It all started when we purchased the land in January 2010. A number of ideas, thoughts and sketches were thrown around. But there were a couple of things that guided the design all the way. They were:

  • Passive Solar Design: We wanted to build dwellings that would not need energy (or at least as little as possible) for heating or cooling.
  • Think small: Building houses with a small footprint reduces the cost of the housing and its environmental impact and increases the amount of open space available for gardens.
  • Green space: This is important for natural cooling of our dwellings in summer, habitat for the critters that we share the planet with and space to re-charge our batteries. We wanted to show that medium density development does not have to result in a concrete jungle and have achieved this by reducing the impact of the car.
  • Community Interaction: We have tried to create an environment where people are encouraged to interact with their neighbours, and where creativity would be stimulated.

So let's start with having a look at the differences between a typical townhouse development and our project. You can also watch the TEDx presentation for more information.

Overview typical development

A typical townhouse development:

  • driveway along one boundary
  • dwellings along the other boundary
  • three double garages, one for each dwelling
  • dwelling size maximized
  • no regard for solar orientation
  • green space limited to small private courtyard and set back area at front
Overview of our development

Our development:

  • much shorter driveway
  • dwellings oriented to be solar passive
  • two double garages, to be shared between the four dwellings
  • small footprint dwellings
  • 60% of open space, productive and waterwise gardens

Below you can read in more detail about certain aspects of our design. Or you can have a look at the approved plans below.

Passive Solar Design

The energy needed for heating and cooling can be dramatically reduced by designing your house in the right way. Most people know about how insulation helps to keep the inside temperature lower in summer and higher winter. Passive solar designs allow a house to make the most of the sun's rays to heat up your house in winter. By using shading, proper ventilation and the right amount of thermal mass, your house can also be comfortable in summer without an airconditioner. For more information on our low energy design, click here.

Griff Morris from Solar Dwellings is an expert when it comes to designing solar passive dwellings. We were in good hands!

We were keen to use software to simulate the design's performance and provide us with an energy rating. Daniel Smee from Jade Projects has a lot of experience with various Energy Rating systems (he used BERS for ours). An initial assessment was done based on the plans from Solar Dwellings. We then made some adjustments to the plans and a second assessment was done which increased the results.

There are other ways of measuring building projects on their green/sustainable merits. For example, the Green Star rating system. Apart from energy consumption, this rating system takes other aspects of living into account, like distance from public transport, the number of car bays, etc. Although our development is eligible for the multi-dwelling development Green Star rating, the assessment costs thousands of dollars and as such is out of our reach. This is a real shame as we would have liked to know how we scored under this system.

Think small

One of the books that provided inspiration for the project was 'Little House on a Small Planet by Shay Salomon'. He describes how, as a child, he loved overhearing the adult conversations around the kitchen table from his bedroom, how he loved the proximity to his family members. This is in stark contrast to the houses we build today, especially in Australia where we build the biggest houses on the planet, an average of 214.6 sqm for a new home in 2009 with freestanding houses averaging just above 245 sqm. Australian homes are around about a third bigger than what they were 20 years ago.

So, what do we use all this space for? It certainly is not to house growing families. Statistics show the opposite, house hold sizes are going down. The percentage of households consisting of mum, dad and two to three kids is decreasing and the number of couples no kids and single person households are on the rise.

The main reasons for us to think small are:

  • Increase amount of green space
  • Less materials required, increasing affordability
  • Less maintenance and cleaning
  • Cosy and friendly

Our design has resulted in dwellings that are well below the Australian average. The two apartments are around 65 sqm each and the two townhouses range between 120 and 150 sqm. This excludes the attic space which can be used for storage. Also note that this is measured around the perimeter of the house and includes the walls. The 120sqm townhouse is strawbale construction with the walls being 55cm thick...

So how did we do it? What is important in designing small houses is being able to use one and the same room for multiple purposes. A bedroom can also be used as a study. A garage can double up as a workshop. Kids can share bedrooms... And you are right, there will not be a seperate theatre room, but we will no doubt find a way to watch a movie in the common outdoor area on a gorgeous summer evening :-)

Also, we carefully considered the size of each room especially the kitchen, living room and bedrooms. How big do these areas really need to be? We learned for instance that you need about 1 sqm to comfortably manoevre around a bed (in a wheelchair!) which means that around 16 to 20 sqm for a double bedroom should be sufficient.

But, one of the biggest secrets of being able to live in a small house, is probably not to own too much stuff to start with. We all accummulate things during our lives. Some things we use frequently, others are hidden in drawers, cupboards, sheds and garages, gathering dust. The secret is to ensure that your materialistic possessions don't start owning you, that they stop you from doing what you would really like to do. We're still learning...

Green space

One of the aims of the project is to showcase that medium density development does not need to result in a concrete jungle. For us, it was really important to be able to use most of the open space as green space: gardens. There are so many benefits to having quality green space around you. They include:

  • Reducing the urban heat sink effect;
  • Natural cooling;
  • An opportunity for local food production;
  • Positive impact on our emotional well-being;
  • Space to relax and play;
  • Habitat for wildlife; and
  • Carbon capture and storage.

Two things were really important in increasing the amount of open space:

  1. reducing the impact of the car;
  2. and reducing the size of each dwelling (see previous paragraph).

Unfortunately Australians (together with Americans) are known for being great at planning for the car. This becomes obvious for instance when you look at the amount of car parking that is required for new developments. These requirements result in open space in most townhouse developments being dominated by driveways. So, for us it meant that if we wanted to increase the amount of green space, we needed to reduce the size of the driveway. We have done this in the design by keeping all car parking to the front of the development.

Compared to a typical townhouse development our design caters for less under cover parking. We have two double garages which are shared; each garage is divided in two so that each dwelling has one parking spot. An additional two parking bays were required. They are open and will be used as visitor bays; the amount of hard paving will be kept to a minimum.

The result is a design which has 60% of open space. More space for urban green, but also a space that is pedestrian friendly, a safe space for kids to play. The front of the property (set back and verge) will be re-vegetated and consist of native vegetation while the back of the property which faces north provides space for food production. We don't aim to be self sufficient, but love the taste of fresh produce from your own back yard. Yes, even a sour orange tastes good!

Keeping parking to the front of the property was crucial to our design; it not only enabled us to increase the amount of green space, but was also necessary from a passive solar design perspective. Unfortunately it meant to our design did not comply with the Council's streetscape policy. You can read about our struggles to get planning approval here.

Community interaction

We seem to live in a society that is more and more individualistic. At the same time, an increasing number of people want to be part of a closer knit community. We wanted to create a design that would encourage community interaction.

Most new houses have remote controled garage doors. Considering that people drive for most of their trips a typical scenario is that you come home, press the button to open the garage door, drive the car into the garage, press the button to close the garage door, get out of the car and enter the house. There is no opportunity for community interaction. In our design residents and visitors need to walk from their garage to their front doors. We have received comments that this is 'highly unusual' but feel it create an opportunity to interact with your neighbours. The fact that all front doors face a common courtyard has been done for similar reasons.

Other design features that will encourage community interaction are the use of some common facilities: a bike store, outdoor kitchen/BBQ area and gardens. In the early stages we also discussed other communal facilities, for isntance a laundry or libary/creative space, but these did not make it into the final design. Sometimes space was the limiting factor, other times it was the aim of being a showcase for future medium density development, attractive to mainstream society.

Each dwelling will also have their own private space consisting of a small courtyard for private wining and dining, readling a book or the well deserved afternoon nap.

The plans

A copy of the detailed plans have been uploaded to this site for you to have a look at and draw inspiration from.

We want to thank Griff Morris and all staff at Solar Dwellings for their help with the design of our development. Solar Dwellings embraced our project and guided us through the challenging design phase. Thank you!

Design features

  • Solar Passive Design: energy ratings of 8 to 10 stars! No active heating or cooling should be required.
  • Small footprint: Floor areas of townhouses 120-150sqm, apartments around 65sqm. Well below Australian average of over 200sqm.
  • Small footprint and parking at front of property has resulted in 60% open space mostly used for waterwise and productive gardens
  • Community feel: all entries off the common courtyard. Communal facilities include shared bike storage, garden areas and outdoor kitchen
96 Rutland Ave factsheet