Excellence and Innovation in Defence Housing

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-By Aleisha Parr

Established in 1988 primarily in response to the dissatisfaction of Australian Defence Force members who were seeking out appropriate housing options, Defence Housing Australia (DHA) is now an industry leader in both quality and innovation. Supported by nearly twelve thousand investors while receiving approximately five hundred investor enquiries monthly, DHA has developed a strong reputation as a provider of good quality homes for members of the Australian Defence Force and their families.

DHA engages with a wide variety of construction industry-specific organisations such as the Urban Development Institute of Australia, the Planning Institute of Australia, the Master Builders Association of Australia, the Housing Industry Association and the Real Estate Institute of Australia.

As a Government Business Enterprise responsible for providing adequate and appropriate housing for Australian Defence Force members, DHA operates via three main activities: purchasing properties outright, leasing properties from owners, and building and developing new properties. Each year, DHA receives a rolling forecast of housing needs from the Department of Defence so that it might plan out its future purchases, leases, and construction activities in each region for the next four to five years. Approximately two thousand new leases are commissioned each year.

Funding for these various activities is provided through DHA’s sale and leaseback program, whereby investors are afforded the opportunity to purchase properties managed by DHA, to be leased as Defence housing. The company typically aims to strike a lease agreement with its investors for a period of ten years, which is sometimes extended to fifteen or even twenty.

“We’re a very unique organisation,” comments Peter Howman, Chief Operating Officer of DHA. With a national scope to its business, DHA is largely immune to many of the issues which affect developers at the local or state level. “If the construction or the housing market is not so good in a particular area… but we’re still required to deliver housing there, we can do that because we may have houses in our portfolio in other states such as Queensland where the industry is going very well.” DHA can then balance out its portfolio by selling properties in the more lucrative markets.

In this way, Peter Howman says DHA doesn’t see itself in competition with developers, despite currently holding well over a billion dollars in development projects. Most typically, DHA only engages in development projects in areas where not enough retail land is available to meet its specific requirements at the time.

“It ebbs and flows, depending on the market at the time,” explains Mr Howman. “Post-GFC, a lot of developers are finding it difficult to get funding to finish their developments, so consequently we’ve had to step into the market.”

Being a Government Business Enterprise, DHA must operate in a commercially active way. As such, it aims to provide housing using the best commercial practices not only so that it may deliver a quality product for both its clients and its investors, but also to provide satisfactory shareholder returns.

“We try wherever possible to engage with local suppliers and contractors. We feel it’s important for us to do that because the locals prove time and again to be absolutely invaluable with the specific knowledge that they have. They understand the regional and the local planning guidelines and the community expectations. When we deliver a development, we’re delivering it into a community and we want that community to take ownership of the whole development.”

This community appreciation arises out of the organisation itself, as emphasised by Mr Howman, who says: “The organisation really hinges around our people. We have what we think is a very good workplace culture and a very strong focus on work health and safety. They are motivated, engaged employees who like coming to work – that’s important for us.”

All DHA staff work under the Australian Public Service Act and so are public servants although the majority have heralded from industry, which enables the DHA to harness those essential practical skills. Says Mr Howman, “It’s a good way to actually get that mix where people come from industry and join DHA, spend some time with DHA and get to understand how the government works. So we get a good cross flow and pollination of staff and ideas.”

DHA offers a variety of professional development opportunities for its staff so they may keep abreast of the current issues affecting the industry. Working for DHA also offers a very wide range of job opportunities within the construction, development, and real estate industries.

Explains Mr Howman, “We’ve got a fairly large property management business where we manage nearly nineteen thousand properties, and then of course we’ve got a sales program where we raise around three hundred and fifty million dollars per annum. Overall, it’s quite a complex business, so it’s a great company for those who want to get in right across the breadth of the housing industry.”

“It is very difficult and challenging to orchestrate, but I think that’s why we are able to attract staff into our business – because of the coordination and the interaction between the different businesses. It’s quite an exciting and dynamic business, because the challenges that you face in the Northern Territory, for example, are different than those you face in Adelaide or Sydney or Melbourne, and you’ve got to be dealing with all of these issues simultaneously.”

Affordability is one of the big challenges affecting the housing sector as a whole. Across the nation, retail land is scarce and the time it takes in planning and rezoning brings up the costs. To succeed in the face of these challenges, DHA is aiming to develop innovative cost-effective construction methods.

“Our main aim is pretty simple – it’s to provide high quality sustainable housing that meets the needs of the Australian Defence Force. We want to be leaders in the housing industry, and part of why we say that is because the volume of what we build and the type of clients that we have provides us with the ability to assist the whole industry with moving forward using some of the newer innovations. We spend a lot of time and energy looking into modern architecture and design functions that really push the envelope of the standard housing and development construction of today.

“Sustainability is more than just a word for us. We’ve got a focus on building greener, cleaner and smarter housing. We don’t want homes to compromise the natural environment – not now or into the future – so we’ve got make sure that we’ve got sustainable long-term housing.”

At present, DHA is working with a number of its builders to change the building processes they use. Emerging builders are beginning to use lightweight materials or to manufacture in factories instead of on-site, resulting in a much higher quality product and reduced costs. “Innovations like this are really changing the shape of the construction industry,” explains Peter Howman.

“We’re sharing a lot of this work with the community,” he continues. “We want our suppliers and our customers to have a positive experience with us. We have been around for a long time and we’re going to continue to be around for a long time yet, so we really have to nurture great relationships and great experiences with both suppliers and customers.”

In fact, DHA prides itself on staying ahead of industry trends, most notably having introduced six star energy rated buildings back in 2010 before such ratings were made mandatory in Australia. “We did that because we wanted to lead the industry,” says Mr Howman. “We could see what was coming in the future.”

Over the next few years, DHA hopes to continue this forward-thinking approach, with an aspiration to one day begin construction and development for off-the-grid housing and communities. “Right now that’s just an aspiration,” concedes Mr Howman, “but unless we aspire to those things we’ll never move forward.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

July 14, 2020, 12:41 PM AEST