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big ideas no space

Smart design may challenge our love of huge houses.

Australians should be embarrassed about their obsession with size, according to Melbourne architect and campaigner for sustainable urban design Stuart Harrison.

It’s not how big a home is that’s important; it’s what you can do with it, he says. Harrison, who co-hosts 3RRR’s The Architects, has written a coffee-table book of innovative housing designs.

Forty-Six Square Metres of Land Doesn’t Normally Become a House, showcases the work of Australian and New Zealand architects who have created spacious homes in extremely small areas. Examples include a five-storey house in Sydney with a garage that has a small bathroom to allow conversion to a study or tenancy; a bedroom and bathroom; living room; kitchen-dining room; and sitting room or study opening to a roof garden overlooking the city.  To put the size of the property in context, the house, now home to a couple, was built on land formerly used as a car park for three vehicles.

Similarly, a young architect has transformed a 150-square-metre strip of land backing onto a South Melbourne lane into two two-bedroom homes over three levels.

The possibilities of the ground level alone include car parking, granny flat, study or office space. The utility, flexibility and beauty of the 45 featured homes is all the more impressive given Australian houses hold the dubious honour of being the largest in the world, with the average new dwelling being 253 square metres. Most new houses are well over that, with more than 400 square metres being common.

”In the real estate world there’s a concentration on big houses, big being better,” Harrison says. ”This [book] is really about saying that compact housing can be sexy, that it can be attractive to live in.” Harrison is arguing for a cultural shift in the way Australians value property. ”Housing is normally sold based on two or three variables: number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms and number of car parking spots.”

None of those variables take into account the quality of the design, or of the space the house occupies.

While Harrison is a proponent of smaller houses, he also believes a related problem is that apartments are often too small, inside and out. ”When you have smaller housing types, outdoor space becomes more important but contemporary apartments usually have only a one-metre-deep balcony.

That’s effectively useless for anything other than maybe standing outside and smoking or putting an air-conditioner [there].” This lack of usable outdoor space can force people to set their sights on a house rather than an apartment. ”Whereas if we had better apartment types, that would be addressed,” Harrison says. This misuse of space has added to the paradox of the average Australian home growing in size at the same time as the number of people living in it has decreased, along with the land size. ”So we have more interior space but less exterior space, less garden and all those things that make housing good.”

The average home size should be reduced by 20 per cent, with the cost saving then spent on good design, including the return of outdoor space and better use of light and orientation, he says.

Most of the homes showcased in the book are flexible with spaces that can be easily modified to suit different uses at different times of the day or life stages, such as garages that can be home offices or granny flats. Living spaces are often connected to the outside to make them seem bigger and there is innovative use of light and shade. Canny design creates possibilities for increasing housing density in spaces that would otherwise be seen as unusable. Harrison says compact infill developments make it possible for more people to live closer to their workplaces and amenities, increasing quality of life and reducing urban sprawl and energy costs.

”More compact housing that’s located near stuff you might need, both your workplace and places of recreation, will help you get to places with less energy and then the housing itself, if it’s smaller, will take less energy to build and, of course, need less energy to heat, cool and maintain.”

Harrison is confident this shift will happen, with the financial and social cost of buying and maintaining large homes on the urban fringe being a key driver for people to value smaller and more flexible housing design. He predicts fashion could be another factor: ”There might be a move away from larger housing in the future as it becomes slightly embarrassing to have a 400-square-metre house rather than something that’s seen as being a good design.”

Story by Kate Robertson