Housing for the elderly, single-parents and the disadvantaged.

Plateau Small Home Development

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    Stewart Fist,
    70 Middle Harbour Rd.
    Lindfield NSW 2070 Australia.




        World record in home sizes


    Between 2009-13 Aussies were building the largest detached houses in the world. The Americans caught up with us for a couple of years, but now in 2020, Victoria, New South Wales and WA have won back this prestigious title.

    We can now be proud of wasting more of our income on accommodation than any other people on earth.

    And recently we have discover that we have a crisis in housing affordability.

    Who would ever have guessed that this might happen!

    Well, a few tax accountants did.   When the Howard government introduced negative gearing, their clients and associates in the business community went on a spending spree which created the shortages and affordability crises we have today.

    And because of frailties of human nature, most older Australians now have a vested interest in maintaining high house-prices and higher rentals, while the younger and some less wealthy minorities despair of ever being able to afford even a home deposit.

    There's no simple solution to government-generate problems like this that result in such diverging, economically partisan interests. Fifty years after John Howard, in some Sydney suburbs, one in five of these large homes is occupied by a single person; usually the surviving partner, clinging on to their old family home. They know that the house is too large; it requires too much cleaning, maintenance and gardening. A whole raft of religious-based community service groups has sprung up to help organise support for people who shouldn't need it.

    The problem of appropriate housing is fundamental -- and our communities offer only a limited range of even remotely attractive alternatives -- usually nursing homes, retirement villages, or serviced apartments in an old-people's home. Yet basic economics tells us that from the national point of view these are equivalent:

    "A new small home for the elderly = one large home for a family."

    You only need some commonsense and basic economics to realise that building small homes for elderly singles are the supply-side solution to Australia's immediate housing problem, because they are quick and cheap to build, and they make a large family home immediately available.

    Occupants also rotate through elderly small-home residences every five or so years, on average — so you can multiply the benefit a few times at the very least. The elderly are aware of their future, and so they don't want to buy (as they often must in retirement villages), but simply require guaranteed leasing for this stage on their trajectory to palliative care. The only provisos are that such houses must be:
      • designed with elderly limitations (no stairs) in mind;
      • be large enough to encourage family visits (computer/hobbies room with bunk-beds for the grandkids);
      • convenient location near the resident's familiar service area and transport hub.

    ALSO:Not only does the large-for-small trade-off keep the elderly independent for many years longer (not needing serviced care), it has the secondary economic effect of reviving the viability of the district's existing schools, hospitals, and playing fields ... and boosts the efficiencies of suburban energy, communications, and transport networks.

    The economic benefits are so obvious, you'd think the State and local governments would be hard at work building small homes in every suburb.

    Key point:     A balance of house sizes is both essential for supporting an ageing population, and of immense economic benefit for local, state and federal budgets.

    Below are the basic principles for building, funding and operating such projects. You will note that the development of 'community' is regarded as of equal importance to the provision of housing. Loneliness and depression are at epidemic proportions among the elderly and other disadvantaged groups.


    The emphasis we have placed on cooperatives as the foundation business structure for such developments is made with the knowledge that, generally, state legislation governing cooperatives is probably a hundred years out of date. Since abandonment by the Labor Party mid-century, the cooperative has had no political champion to promote the need for revision and extension of legislation. It is see to have value only in rural industries.

    A range of different types and hierarchies is needed to allow cooperatives to be established and operated with the ease of for-profits and government business enterprises. The close cousins in this area of retirement villages and nursing homes, are generally based on religious organisations. They have many of the advantages, and some of these need to be incorporated into boiler-plate legal documents for local perpetual cooperatives, which prevent any attempts at take-over by special interests.

    By their nature, it is difficult for the founders and organisers of cooperatives to retain control for very long.

    Plateau engineering principles encapsulated:

      1. Double-use the old "Commons" car-parking land, by progressively decking it over, creating a pedestrian-only plateau
          with footpaths, gardens and turf, surrounding clusters of small houses reserved for elderly members.
      2. All Air-rights to these old 'Commons' would be leased by the council to a local perpetual cooperative for 99 years.
      3. Cooperative membership would be restricted to those living in (or near) the suburb, and priority access given to those
          who deposit their savings in the linked mutual building society charged with funding the development.
      4. If possible, the residential plateau would link to a commercial plateau which crosses the highways, access roads and
          railways. This area would remain owned by the State Transport Authority, and generate a healthy income. It could be
          managed by the cooperative, and establish a central pedestrian mall with leisure facilities and small business premises.
          Such decking-over would allow the removal of traffic lights and boost traffic flows. It would also consolidate the
          business district previously split by the traffic corridors, and provide an attractive open meeting mall/commercial place.
      5. To produce a mixed, lively community, a variation on the Victorian terrace house is highly viable with:
          — upper-levels rented to single-parent families. They will have their own access via a common wide verandah.
          — the plateau level (with its own small garden at the back) reserved for elderly and disabled coop members;
          — some basement space (that not remaining as car parking) providing student and homeless accommodation.
      6. The core principle is to utilise "Common" land for a Common purpose — This is specifically to aid elderly residents.
          • Plateau engineering techniques do this by creating new space for small-homes without losing old functions.
          • Developer exploitation can be avoided with ownership and management via perpetual cooperatives.
          • Disruption to businesses can be avoided by progressive construction as funds become available.
          • Financial problems are avoided because member/users fund the operation. Every occupier will pay rent.
          • Garden suburb residents will favour low-rise over high-rise apartments, which tend to blot their landscape.
          • Ghettoisation can be avoided by creating a lively mixed-occupancy community; not a retirement village.
          • The plateau would be a safe play space for children, and a source of vibrancy for the elderly.
          • It will be adjacent to shops, transport hubs and essential services. All within walking distance.
          • It still satisfies the State Government demand for Councils to introduce higher density living.

    Engineering; not architecture

    It is important to realise that the plateau itself is an engineering concept, not architecture. Provided the land is nominally leased by the local council to this cooperative, about half the real costs disappear. Land in Lindfield away from the railways has a resale value of $2-3000 per square metre.

    However we do believe that a modified version of the English
    2-up/1-down terrace house provides the best value-for-money
    in small homes for the disadvantaged;
      • construction and fit-out takes place sequentially.
      • kitchen/bathroom modules can be mass-produced;
      • wide common verandahs force residents to socialise.
      • the top verandah is a children's play space in bad weather.
      • the elderly will develop friendships with the children, and provide emergency child minding.
      • the residents can keep their pets, and the plateau level provides a small garden at the back of each.
      • basement accommodation for students and others would share cheap space with car parking, and provide the muscle to deal with such problems as garbage disposal.

    Such small houses can be built for a fraction the cost of a free-standing family home. Our modelling shows that you can get 18 individual residences (3 levels each of six) in the space occupied by my moderate-sized family home in Lindfield. And you can do this without expensive excavation, or the need for infrastructure other than the ones already there.

    "So in a free-market economy why don't we have small homes within walking distance of the shopping centres in each suburb?"

    • Local businesses have always had first call on any available land in these desirable locations. So local councils have paved over the old parks and "Commons", to provide easy access for drivers to visit their local shops, or go to their doctors, dentists, and hairdressers. Parking has always had priority.
    • Commuters from more distance regions or adjacent suburbs quickly wake up the fact that they can park their cars here for 10 hours a day and get the train into the city. It is cheaper than city parkings; and it avoids the traffic jams. This brings outlying business into the centre, and boosts transport revenues.
    • Free CBD parking boosts railway and bus revenues without these services building their own car parks. By contrast; Transport Department bureaucrats are jealous of any intrusion into their bailiwicks, so they vigorously opposed commercial developments taking place over their roads and railway lines. Such lack of single-level pedestrian access immediately reduces the value of plateaus without lifts and escallators.
    • High-rise developers will pay extra for a site which permits 10 stories of luxury apartment for the executive class with railway access. Local councils like all this extra tax revenues, so they build bridges over the highway.
    • State Governments have mandated higher density living, and these are ideal locations for high-rise developments — especially valuable when situated in low-rise garden suburbs. Those suburbs which fight the hardest against high-rise, are those the developers most prize.
    • This increased local density in the CBD has led to various other business developments which benefitted from clustering close to these shops and apartments and which compete for the space.

    "In short, the frail elderly lost out because they've never had any organised clout."

    [Example: Lindfield NSW, is my personal low-rise garden suburb. Until ten years ago, we had a village atmosphere on both sides of the railway line. But we've now lost all parking space on the east side to high-rise luxury flats on supermarkets. The old shopping area is now bisected by the triple barriers of railways, Lindfield Avenue and the high-speed 6-lane traffic of Pacific Highway.
        This is an impossible barrier for the elderly to navigate, so many of us shop at Gordon — if we can drive. Lindfield residents are now in the throes of a bitter battle to stop another giant development of the "Lindfield Hub" (high-rise and a third supermarket) in the existing 300-vehicle car park on the western side.]

    The claims are still being made that there is no land suitable for small-home development near to the CBD. The Plateau techniques show this to be a lie. And the wealthy elderly in the district have ample money in term-deposits, super, and shares to fund any project that could be organised to let them remain in the district, but in small manageable homes.

    Key point:       Council priorities focus on the needs of local businesses and State Governments. The long-term elderly ratepayers and other disadvantaged residents in the area are well down to the bottom on their list of priorities.

    This is the problem that the Plateau project seeks to overcome.

    When polled, the elderly singles say they are clinging to the family home because they want to retain their independence and maintain their sense of community. They often visit friends and relatives in nursing homes and retirement villages, but those in my circle are repelled by the prospects of being expected to spend their time playing bridge.

    • Available small homes must be located in their own suburb where they can remain surrounded by friends, churches, clubs, and service providers.
    • Currently, their easiest option is to do nothing. Many of the elderly have problems in planning, and get confused easily, so they intend to just continue with their existing life for the few years they expect to have, and leave the problem to others.
    • Transitions of this magnitude are a massive and confusing undertaking for the elderly. The prospect of organising any sort of housing move is daunting to everyone, but particularly those suffering various medical and mental conditions. Perceived obstacles are:
          - finding alternative temporary and longer-term accommodation,
          - deciding whether to transition in stages, or to make a single end-of-life move.
          - clearing out the house, giving away favourite items, and disposing of a lifetime of memories,
          - dealing with real-estate people; selling the house and car,
          - apprehension about joining a new community and meeting people you may not like.
    • While most of the elderly happily admit that they are old, they don't all want to shift into a bingo-playing ghetto surrounded by people of similar decrepitude.
    • Apartment living is not an option if they have the last remnants of family-life, the family dog, to consider.
    • Many want private garden space to potter around and plant things themselves. That has been central to their life.

    The type of small housing complex envisaged provides the required variety of accommodation for the aged singles/couples and disabled on the 'ground floor' (plateau-deck level) where they have easy access from foot-paths through a turfed-garden environment to the CBD and other facilities, without stairs, and on reasonably flat ground.

    Single parents with children would reach their first-floor units by a single flight of stairs at one end of the cluster, and access each home via the wide verandah which is a common community and play space.

    Living space below the deck has only ceiling lites (no views) and initially it will remain as general car-parking. The parking problem must be solved at the CBD, and so this application would give way progressively to 'basement' type student and homeless accommodation. With the development of a commercial plateau mall area over the railway/highway, it would become necessary for some substantial under-deck car parking to be incorporated into this development [using a 'walking cassion'].

    The main modifications to the traditional 2-up/1-down Victorian terrace design is the loss of internal staircases for access. These are replaced by common verandahs (say, 3 metres wide) on both the above deck levels. This may seem excessive, but these are important shared general community socialising and play spaces and they help enormously with temperature control.

    In pure economic terms, verandahs in Australia are a cheap way to gain extra living space; the aged would use them in summer, and the children in winter. The primary intention, of course, is to promote community mixing and participation, this is an important way to help overcome isolation and loneliness.

    Key point: Social housing designs must increasingly be cognisant of the mental stresses and confusion problems that the elderly often have — as do the other disadvantaged groups in these suburbs.

    What other services would the cooperative offer?

    Nursing home to palliative care: The aim of the cooperative should be to continue to care for the residents when they can't function independently and need more intensive services ... extending possibly, from nursing and palliative, to funeral arrangements and services. This would probably only be introduced at a later stage in a cooperatives progressive development.

    The value of the sloping site is that the multiplication gained through this kind of open modular decking can extend down any slope, resulting perhaps in layers of service apartments, more like those of assisted-care or conventional nursing home. Elevators can provide the necessary vertical movement of staff and residents, with the plateau garden deck on top. Friends will be resident nearby, and some will still be able to walk and exercise on the flat over the short distances to nearby small homes.

    It should very obvious that the cooperatives would eventually extend into the business of providing assisted/nursing and palliative care. They should probably eventually also offer end-of-life services to members, and after-life services to their relatives. This is probably best organised through a higher layer ... the coordinating level of all State local cooperatives.

    Using the talents and skills available: One important value of the cooperative is that it provides ways to productively occupy retired members with a wide range of knowledge and skills. Many elderly will take out membership well before they are ready to move to the plateau, but there's no reason why many cooperative services shouldn't extend to enlisting them to help other members in house maintenance and gardening. And when residents do shift into the full-serviced care they will still be surrounded by the friendships they have established during their time as a small-home occupier and cooperative member.

    Rental services: One of the business functions of the local cooperative should be to hire specialised equipment to members to avoid having relatively useless vehicles occupying space unnecessarily and moderate the cost of equipment/vehicles bought, but then hardly used. The cooperative should also be in the business of providing members with useful equipment which is often too expensive to buy and perhaps only needed erratically, or for a short period. The most obvious of these are
      •   One or more hire cars
      •   'Gophers' or mobility scooters
      •   Wheelchairs (both manual and electric)
      •   Home exercise equipment
      •   Special beds, chairs, etc.
      •   A range of devices, from walking sticks, walking frames, dressing aids. etc.

    Key point:       The plateau should be seen only as the nucleus of a range end-of-life services run by the cooperative. The benefits of membership should begin before taking residence on the plateau, and it should extend to assistance given the legatee family to handle the after-life legal and financial matters.

    How will it all be funded?

    It is important to appreciated that most of these developments can be self-funded, given some encouragement from governments, and a bit of organisation. Elderly couples and singles who live in these overlarge houses hold most of the readily fungible development cash in the Australian economy; mostly in safe securities. They now receive close to 0.5% for their bank term-deposits: and this is their sole secure payoff for many years of austerity.

    The elderly are the potential beneficiaries, so they could easily be persuaded to fund such developments through an interest-paying local mutual benefit society. They would need to be assured that the mutual deposit was government guaranteed and recoverable on their death by their heirs. They also need guarantees that access to a small home would be guaranteed at a time of their own choosing, and for as long as they can remain independent. Only a moderately large (or interconnected) coop can give this.

    A locally-based perpetual cooperative appears to be the most valid corporate structure for Plateau management and development, and it should be able to use the old "Commons" -- the car-park space behind the CBDs of suburbs, provided only that the land remained in Council hands and is only leased to the cooperative for 99 years.

    Key point:       This type of development is not likely to require government involvement other than some basic legislation to upgrade cooperative/mutual law, and minor assistance in organising the first cooperative. Such developments would be self-funding in most of the older Australian suburbs.

    What about the disruption to business, traffic, etc.?

    Building across busy highways, railways and shopping areas in daily use appears to be an almost impossible task. However pre-stressed, high-tensile concrete engineering has advanced to the stage where a number of companies in Australia now offer what are generically known as "Hollowcore panels".

    These are factory-made, cut to specification, and simply craned into position in minutes atop pre-cast posts and beams (which are obviously positioned outside the traffic lanes). Panels can be installed in the half-minute between traffic light stops, so there is no risk, and little disruption to traffic flows.

    Hollowcrete panels are used now to construct multi-story warehouses. The material is not cheap, but the lower construction costs compensate for the price difference. Hollowcrete is available for weight-bearing applications in lengths up to 32 metres. It is doubtful whether more than a fraction of this length would ever be necessary on the plateau (mainly for temporary cover), and certainly not for decking over a railway (3 metres) or three-lanes of Pacific Highway (9 metres) for a public mall space, and for footpaths, gardens, and turf.

    The basic building technique is to first settle on a standard module size - the space between posts. They then bore into the ground down to the rock foundation (without much need for contouring or excavation) and pour 2-3 metre concrete piles joined by cross-beams — the flat deck is added later. We settled on a module size of 4.5 metres which is ideal for a small terrace house and provides a double car-park space. The projected design for a two-story terrace house would fit between these module posts.

    Modular-based plateau engineering does not rigidly follow the sequence familiar with high-rise development. You can create the deck while it still retains its car-park functions, and then add the top layer, worrying about ground-work and utilities at a later time. You can always come back and fill in, or remodel the space beneath the plateau.

    You can create new low-rise commercial and open leisure spaces over existing facilities without disrupting their daily functions. Mall spaces like that illustrated below are entirely possible over a busy railway station. Trees can be planted in some locations using concrete pipes as pier support.

    Key points:       Plateaus provide a secondary use for car parks, mainly for small homes and a central mall.
      • Construction takes place progressively and extends over a wide area of the suburb's 'Commons'.
      • There is no time-pressure on completion; so development is staged, if and when money becomes available.
      • Open malls can easily be created over access roads, highways, railway stations and bus terminals.
      • A near-level pedestrian space can extend from the homes, to the shops, and cross all traffic barriers.


    In Lindfield, this centralised mall space would replace the existing railway station, and extend back over Pacific highway, thereby joining the east and west shopping areas, which would be a customer-gain for all shop owners and businesses.

    At present, the passage from east to west requires a sprint across Pacific Highway at lights which turn red when I've crossed about two lanes, then climbing some stairs, taking the elevator to cross the railway bridge, then descending by elevator to Lindfield Avenue where there's another set of traffic lights.

    Alternately, you would need to extract your car from its hard-won parking space, drive a half-kilometer, pass through a couple of traffic lights, then find a parking spot on the other side. Not everyone in the elderly range has the car, patience, or athletic ability to patronise businesses on the opposite side of these barriers.

    Note the current provision of elderly-friendly elevators on each side of the Lindfield Station. They have then added two flights of stairs from the overhead bridge down to the platforms. On the Pacific Highway side, they've thoughtfully installed the lift adjacent to a short flight of steps, a metre or so higher than the traffic light crossing point.

    Potential Objections

    What economic effect would this plateau have on the owners and occupiers of the existing 'linear mall' buildings? They also have a long-term interest in this site.


    Both owners and occupiers would benefit to varying degrees. Remember that these transitions would be progressive, so any potential for problems can be spaced out and dealt with sequentially:
      • Initially these businesses would carry on as before, but the shops now adjacent to the highway would be in a light-well
        while remaining close to the existing traffic. The roof overhangs would be removed for light.
      • Dentist, podiatrist and architectural offices now on the upper-floors would swap with the shop-front lower businesses.
        Any light-wells would then be bridged, merging the shops into the mall area, so they now have the full benefits of:
      — easy customer access from both sides of the traffic/rail obstacles.
      — increased custom from railway/bus commuters.
      — the daily stream of passers-by within a vibrant shopping and leisure mall.
      • Some businesses built on railway easements may lose out to the construction of a major commuter carpark.

    Key points:       Both owners and occupiers of existing commercial buildings would gain substantially from being associated with plateau developments. They will have minimal disruptions to their businesses, and they can choose the time of their total involvement in the development.

    What about the carbon and energy cost inherent in concrete construction?

    Some environmentalists fiercely object to the use of concrete because it requires substantial energy in its manufacture, and the chemical reaction releases carbon molecules from the limestone. This initial calcination reaction produces about 4-8% of global CO2 emissions, mainly because it is such a useful material for roads, dams, walls, and buildings. (Bricks and paving materials have similar environmental impacts.)

    It is important to take other factors into consideration.
      • Concrete decking is strong and weather-proof enough to support earth and turf overlay.
      • Without vertical wall or glass surfaces facing the weather, concrete decking provides extraordinary insulation.
      • Concrete doesn't require renewal like timber, and it has its own high thermal mass.
      • This type of construction also lends itself to local water storage and conservation.
      • This creates an extensive under-deck space which is closely coupled with the thermal mass of the earth and any stored water (swimming pools, lap-pools, atrium ponds, etc).

    Essentially the sub-plateau cavity should be thought of as being a large cave — a massive passive house. It does need controlled circulation of air through fans and ducting, but the space can be subdivided almost infinitely to create air-locks and isolation precincts.

    We don't anticipate that these plateau developments would need much in the way of heating and/or cooling because of this temperature/averaging and moderation affect (depending on car access). Certainly it will need a few large fans, some ducting, and possibly might benfit from a dehumidifier.

    Solar and Water Harvesting: Both the fundamental design, and also the fact of coop ownership, allows full solar panels coverage on all roofs. Residents can share the benefits of their own energy, and that of large-scale daily storage.

    The whole deck area is a rain-water collector, and via the turf, soil and underlying drainage system it is also an effective filtration system and a harvester of rain water. It is likely that the whole precinct would be self-sufficient in water (gardens, swimming pools, etc.), other than needing a supply of treated drinking water.

    Key point:       The low ratio of external walls to internal volume puts the plateau complex well into the top category possible for energy conservation. Therefore any amount of energy expenditure on the concrete manufacture would be recovered, probably within a year.

    What about sloping sites?

    The plateau philosophy is to utilise what you've got and not spend money just trying to establish some expensive ideal. Each plateau will be different, and each will have differing requirements which will change over time, and each will have different possibilities for expansion.

    Having a moderate slope on the Plateau level should not be seen as an exception; but too much slope is a problem for many of the elderly. However there's no absolute requirement only to have one under-deck layer, so this type of construction can support two, three or even four sub-deck levels and still leave the top garden layer relatively flat. These extra layers can always be used to advantage.

    The aim of the plateau project is to create a mixed colony of the disadvantaged requiring social housing. They will also have requirements for child-mining centres, play grounds, kindergartens and baby clinics. Everyone would benefit from spas, lap-pools, exercise gyms, chapels, lecture and meeting rooms, cooking classes, libraries, wood-working and maintenance shops, etc. with only some spaces designed specifically for the elderly.

    With multiple under-deck levels, how much light will penetrate

    We don't envisage that the plateau would be a billiard-table flat, unrelenting concrete surface covered by only turf, gardens, and footpaths. It would be moderately undulating and contoured to collect water, while remaining 'flat-enough' for easy walking.

    It would also have some light-admitting domes, greenhouses, elevators, etc. and some of the foot-paths would use glass-block studded paving materials.

    On a heavily sloping site, the lowest layers would always be at the building edge where the facing would be of the conventional glass-brick type.

    Key points:       The plateau would not be an unrelenting concrete layer; it would be penetrated by light-wells and atriums — also by the three-story clusters of terrace houses with two-stories above the deck.
        Some glazed atriums would surround existing trees and gardens, and the Hollowcrete decking and the modular design makes this approach flexible. Natural light will penetrate to a depth of perhaps two to three layers.

    What about the parking space needed to replace the existing car park?

    This is the beauty of the Plateau type development. The basic idea is to engineer a new ground surface layer above the existing car parks. This requires only a minimum of ground work and site preparation, and therefore the early developments will be of little disruption to the existing functions. The present car park can therefore continue to co-exist, but over time it will probably shrink in size until the under-deck space becomes required for some later student-housing, etc. By then, the developments over the railway and roads should have advanced substantially, and with that a specific commuter park funded and controlled by the Transport Department.

    Existing community car parking: Council car parks should be under-grounded; when land is worth $2000-3000 per square metre, it is too valuable to waste as single-layer parking. Underground car parks are actually cheap to provide in most areas, because money does not need to be spent on architectural aesthetic designs for the exterior. They are just a concrete-floored hole in the ground. A council-owned car park can always be funded over time by the rental for a supermarket or shopping complex on top.

    Existing commuter car parking: Commuter car parks should be built on railway or transport easements wherever possible (including extending under access roads). A system of building low-cost underground car-parks, known as "the walking cassion" makes this safe, cheap and entirely economic nowadays. Commuters can afford to pay a small parking fee via their Opal card for the privilege of parking directly alongside the railway station or underneath a bus terminus. This is simply a priority that the transport authorities haven't in the past, or they haven't seen this as their problem when the nearby streets and shopping parks were available for free.

    Key point:       The transport authorities can financially gain enormously from Plateau developments, and responsibility should be shafted back to them to provide the essential parking services for their own customers (including those using the commercial mall renters).