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Canberra’s big new homes can come with big costs

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Are we experiencing collective cognitive dissonance in Canberra?

In a city that choked on smoke in January and suffered through a bushfire season that made our city more polluted than New Delhi, are we really building the world’s biggest houses?

Last week, the CommSec Home Size Report confirmed that the average new house in the ACT surpasses those found in the country that coined the term “McMansion”.

The report, published by the digital broking arm of the Commonwealth Bank, reveals the average new house built in Australia last financial year was 235.8 square metres, up 2.9 per cent on the previous year and the biggest increase in 11 years. In comparison, houses in United States have fallen to 233.1 sqm.

At 256.3 sqm, the ACT builds the biggest houses in Australia—and therefore in the world. We were ahead of Victoria (250.3 sqm), NSW (235 sqm) and Western Australia (232.5 sqm).

CommSec chief economist Craig James says Covid-19 is reshaping our demands for real estate. “With more time spent at home for both leisure and work, some Aussies are looking for bigger homes.”

What should we make of this? I asked Jenny Edwards, the director and resident scientist at Light House Architecture & Science, what she thought. Jenny is dedicated to helping Canberrans build more efficient, well designed and sustainable homes—and her team has won many awards for their efforts.

“These statistics are really worrying,” she told me. “If people are serious about sustainability, energy efficiency, climate resilience, health and comfort then size really does matter.”

“A well-designed smaller footprint home can feel and function as well—if not better—than a much larger house. It’s cheaper to build and cheaper to run and maintain—and can be a joy to live in,” Jenny said.

Jenny Edwards.

Jenny has a long list of inspiring examples of why big is not better. The Gingerbrick House in Ainslie, for which Jenny’s company was named HIA’s Residential Building Designer of the Year in 2019, is 193.2 sqm but boasts smart space-saving ideas, like loft-inspired beds and bench-seat dining.

Residents can section off parts of the home to cycle through the four different stages of family life: young children, privacy-seeking teenagers, empty nesting and old age.

The home also has an eight-star energy efficiency rating.

The Fab-ode (pictured) in Kaleen, meanwhile, is a “fabulous new light-filled and light-footed abode for a family of four, all within the footprint of the original 115 square metre house,” Jenny explained.

With a commitment to clever design, The Fab-ode boasts spacious living and dining, a generous entry, a study nook and multi-purpose room, as well as three bedrooms, a main bathroom and ensuite.

“You don’t get family homes much smaller, smarter and more sustainable than this.” This year, it won the HIA Australian GreenSmart Renovation Award and the ACT Australian Institute of Architects Chapter’s People’s Choice Award.

As Australia’s buildings already produce 23 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, so our super-sized homes present a serious challenge as we tackle climate change.

But there are some positive signs of a shift in thinking. Bank Australia launched our nation’s first green home loan in January, which offers interest rate discounts when customers buy or build a home with a seven-star energy efficiency rating or above.

The Green Building Council of Australia is working on a Green Star Homes standard to assess the health, resilience and energy efficiency of our homes. Many of Australia’s volume builders—who construct 40% of detached homes—are on board.

Providing people with housing choice is important and, for some, a larger home will be what’s needed. But we also need to provide homeowners with information to help them make informed decisions, to find the home that’s right for them.

Big new homes can come with big hidden costs—and we may be paying some of those costs for generations to come.

Feature image: The Fabode

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