Room to Breathe

Room to Breathe (RtB) is a Northern Territory Government program designed to address the negative effects of overcrowding in remote Aboriginal communities.

The vast quantum of research and knowledge in this space suggests that crowding stress often comes from a sense of loss of control over one’s household.

RtB is essentially an alterations and additions program being rolled out across 73 communities over the next 10 years in the Northern Territory.

It was devised in response to repeated recommendations to shift the focus from building new houses to improving existing housing stock.

How did we get involved?

We have been working with the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC) on Groote Eylandt, NT for many years (on projects ranging from master planning through to the design of housing and community infrastructure).

We knew that the RtB program would eventually come to Groote and so we got started on some groundwork.


“We wanted to ensure that the houses were renovated according to need rather than info derived from datasets."

Tenant Sketch, Angurugu 2018

Talk to Community

With approval from the ALC, we set about developing a ‘needs assessment’ document based on face-to-face interviews with the community. We asked people the question, ‘how can we make your house suit your family better?’

We collated our findings and developed responses that were verified by each tenant. The ALC was able to say with confidence to Government, ‘if you come here and roll out the RtB, this is what our community wants.’

Our report used straightforward language and vibrant graphics to convey the following information:

  • a summary of how many people live in a house;
  • a photo of the house as currently stands;
  • a summary of changes that could be made to improve the house based on conversations with the tenant;
  • a sketch of these improvements.

The NT Government housing department were impressed with the level of community-involvement in the process and saw the potential for our report to be used as a guide for future RtB programs on the mainland.

The department commissioned us to prepare design guidelines that could be given to architects, engineers and builders, that outline the purpose of the program and the fundamental requirements to ensure an appropriate level of design, quality, function and robustness.

A shift in focus from building new houses to improving housing stock.
Room to Breathe
A shift in focus from building new houses to improving housing stock.

Creating the Guidelines

Our intent in creating the guidelines was to provide people working on the program with a nuanced and holistic method of assessing levels of overcrowding.

We proposed an evidenced-based approach, founded on the cultural qualities of Aboriginal people, and with the following design objectives:

Appropriateness / Cultural Appropriateness / Accessibility / Healthy, Safe & Secure / Economically Sustainable / Built Properly / Site Responsive

We know through research and observation that one of the key pressure points in a home is the bathroom. Crowding stress occurs when you haven’t got the right ratio of showers and toilets to the number of occupants, or bathrooms located in the right places for cultural practices. To address this, we incorporated an assessment of a household’s health hardware as a key component to the process.

We suggested a more consistent approach to consultation and engagement and provided a method for ensuring that tenants are involved in the design process.

We developed a list of questions for consultants to ask in community that would help them to work out who’s happy, who’s not, and most importantly, why?

We defined the parameters of the program, detailing what improvements can be offered to a tenant and what sits outside the scope.

LOT_52_1200 X 1200

The impact of these changes will be seen in coming years. What we do know is this:

  • It’s more cost effective to renovate than to build new houses.

  • An individual approach has the capacity to respond to cultural practices, proposing appropriate spatial arrangements.

  • People appreciate their houses more when they’ve been involved in the design process.

  • People feel empowered and quality of live is improved when people have made decisions for themselves.