Small, Smart & Sustainable Homes

During the Sustainable Living Festival, the P+P team attended the Small, Smart, Sustainable Homes seminar, based on Stuart Harrison’s book “Forty-Six Square Metres Of Land Doesn’t Normally Become A House” – a book which frequently visits our office coffee table! To hear Stuart speak about these projects in more detail proved very rewarding and he made a number of points that are important when considering building and living at a smaller scale, without having to sacrifice comfort and liveability.

A few key points that Stuart raised:

Opportunities from constraints
Privacy screening can be the bane of designing on a small lot. How do you protect the neighbours’ privacy without designing a jail cell – highlight windows, opaque glass and screening everywhere you look? How do you ‘borrow’ space and still protect privacy? Clever designs can convert what is traditionally considered a constraint/restraint into an opportunity.

Clever design does 2 or 3 things at once
A floor becomes the table or the couch. A bookcase can be a wall.

Shared amenity
When a small house is built, one method to prevent it feeling small is by ‘borrowing’ space. Not in the physical sense, but by designing the spaces to feel a part of other spaces. Outlooks to open areas should be embraced.

‘Bring the outside in’
Melbourne’s climate, including its variability, is perfect for throwing open the doors and letting that cool change bring fresh air into the house. The temperate climate with regular breezes lends itself to accordion doors and indoor/outdoor living.

Never get too far from the outside
Don’t build houses so large that the outdoors are too far away. Keep it close to hand and within view.

Use vertical space
With a small space, there is an urge is to use up every inch of available area for a purpose. However, opening up the vertical space can often make the space more usable. A bit of (cleverly, purposefully) wasted space can sometimes be a good thing for the mood of a room. Voids and light wells open up a small house and reduce a cramped feeling.

Courtyards
Some people crave an open space right at the heart of everything. An inner courtyard allows total privacy and truly brings the outside in. Plus, it always seems that little bit exotic – a common feature in the traditional housing of other counties, it feels like being on holiday far from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Tall ceilings
A low ceiling makes a small room feel even smaller, and makes a large room seem out of proportion. Sometimes lower ceilings are inevitable, but this is where those vertical spaces or large windows become even more important.

Air conditioning killed the idea of passive solar design
Technological advances eliminated the need to design for the sun. No longer were house orientation, window and eave designs necessary considerations to keep a house cool. This trend has started to reverse with the effects of climate change more widely understood.

A lot of the ideas Stuart discussed are already inherent in design principles, however for the Town Planners in the room, it was a fresh and different way of viewing small houses. The relationship between design suggestions and planning regulations intrigues us and regardless of how they behave in the real world, the planning regulations were designed not to limit development, but to protect people’s day to day enjoyment of their lives. Theoretically, the ideas represented by the houses in “Forty-Six Square Metres Of Land Doesn’t Normally Become A House” should be rewarded by planners. Sadly, this is often lost in the process, with planners and narrow conformity to regulations getting in the way of the original intentions.