Massing the Houses: A practitioner perspective on dwelling size in Australia and its (sub)urban implications

Paul Drechsler, Caillin Howard

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


    Primary Aims/Objectives (300 words)
    The Australian obsession with dwelling size is arguably a construable notion, which pays homage to the ‘cult of bigness’, seemingly a unique Australian phenomenon that appears to celebrate grossness as a virtue within the residential fabric of our cities and towns. The objective of this paper is to explore spatial and morphological attributes of the private dwelling sector in Australia. Concentrating on physical built form, the paper discusses the sector’s design and planning response in terms of its appropriateness to 21st century expectations of affordability, urban planning and policy, the sustainability agenda and good design. More specifically, the paper deals with the intersection between housing affordability, dwelling size and the apparent consequences of millennials being parentally housebound, principally because access to the affordable housing market is now constrained by financial strictures in the current lending environment. The paper will highlight the need to increasingly focus on the generation of future entrants to the housing market by specifically tailoring product to millennials rather than applying historic dwelling models imposed on past generations by the house building and finance industries. The paper will also consider physical dwelling responses in a broad societal context and challenge clichéd notions of what constitutes a typical household, including those who are time-poor as a result of employment; same-sex couples, cultural diversity and those with special needs as a result of disabilities.
    By way of case study examples, the presentation will graphically demonstrate and challenge traditional notions about how the community is housed. Particular attention will be given to residential densification and the look and size of dwellings in their urban context. Finally, the presentation will examine the adoption of new morphologies, including tiny houses and micro-lot housing as a possible remedy to our housing crisis moving forward.
    Theoretical/Conceptual Framework (200 words)
    The paper will seek to define the Australian suburban ethos and the historical underpinnings of the peculiar dream of home ownership, including reflections on Robin Boyd’s (1960) Australian Ugliness and its present-day materializations. The proposition advanced in the paper is that not much has changed in the way housing product is delivered to the consumer over the past century or so. In this respect, development appears to be industry-led rather than demand driven; often resulting in urban outcomes that appear to disregard the importance of place in what is essentially a legacy of post-colonial settlement. In this sense, the paper will explore contrasting morphologies such as: (i) typical ‘blockbuster’ styles of residential development, namely over-built small blocks with large dwellings epitomised by ostentatious ‘McMansion’ dwellings; (ii) compressed versions of the same phenomenon at a more financially modest scale. The paper will also consider the ongoing trend for residential densification of the urban fabric via space/time compression which may foster and encourage sustainability yet compromise platial outcomes.

    Methodology/Methods (200 words)
    The basis of this paper is both conceptual and empirical with a clear professional practice focus. The presentation will gather relevant statistical evidence and metrics from public domain and industry sources in order to provide insights into the current status of the housing market on a national basis. This information will identify potential drivers that can induce positive change in the residential milieu, including new residential building typologies. Case studies of exemplar projects that offer new planning and design paradigms will be presented. These will be spatially contextualised through the use of aerial photography referencing some urban outcomes that may, or may not, match the rhetoric expounded by government policy and industry groups.
    Key Findings (200 words)
    This paper focusses more on practice than pure research. One of the key areas elucidated in the presentation is the relationship between dwelling size and lot size. There is also a supposition that millennials may have desires, priorities and aspirations not necessarily aligned with those of previous generations, and in terms of housing, may represent an opportunity to develop design responses favouring more modest dwellings, like micro-lot houses and tiny houses. Accordingly, rather than present key findings in an academic context, the presentation will demonstrate some of the directions in which professional practice is heading, together with ideas where industry and academia can collaborate on new research agenda.
    Policy Relevance/Implications (200 words)
    There currently appears to be a lack of cohesion in planning and design policy on residential development across state jurisdictions in Australia. More specifically, there is a high level statutory and regulatory framework in place at both national and state level that may create a misalignment with possible strategies identified in this paper. In this respect, consideration will be given to identifying shortcomings in the statutory and policy setting that may compromise affordability outcomes in the housing sector. Apart from government policy, these include the Building Code of Australia, Australian Standards, banking industry minimum standards and the myriad planning policy guideline documents.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages2
    Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2019
    EventState of Australian Cities Conference - University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
    Duration: 3 Dec 20195 Dec 2019


    ConferenceState of Australian Cities Conference
    Abbreviated titleSOAC '19
    Internet address


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