Quilty has been a medical doctor in the NT for 20 years and co-authored papers on the impact of extreme heat on the health of First Nations people in the territory.

Inside the home of Nicole Frank, where at least 21 people are currently living because of housing shortages in Tennant Creek.

This will be the first-ever display home for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and include features that accommodate cultural needs, such as shaded outdoor kitchens, places to sleep outdoors to catch the breeze and windows and doors that are designed to allow for maximum airflow in all conditions.

Remote and regional government housing for Aboriginal people is often poorly designed, lacks proper insulation or shading, and has little natural ventilation, Quilty said.

“People living in these hot boxes have to rely on air conditioning which is extremely expensive. I’ve spoken to people who spend $25 to $30 a day in the middle of summer,” Quilty said. “So, the very poorest people in Australia have the very worst thermally designed infrastructure.”

Australian government climate data shows that, under a high-emissions scenario, the NT can expect temperature increases of between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees. The number of days above 40 degrees will increase from approximately seven to 43 in Katherine, and from 14 to 48 in Alice Springs.

Norman Frank Jupurrurla and his wife Serena Morton Napanangka look over plans for the First Nations designed home.

Wilya Janta is seeking philanthropic support to build the first demonstration homes. It has organised a Melbourne fundraising exhibition called Papulu-ku Nyinjjiki (seeing houses), and a forum to explore the harsh realities of remote indigenous housing in the territory.

Launched in Melbourne on Friday night and running for two weeks, the exhibition displays artwork by several artists from the Tennant Creek Brio collective as well as photographs, drawings and architectural models. Artworks and photos will be auctioned to raise funding for Wilya Janta.

The Tennant Creek Brio formed in 2016 and has drawn international critical acclaim. Most of its members live in government housing in Tennant Creek, including some in homes that do not have running water or electricity.

Wilya Janta is also working with Original Power, a First Nations community development organisation that assisted Norman Frank Jupurrurla to install the first rooftop solar system on social housing in the territory that was integrated with a pre-paid meter.

“Houses get too hot in summer and freezing in winter, with pre-paid electricity meters that disconnect frequently, resulting in homes that make residents sick,” said Lauren Mellor, the clean energy coordinator for Original Power.

A public forum at the National Gallery Victoria on Saturday in Melbourne will invite First Nations elders and academics working within remote housing and health to discuss the current conditions and ways forward.

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