Odyssey House Family Units offer a residential rehabilitation programme based in Melbourne, Australia that enables parents, including single fathers, to seek therapy for drug and alcohol addiction, whilst remaining with their children. Carried out through a partnership between Allen Kong Architect and the Odyssey House community and residential services provider, the units have been designed, constructed and managed in accordance with the ideals of a therapeutic community, and to a high environmental standard. Residents are involved in the construction and maintenance of the units as well as playing a key part in the day-to-day decision making and overall functioning of the community.

Project Description

Aims and Objectives

The project aims to provide long-term, intensive, residential treatment for individuals and families including parents with addictions and their young children aged 0-12 years, in accommodation that is designed to a high environmental standard.


The total cost of alcohol misuse in Australia is now estimated at $36 billion annually and almost 70,000 Australians are reported victims of alcohol-related assaults every year, including 24,000 victims of domestic violence. Almost 20,000 children across Australia are victims of substantiated alcohol-related child abuse. Children living in alcohol/drug-affected families are often subjected to social and emotional upheaval and are at high risk of developing their own addiction disorders, as well as other mental and social issues. Typical forms of treatment involve separation of the parents from their families while they are treated, an approach that is exacerbated by the lack of family accommodation available for families needing this support.
Australia has the eleventh highest level of per capita carbon emissions in the world, increasing from 17.2 to 18.9 metric tons between 1990 and 2008. The low environmental footprint of the project addresses the wider issues of environmental sustainability and helps raise awareness of design options.

Key Features

The Odyssey House Family Units are located in the grounds of the 85-bed therapeutic community in Melbourne, Victoria. The first Odyssey House (OH) opened in New York in 1966 as a residential rehabilitation programme for people with drug and alcohol addiction. Emerging from social psychiatry, it viewed problematic alcohol and other drug use as a symptom of other underlying issues, maintaining that recovery can be achieved within a supportive residential community environment. The OH centre in Melbourne was established in 1979 and is currently based in the Lower Plenty suburb of Melbourne.

The Odyssey House Family Units have been designed, constructed and managed in accordance with the ideals of a therapeutic community, and to a high environmental standard. The main walls consist of mud bricks, made on-site by the residents. Odyssey House is one of very few residential rehabilitation programmes in Australia that enable parents to seek therapy for their addictions along with their children, and the only one that caters for single fathers. The Family Units developed to date include a six-bed unit built in 2004 (Stage 1) and two further six-bed units and a community building completed in 2011 (Stage 2). Stage 1 was completed entirely on a self-build basis. Stage 2 used contractors with resident involvement, after evaluating the Stage 1 experience. Plans are currently underway to develop Stage 3, a further two three-bedroom houses.

Each resident has access to a variety of professional staff including psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs, nurses, social workers, and those who have recovered from their own problems with addictions. As part of the treatment approach, residents are involved in almost all of the day-to-day decisions, as well as in the functioning of the community through cooking, cleaning, and working on property development and maintenance. Over time, residents take on leadership roles in various departments such as the business office, children’s centre, horticulture programme, and the kitchen. A special children’s centre serves as a pre-school and crèche during the day, and also provides an after-school programme for the school-aged children, who attend the local primary schools. The average length of stay is four months, although this varies significantly between individuals.

OH also works to assist in the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse problems in the wider community, and to offering support to family members affected by someone else’s alcohol or other drug use.

What impact has it had?

  • All residents are encouraged and supported to confront the underlying issues that led to their addiction, within a safe and welcoming environment where values of trust, concern, respect, honestly and love are promoted. Overall, over 20,000 people have benefitted from OH’s programmes in the state of Victoria and more than 1,000 children have lived within OH over the last 30 years.
  • The wider community has close connections with the project through a variety of activities and awareness raising carried out by OH in respect of alcohol and drug issues, as well as through the provision of local employment opportunities.
  • Over the past 10 years, OH Victoria has been very active and influential in changing state, national and international policy to better support the needs of children and families affected by alcohol and other drugs. A highly influential report was published in 2004, from which a nationwide programme called Counting the Kids emerged. In 2008, OH Victoria’s motion at the United Nations Forum on Drugs in Vienna that children and families should be included in wider drug treatment programmes was unanimously accepted. It is expected that the Family Units will have an impact on policy as a recent national inquiry into protecting Victoria’s vulnerable children recommended that care such as provided by this project should be financially supported.

How is it funded?

Stage 1 was funded by government grants (50 per cent) and by OH (50 per cent through fundraising and retained profits). The construction cost of Stage 1 was 376,000 AUD (US$370,582), excluding site works, connection to services and landscaping, including an allowance for volunteer labour, compared to 500,000 – 600,000 AUD (US$493,313 – 591,989, 2003) for conventional contractor-based construction. The cost of Stage 2 was 2,100,000 AUD (US$2,070,055), excluding painting and landscaping works, 80 per cent of which was received from the federal Jobs Fund. A further 200,000 AUD (US$197,140) was sourced from OH Victoria revenue and from local donations to complete the construction. The completion of Stage 3 is reliant on receiving funding from government or private grants and other fundraising ventures that are currently underway.

Current and future revenue funding sources for the project include federal and state funds, donations from foundations, as well as community donations and OH fundraising efforts. A contribution is made by the residents from their state benefits to cover the costs of residing in the Family Units, with the exception of child benefits which are retained by the family.

Why is it innovative?

  • This project offers one of only a few facilities in Australia that enables parents to seek therapy with their children and is understood to be the only facility that also caters for single fathers and their children.
  • The therapeutic benefits of maintenance and property development projects and resident participation represent an innovation within the therapeutic community context. The use of a community project as a training forum has assisted residents with their integration back into the workforce.
  • The unique design and layout of the building is a feature and symbol of the process of a therapeutic community. The programme offers a structured environment, with residents and staff working together as a community to help individuals address their problems, develop new coping skills, and build self-esteem.

What is the environmental impact?

OH Family Units are highly energy efficient and have a high thermal mass. Sun penetration into the building is encouraged in the mid-winter months but is restricted during the hottest months of the year. The inside of the building acts as a retreat for both the hottest and coldest months. Cross ventilation allows efficient flow of fresh air through the building. Gas heaters have been installed in the living areas for the winter months. Water usage is controlled through low-flush toilet and efficient shower systems, and storm water is collected by a central tank system and used for community horticulture programmes.

Materials used were chosen from sustainable sources, or were recycled “waste” products from another manufacturing process. Mud bricks were used as the main wall construction material owing to their extremely low environmental impact and low embodied energy, as well as to their being durable, easily repaired and maintained.

Earth from the excavation site was used by residents to make the mud bricks. Additional external wall cladding is radial sawn timber, minimising wastage. Asphalt shingles were used on the curving roof, as they were the most cost effective and can be recycled at the end of their service life.

All plants chosen are native species with the purpose of increasing biodiversity and are drought tolerant. A small portion of drought-tolerant lawn was included in the centre to provide a soft landscape for the children to enjoy as well as to provide a permeable surface to reduce the amount of hard surface and excess surface run-off.

Is it financially sustainable?

The Odyssey House Family Units at Lower Plenty provide facilities for families that would not otherwise be available. In addition, the live-in accommodation is an affordable option for parents participating in the programme: if alternative accommodation had to be sought for the children this could result in a financial burden, or worse, provide a barrier to accessing treatment.

OH employs trades and suppliers from the local area for its service needs, and this support is reciprocated through some goods and materials that are donated to OH. Through the construction, maintenance, food preparation and management of the Family Units, residents gained management and leadership skills, and were assisted with their integration back into the workforce.

Construction costs for the units were kept down with the use of self-build construction for Stage 1 and enabled the facilities to be provided without high levels of government grant. Although the revenue costs of supporting the OH programme depend substantially on government welfare support, there is little evidence that this is likely to be reduced at any point in the future.

What is the social impact?

During Stage 1, the residents participated in various areas of the project, providing an estimated 3,000 hours of volunteer input as part of their job function. The mud bricks were made on site by residents and volunteer labour. Mud brick laying and finishing was taught on the job by the building supervisor. Other skills such as painting, plastering, carpentry and joinery formed part of the training.

The facilities completed in 2011 consist of shared kitchen facilities and a communal living area with two wings comprising the bedrooms. This unique shared arrangement allows for a family environment while enhancing integration and social cohesion, with all residents having to participate in decision-making and contribute to daily tasks. Residents are furthermore encouraged to participate in local community activities, including agricultural shows, plant sales and the local re-vegetation programme. The design of the units allows for others to know and respond to residents with poor coping strategies from becoming abusive to their children.

The building design and site planning allow for access for all, including wheelchair access and design for children. All fittings and fixtures, including light switches, taps and door handles, are designed to be accessible. WC and shower arrangements are fitted with grab rails for individual use.

A recent study of over 900 OH residents in Victoria showed that a range of mental health conditions all improved from clinical levels after four months in the OH programme. In addition, a follow up survey of 150 residents after they left OH residential units in Victoria showed significant reductions in drug use and significant increases in social functioning as measured by residential stability, employment, interpersonal conflict, social support and drug culture involvement. These measures all exceed international benchmarks.


  • Although there are many benefits that come with employing a self-build model, Stage 1 was not without its challenges. Owing to the demanding nature of working on a building site, clashes in timetabling meant that the residents’ daily routines were disrupted and they often found it challenging to accommodate the demands of the project while also completing their treatment programme requirements. Learning from this, it was decided that further emphasis would be placed on coordinating resident input, and that it would be supplemental only.
  • Owing to a limited budget as a result of funding constraints, a large amount of time was spent finding cost savings before the tendering of Stage 2. Through clear communication and a common understanding of the brief, the quality of the workmanship did not suffer as a result and the project was completed on budget.
  • As a training component, as well as a cost-saving measure, OH residents did all the internal and external painting. Initially the building contractor had concerns about finishing on schedule because of the need for all painting to be completed before installation of floor coverings. The construction programme was readily consulted with any pending deadline communicated so all parties knew what was priority for completion. Ultimately the partnership was successful and demonstrated that this type of combination is achievable.

Lessons Learned

The first unit completed in Stage 1 acted as a pilot project and paved the way for Stage 2. Any changes that were made to the first unit during construction were incorporated into the documentation in order to streamline the construction of Stage 2. This was evident in the tender price and it aided in the completion of the project on schedule. The extent of resident involvement in the construction of the units was also revised after Stage 1, building upon the experience gained.


Ongoing monitoring as to therapeutic outcomes is carried out on an annual basis. Regular state-wide surveys are also carried out to identify outcomes and impact of the therapeutic projects in the state.


The Odyssey House Family Units have been visited by a number of government officials as well as architectural and health professionals in order to learn from a unique project that demonstrates both affordability and accessibility whilst maintaining quality design and a sense of community.

Owing to the success of Stage 1, OH was granted further funding to carry out Stage 2. Plans for Stage 3 are now completed and financing is currently being sought. The Department of Justice, among others, has shown interest in adapting the Family Units model as halfway houses for former prisoners recovering from substance abuse, prior to returning to the community.

There has been very positive feedback from those who have visited the units and with government policy recommendations citing the project as good practice, it is anticipated that other therapeutic communities as well as non-therapeutic communities will develop similar approaches.