My last article proposed that big, or holistic, thinkers who consider their home as part of a bigger whole, build small. As a counterpoint, this edition explores why small people who atomise their decision making process, build big houses.

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The most recent article in this series on urban issues, through the lens of Australia’s capital city, posed the theory that big people live in small houses.

In short, the article argued that people who approached the redevelopment of homes from a big-picture, or holistic approach considered and incorporated the landscape in the design of the home. In doing so, they moderated the size of their new home to make the most of both the internal and external spatial qualities of a well designed home and garden. The decision to build small not only benefited the homeowner, but also preserved the low density leafy character of the much loved Canberra suburb.But small houses are a rarity in the redevelopment game in Australian cities. As a counterpoint to the previous article, this edition explores why small people build big houses.

New houses on the edge of Canberra looking back at the city’s most iconic landscapes.Image credit- Andrew MacKenzie 2008

The majority of knock down rebuilds in Australian suburbs are not small homes, and by logical extension they are not designed or commissioned by big-picture people. Terms such as big and small oversimplify the role of the architecture profession in house design, and more so, the clients of their work.  While the relationship between designers and residents is far more nuanced, the correlation between the house size and the residents’ expectations of what constitutes a home is worthy of examination. It does however, demand evidence based and thoughtful consideration that requires a bit of background to this proposition. My research into this phenomenon observed the approaches of architects, designers and residents involved in the redevelopment of over two hundred homes after forest fires in 2003 wreaked havoc on Duffy, a suburb bordering Canberra’s urban edge.  Nearly ten years later, almost all of the homes have been rebuilt and a visitor to the capital who has no specific knowledge of the fires could drive down Eucumbene Drive on the western edge of Duffy and see new houses built on the most desirable blocks of land with distant views to some of Canberra’s most iconic landscape scenery.

Houses built on the urban edge of Canberra after 2003 fires- image credit- Andrew MacKenzie 2008.

Over 85% of the new houses were greater than 30% bigger than the modest cottages they replaced, and yet the number of occupants per home actually went down over the same period. It seems illogical that people would- after such a traumatic event- go into so much debt to build a house which far exceeded their needs. This is where my proposition of small people comes in. As mentioned previously big people were holistic thinkers, they considered the landscape as part of the design process and in doing so mediated the size of the house design. Small people, including the architects, designers and residents on the other hand, atomised their decision making process. They made a wish list of all the contingent rooms that might be needed in the future. These component parts made up a fragmented whole that could only be comprehended once the shell of the house was up. Small people saw the home as a series of semi-autonomous spaces for the homeowners, their children and future family members that might visit or move in some time in the future. In the most extreme cases some residents were building up to 160-180 square metres per person.

 

So why does this matter, the new homes were rather stately. The fresh rendered facades leaning over the fire denuded streetscapes provided symbolic signs of renewal and optimism in the face of so much damage. There are two main reasons that this approach to designing new homes is not a sustainable outcome. The first is from a design perspective. All of the built environment professionals I interviewed during my research talked about the importance of sustainable development and green design. Many architects could list the green innovations such as smart glass and reverse brick veneer construction techniques. They could boast how many stars their design achieved as part of the planning authorities mandatory energy efficiency ratings scheme.  However, very few could describe how the house contributed to a more sustainable lifestyle for the owners. Nor did they consider the lifecycle costs or embodied energy impacts of their designs. In many cases the architect hadn’t considered that their grand designs were creating a significant financial burden to the owners, not to mention the environmental cost to the suburb itself.

Stately homes peering over the denuded fire damaged streetscape. Image credit Andrew MacKenzie 2008.

The second reason lies at the heart of the relationship between the residents and their new homes. The owners of these new homes were no more satisfied with the outcome than those in much smaller homes. Indeed many were less happy. A number of residents who sold their new home and left the suburb reported that their house didn’t feel like a home, but rather a sequence of rooms waiting to be spruced up for the next home beautiful catalogue. However it should be noted that these residents were also traumatised. Even seven years after the fires, when I visited their homes and conducted the interviews, many were not capable of reflecting on the totality of their experience. The homes and their lives remained fragmented.

Duffy became an unfolding contest between green technology and green gardens.Image credit- Andrew MacKenzie 2008.

Interestingly, many of the residents who built small homes had previous experience of renovating or building, so they knew the language of design and more importantly knew how to develop a relationship with their architect from the start. They were able to articulate more clearly what they wanted in a home. This brings me to my final point. If the built environment professions are so committed sustainable development, the use of green technologies supported by environmental efficiency ratings schemes are not enough. There has to be a shift in thinking about the home, the landscape and their relationship to the suburb in the twenty first century. This should begin by redressing the balance between the merits of green technologies and green landscapes in urban design.

Are you “Big Person” whose built a small house? Tell us your story in the comments section below.