Antony Dimase – WATodayArchitect, Design & Sustainability Advocate
Perth, it’s time to end your love affair with big homes.
To Australians it is commonplace; a home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a home theatre, a butler’s pantry, a mudroom and perhaps a gym or powder room.
But to the rest of the world this extraordinary. Our homes are the biggest in the world – and getting bigger, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
And those homes are squeezed onto ever-diminishing parcels of land with few and fewer people living on them.
While the dream of the suburban castle remains strong the fall in family sizes, looming energy price hikes and growing concern over climate change will force builders and consumers to rethink the bigger-is-better approach.
According to Sandy Anghie, president of WA Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, super-sized homes and the urban sprawl that has facilitated them defies logic.
“If you have a look at the web pages for project builders you will see four bedrooms and a multitude of additional rooms is fairly standard,” she said.
“But with ever-diminishing household sizes, an increasing proportion of single person households and a rental supply crisis this doesn’t really make sense.
“You really have to ask do we need all of these rooms and all of this space. Would we be better off in less space just better and more sustainably designed?”
The death of our love affair with large homes is looming, say industry experts, driven predominantly by the soaring cost of powering them.
Efforts to stem global warming will also force change. From the materials needed to build houses to the increasing cost of heating and cooling them, the roofs over our heads contribute immensely to climate change.
Anghie said people are largely unaware the construction and operation of built environment accounts for 39 per cent of carbon emissions globally.
“Larger homes have greater impact on the environment because they use more materials in construction and more energy to heat and cool,” she said.
“Clearly, they also take up more space, so that’s greater destruction of natural habitats at the fringe to build them. Or destruction of existing homes in our character suburbs, leaving less space left for trees and garden.”
There is a growing demand for smaller, more sustainable homes driven by clients who value quality of space over quantity.
Jimmy Thompson, a design director with Subiaco-based MJA Studio, has shown how a beautiful, high-quality space can be achieved on a tight 256 square metre inner suburban infill site.
His award-winning design, Jimmy’s House, is only 140 square metres, which is around 100 square metres less than the average new build in Australia.
A rooftop garden means the home features 277 square metres of planted gardens and courtyards, greater in area than its lot size.
Curtin University sustainability expert Peter Newman has lived in the same circa 1860s Fremantle house that he purchased for $8000 in 1974.
He and his wife have renovated their Georgian cottage multiple times over the decades as they accommodated three children and transformed it into a highly liveable net-zero home. He predicts it will last another couple of hundred fossil-fuel-free years.
“Integrating liveability, heritage, and net-zero is not a common task for architects, builders, and tradies so there had to be creativity and persistence whenever the resolution of these three qualities was threatened,” he said.
“But the house had good bones, was close to the city centre and the beach, so we thought we’d give it a try.”
The home has solar panels, insulated walls and ceilings, thermal glass windows, hot water and air-conditioning powered by a heat pump, a rain-bank system and an electric heater and stove which he installed after ditching gas.
The Newmans offset the 52.2 tonnes of greenhouse emissions from the embodied energy in the demolition and use of construction materials in a biodiversity-based planting project that is part of Gondwana Link in our Great Southern.
“We also recycled old family furniture from the 19th century, old crockery from several generations, and we even recycled the old Ti trees that died after 100 years of growth in our backyard and turned them into garden furniture,” he said.
It’s hardly the norm for a renovation project and poles apart from the mass-produced cookie cutter project homes common in greenfield developments in Perth’s outer suburbs.
Newman said Perth people had a fetish for large houses way beyond their needs. The focus, he said, should be on climate-resilient urban design if we were to honour the Paris Agreement and keep global warming below 2 degrees, preferably below 1.5 degrees by 2050.
He said a day of reckoning was coming.
“The average suburban house in Australia has survived and thrived because cheap energy allowed us to build large energy-consuming homes,” he said.
“With climate change bringing hotter summers, more rain and colder winters and rising energy costs this means that a building built say 20-30 years ago will become very expensive to run and potentially lead to health problems for its occupants.
degrees, preferably below 1.5 degrees by 2050.
“Most housing is still provided by project builders, and they have a single design that appeals to a mass audience. So we have created a culture to fit their need for one-size-fits-all,” he said.
Architect Architect Antony Dimase said large homes were a universal problem and a product of people’s false belief that size equalled status.
“The way forward is to see status in owning an energy-efficient home that has a small footprint surrounded by a garden that assists in keeping the home cool in summer.”
For now, Dimase said consumers need to demand more of the housing providers.
“We need to see through the greenwashing and ask how much will this house cost to run and what are the features that will mean I can stay here for longer,” he said.
“I think the status of a dwelling’s location and the size of a home largely creates its value – but I can see that in the future it will be the design and efficiency that determines a building’s true value to its occupants.”
Anghie said the tide was slowly turning, but more leadership was needed from state and federal governments to incentivise and legislate for new builds to be more sustainable.
It is happening,” she said.
“We just saw the announcement that WA’s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 will be enshrined in law by the state government. This is very welcome news.
“Last year we saw the National Construction Code amended to move from six-star homes to more sustainable seven-star homes.
“While seven stars is not yet mandatory here in WA, voluntary adoption of this standard could be encouraged by the state government through an education campaign for consumers.
“People want to do the right thing – whether it’s reusing plastic bags or disposing of household waste in FOGO bins. They just need to be shown how.”