Living small

1957 home image via Coronare Modestus Faust

Tim Ross is currently host to a wonderful two-part television series about Australian housing from the 1950s onward – Streets of your town. I love that they’ve used the title of a Go-Betweens song to name the show. What I love more is the investigation into the nature of modern housing and Tim’s fascination as to how we have come to the point of possessing the largest average house footprint of any country on earth. Data over the last few years suggests the average Australian home is now more than 240 square metres in size despite the continually shrinking size of the average household – that is, fewer people are living in these large houses. Streets of your town brings a sense of history and even glamour to the idea of housing, and in doing so, asks us to question what has happened?

Most people will have heard of the tiny house movement. There are quite a few documentaries around now extolling the virtues of living small, and while I applaud this, they still come off as being the passion of quite unconventional folk, and not something an ‘average’ person in a relatively wealthy country like Australia would consider. For many Australians (and possibly others in the USA, Canada and Denmark where big houses are also the norm), the idea of consciously deciding to live small might seem absurd. And for others, they don’t have the luxury to think big, small, or otherwise, they just have to deal with what they’ve got.

The funny thing is, historically speaking, the ‘average’ Australian household has already done the living small(er) thing. This is what Streets of your town brings to light. Australian housing in the 1950s and 60s had a considerably smaller footprint, the average being 115 square metres – half the size of our current one. So if we’ve already lived this way, why the insistence of going bigger despite everything we know about the ecological impact of living in enormous homes. It costs more to heat and cool a large house. It’s expensive to maintain it. And the material cost (whole of life cycle) of building a large home is not environmentally sustainable. Add to this the economic cost of buying a large house in most Australian cities, and it all seems like pure madness.

At this year’s Sydney Architecture Festival house size was brought into focus through a very simple installation using floorplans laid out in bright fluorescent tape on the rear forecourt of Central Park Sydney in Chippendale. Through this installation a visitor to the festival could walk around and understand size in a very real way. Virtual reality technology was layered onto the experience so that you could easily imagine being in the space. The ridiculous magnitude of Australian housing became apparent when you saw the way a London apartment floor plan inserted itself into one tiny section of the floorplan and then a Hong Kong apartment floor plan into another. And still there was acres of space to spare!

Refreshingly, a few metres away Big World Homes had one of their modular, off-grid, small homes fully set up taking up a grand total of 13.75 square metres in space. It was beautiful and made my heart sing. I lived in a similar sized space for 7 years in Kyoto, Japan. It’s the kind of space many others live in around the world today, some by choice, some not so much. As someone very experienced in living small, I have this to offer – it is both revelatory and liberating. I recommend it to anyone who thinks they can’t possibly sacrifice living space. And bonus factor: it takes almost no time at all to clean.

Information being gathered about the sprawl, density and growth of Australian cities is cause for concern. Continuing in this direction with the construction of massive homes and endless suburbs supported by poor infrastructure will continue to negatively impact the planet and create socially isolating neighbourhoods. Alternatives include a cultural shift, thoughtful planning, and looking to the lessons learned from European cities.

Part two of Streets of your town goes to air on Australian television tomorrow night, Tuesday 15 November. I’m looking forward to seeing more examples of Australian architecture and to hearing Tim’s conclusions. Where to from here? When will enough be enough? And how much longer until we understand that less can mean more?