Challenging the big house syndrome

Edwina Robinson, 16 June 2016

Australians have the biggest houses in the world. In 2014, our houses were on average 240 square metres.

According the to the 2011 Census we have 2.6 persons per dwelling. That gives each person on average 92 square metres or approximately a spacious 2 bedroom flat each!

But is big really better? Building homes costs lots of the earth’s resources. Research by Dr Chris Dey, University of Sydney, shows that the construction sector contributed to Canberran’s ecological footprint of 8.9 global hectares per person.

Dey says,

“Building, construction and repairs in the ACT together add around 0.4 global hectares to each person’s Ecological Footprint every year. In this case it is dominated by the land area needed to grow timber and produce minerals used for construction as well as the carbon footprint of generating energy used in construction that creates this Footprint impact.”

The 2011-12 Ecological Footprint of the ACT

Australia’s housing footprint relative to other countries.

So if you build a big house or renovate a small home to make it bigger you will have to: pay for it, furnish, repair, heat, cool and clean it.  

In 2011, the median mortgage in the ACT was $2167 per month compared to a median rent of $1520 per month. By choosing to build a smaller footprint home you could save a lot of money and reduce your environmental impact. And maybe you won’t have to work until your 70.

In some quarters, there has been a backlash against the big house movement. Americans like Jay Shaffer of Tumbleweed have embraced the small house movement and made a living out of it. Last year Canberrans were treated to ‘Small is Beautiful: a tiny house documentary’ at Palace Electric.

Jay Shaffer, Tumbleweed outside one of his homes. Source: Flickr

British born architect, Sarah Susanka wrote ‘The not so big house’ which emphasises quality in home design over quantity.  She asks her clients to think about using rooms for multiple purposes. So a sewing room could become a nook as part of a living room rather than a completely separate space.  Since writing ‘The not so big house’ Susanka has published ‘The not so big remodelling’.

Many of us have come from humble roots. One surviving example of an early Canberra house is Blundell's Cottage  located in Commonwealth Park.

Blundell’s cottage was constructed for workers on Duntroon Station in 1859. It began with four rooms, with two more added in 1888. George and Flora Blundell were the second tenant farmers to live in the building where they raised eight children! It's worth a visit to Blundell’s Cottage, to remind us of how our forebears lived.

Blundell’s cottage, Commonwealth Park. Source: Wikimedia

House sizes accelerated as our relative affluence increased. Much of the housing stock from the 1950s and 1960s are 3 to 4 bedroom homes with a separate dining and living room. Homes were on average around 150sqm on generous blocks that allowed trees to flourish.  

2 Hutt St Yarralumla. Source: Flickr

The Grattan Institute conducted a study of 700 Sydney and Melbourne residents to find out their housing preferences according to budget. It found people chose a far wider range of housing types than the stereotype of all Australians wanting a detached home on a large block of land.

‘The housing we’d choose’

In 2013, the ACT Government has changed its rules around backyard ‘granny flats’.  Previously rules were restrictive and you needed to provide evidence that you were caring for someone in order to be able to construct a second small residence.

Secondary dwellings can be added to dwellings on blocks of 500m2 or greater. The minimum size is 40m2 and the maximum is 75m2.

Fact Sheet - Secondary Dwellings

Ikea has capitalised on the small house concept. It includes store displays on how to live comfortably using their products in 25sqm, 35 sqm and 45sqm spaces.

Ikea Small Space Ideas

So before you embark on your renovation or new house build – stop and think – how many square metres of space do you really need.

Top image: A 4 bedroom house on 300 sqm block in Gungahlin. The home has an area of 220m2, a little under the Australian average. This home is currently on the market. Source: Allhomes

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