Canberra is a relatively young city. In 2013, the Australian capital will celebrate the centenary of its founding. When a person makes it to a 100 years of age, they are honoured for reaching such a milestone; in Commonwealth countries, for example, citizens receive a personalized letter from the Queen on their 100th birthday. A century city, on the other hand, is only a young pup by global standards. For a city like Canberra, this means it has specific peculiarities. The suburbs basically look the same as they did when they were first settled. The trees are bigger and the gardens feel well-established, but the oldest houses in Canberra are the same size and shape as when they were first built. This means that due to its relative youth, very little suburban renewal goes on throughout the capital city.
However, some Canberra suburbs that aren’t shackled by heritage orders have been fortified. Old redbrick Californian bungalows– a favourite of post-war urban developers– have been replaced by three storey, candy-coloured brick units, usually slotted between the stately street trees and an occasional urban park. Such houses are definitely the exception, as most of the city has preserved its low density of detached brick or timber homes situated on generous blocks of land. This means that when an occasional resident dares to do a KDR (“Knock Down Rebuild”), the neighbours take notice. The first signs of a KDR are the placement of a temporary construction fence along the nature strip, followed by a notice from the planning authority and finally the scraping away of the tired cottage. Inevitably, the new homes that pop up on these bare blocks are much larger and more conspicuous than what stood in their place beforehand.
Original suburban cottages hid behind front gardens. Even in drought stricken Australia, these gardens managed to provide a veil of green, doubling as a demonstration of the home owner’s horticultural prowess (or lack of it) and a means of creating privacy. Unlike the suburbs of many European cities though, suburban living in Australia has remained a private affair. However, as new homes emerge on the landscape, these natural façades force their way to the front of the block. The sides and back of these new houses nudge up against the boundary fences as the walls come up, and locals know to expect a big and conspicuous home to pop up within a matter of months. Funnily enough, it is likely that fewer people will live in these pristine, palatial homes the the former modest cottages that used to stand there.
Occasionally though, an owner decides to redevelop their Canberra home without adding any extra square metres to the building foundation at all, in which case they become somewhat of a local novelty. Not an urban hero of sustainable development or anything, but rather they’re recognized for being a bit strange. For the last several years, this seemingly innocuous observation about the habits of Canberra’s renovators became the topic of my own research. I was intrigued to uncover why most people would go into debt to build an excess of rooms that they rarely used, simply because not enough people inhabited to space to find time to occupy them all. I couldn’t believe such phenomena could be brought down to rampant excess, or blamed on opportunistic developers saw the disempowered many as prey. One of my most telling observations came from those few who in fact chose against building big.
To cut a very long thesis short; I proposed that big people build small houses. By this I don’t mean physically large people in size, but rather big thinkers. My research revealed that big, or holistic, thinkers–those who consider their home as part of a bigger whole– focused on how they wanted to live in their homes instead of what rooms they might need for a potential future scenario (a possible mass migration of the extended family, for example). These big thinkers gave thought to how the garden and the house worked together in order to maximize comfort, spaciousness and light. Their gardens played a huge part in their decision making process; where renovators opting for big houses left no room for gardens, big thinkers thought about how trees on the western side of their block could protect the house from hot afternoon summer sun and also let in the warm winter sun during colder months. This is an intuitively and logically simple concept. However, at the time of designing and building a home, home owners who don’t think on a bigger scale find it too tempting to leave that bit of dirt on the western boundary to waste– instead, they opt for an empty bedroom.
On an urban scale, the landscape in modern suburbia is just not considered valuable by the majority when it is time to KDR– it seems this is only so for the “big thinking” few. But there sociocultural expectations also come into play here. Take one of my research subjects and friend, who fit this category of big thinkers, as an example. She not only redeveloped her home in an established Canberra suburb, but actually reduced the total floor area by two square meters. Her husband at the time often tried to explain in vain to his mates why his family had spent the equivalent of a high-end BMW on their home, and in fact made it smaller. To many this seemed utterly illogical. How was it even possible to redevelop towards a smaller home?
The idea of the new, bigger home is etched into the Canberra psyche, much the same as it has been across other Australian cities. No single sector of the industry or community can be pin-pointed as the reason for that– it is a phenomenon. An epilogue and perhaps an explanation to this story are needed. This aforementioned research participant happens to be a talented local architect who understands the value of space, both indoor and outdoor. In her case, convincing herself that she didn’t need a oversize home wasn’t so difficult. You don’t need to be an architect to redevelop a small home, but you do need to be prepared to go against the grain. For many architects and building designers, insisting that you don’t want a huge home in Canberra comes as a pleasant surprise.