28 March 2013 – Recap; the story so far. My quest is to buy a house. I’m not rich but, like a lot of people, I want something green and, well, interesting. Green and charming. I want to be seduced.
As a writer I often get letters from people who say; “I’m a retired school teacher (or similar) and I don’t have much money but I want a modest dwelling that doesn’t presume I’ve had my taste buds and my eco-conscience removed, just because I’m forced to live in the suburbs.”
So although I love cities and my instinct is always to burrow as close as possible to their centre, my first step is this: to consider the opposition, the burbs, from the point of view of the buyer with a more or less educated mindset but no special inside knowledge, wondering all the time, is this possible, for me?
- See previous article in this series Elizabeth Farrelly: Steve Jobs would have made green beautiful and seductive
You know you’ve hit the real Australia when you inhale and swallow a fly – one of those ultra-persistent little black brutes that doesn’t even wriggle on the way down but instead goes limp, like some karmic fatalist to whom drifting down the human esophagus is just the natural order of things. Shite to shite.
Then again, that’s very green, the shite cycle, and in a way it’s why I’m here, on the fringes of Homeworld V, Kellyville.
It feels like the edge of the known world but actually, of course, is pretty much Sydney’s geographic heartland. I’ve been here many times, generally in anthropological vein, and have written much about McMansions.
Often, when I do this, I am accused of elitism. But I don’t reckon it’s elitist to criticize McMansions. I think it’s elitist to want one. (How many linear metres of wardrobe for madam? And separate ensuites for each of the kiddies?)
I’ve always had to force myself here, because I find it somehow depressing; not because of poverty or ignorance, but because of the orthodoxy of greed. There’s an inescapable sense of everyone trying to get the most for the least, and of the constant, consequent sacrifice of grace, modesty and wit to that end.
Still, there is an appeal to Homeworld, in a make-believe, Truman Show sort of way. The houses are all new, ultra-clean and explorable. If you half-close your eyes (and nostrils to bypass the toxic out-gassing of new concrete and carpet), if you let your imagination drift untethered from your principles (or prejudices), you can see yourself here.
Indeed, my visits to Homeworld’s previous iterations stopped only when my children showed signs of becoming enthralled; when they began collecting brochures, craving marble ensuites and powder rooms, drawing plans full of tumbling water features and Scarlet O’Hara staircases.
And in any case, I grew up in leafy bungaloid broadacre and am alert to the delights of birdsong and cherry blossom.
So here I am, at once attracted and repelled by these off-the-peg behemoths (I’ve sworn off the M-word); all different and yet, in terms of their intellectual hinterland, all dispiritingly the same. Yet, amid the shadeless gluttony, one label stands out.
Sekisui House is a Japanese company, fairly new on the Sydney market. They’re partners in Central Park, the $2billion development of the old brewery site opposite UTS on Broadway. They call their Kellyville patch “Living Design Centre”, as though design might actually signify. And they talk green. These signs may seem small, but for a design freak well outside her comfort zone, they signify.
Sekisui offers six house types: three single-storey, three-double. They’re by no means classic Japanese architecture, either ancient or modern. There’s no tatami-mat module here, no elegant rice paper screenery, no Tadao Ando brutalism or billowing Shigeru Ban metaphor.
Yet there is detectable chic, all the same. It’s believable that an architect might have been within coo-ee. The white bagged brickwork, the stained timber, the monopitch roof add up to one thing; style. I am immediately drawn and find myself thinking, as I wander through, yes, I could actually live here if I had to – and perhaps even if I didn’t.
This is not normal for me. Normally I’m going, Oh my god, how could they live with that yellow aluminum joinery? Those godawful shapeless spaces, like knuckler elastic that has lost its gumption. Those way-too-high window sills?
So for a minute I actually consider it. I find myself planting and furnishing in my mind; a bougainvillea here, a bookshelf there; I can paint them enjoyable.
Two houses in particular appeal.
One is Candra (Sekisui have learned much from IKEA, giving each house a cute name and individualised menu-type descriptions). Candra, with its white, bagged-and-painted brickwork, its asymmetrical composition, its clear hierarchy of scale and its sharp skillion roof, has the look of architecture. It reminds me of Stanley Saitowitz’ lovely houses in Johannesburg or Miles Warren’s Dorset Street flats (sadly destroyed in the Christchurch quakes).
The other is Mitsu. With its all-timbered, ranch-slider feel and its expansive decks, Mitsu has a kind of Gordon Drake quality, like a drift back to1950s California or 1960s Sydney. Relaxed and spreading, it has light from multiple directions, an elegant interplay or orthogonal space and constant inside-outside connection.
Also, the newness is a thing. I’ve lived in old houses – villas, terraces, warehouses – since I was 17. Maybe it’s time for something brand-spanking? Picturing myself with hammock and iced tea beneath vine-laden pergola, with all that extra money in the bank, and I begin to wonder, could I actually do it? Find a block of land? Move to the burbs? Chuck up a house?
I’m a little concerned about sustainability. Freestanding houses in the suburbs have high heat gain and loss, high water use, high carbon footprints. So I’m am pleased to note one house with rooftop SPVs [solar photo voltaics] and most seem equipped with rainwater tanks. There are also signs up about natural ventilators and about Sekisui’s “rethink green” commitment.
Yet I notice too that, although it’s only 20 degrees outside and cloudy, the air-con is on in every house, and halogens in every room. So, hmm.
I talk to The Man. He hands me a price list which looks unbelievably cheap. Candra retails at $163,000, and Mitsu $168,700. Of course that doesn’t include land, landscape, or fittings. It doesn’t include any sustainability features, even the BASIX basics. Still, even with, say $400,000 land costs, it’s pretty cheap.
Or maybe not. You have to add $27,100 for the “stylish” (white brick) façade, or $11,250 for the timber. There’s another $11,375 for BASIX [The NSW Building Sustainability Index] government compliance (water tank and insulation) and $5500 for termite-proof “blue timber”, (all the houses are simply weather-skin on balloon framing; none of this double brick nonsense).
There’s also all the decking and the landscaping; site works, drives, slabs, sewers past nine metres from the house and any “sustainability features” like SPVs. Right now, there’s a special deal on ducted airconditioning “Hurry, before we run out of air,” says the advert, but green stuff is definitely extra.
How much? The nice man tells me Sekisui did offer a sustainability package, a couple of years back, $16,000 worth of green goodies (SPVs, solar hot water and whirlybirds). But, “to be quite honest with you,” he says, “it didn’t go that well in the market. People would rather have a fancy kitchen.”
Hmm. Not me, I think.
Then he volunteers, “actually, the Mitsu next door is for sale, as is. Complete. Just like that.” How much is it? “$1.1 – million.”
Over a million bucks? To live out here? Where there’s no public transport (well, okay, there’s a busway but it’s several kilometres down the road), not a café in walking distance and no galleries for miles? Hmm. That’s at least one car, possibly two.
My crumbling, century-old terrace house may be a third the width of the Mitsu and half the area, but suddenly I remember it’s already too big. Suddenly hipster-clogged, junkie-strewn Redfern, with 50 cafes, 40 share cars, three rail stations and two universities within 10 minutes’ walk, seems like home.
On the way out, I see the timber fence that marks the edge of Homeworld. Behind it, a bent old guy tends his vegies, a horse lazily crops grass, galahs graze. The neighbours sell live goats. That’s the past. This side of it, the future is all asphalt and grass that must not be walked on, much less eaten.
Sometimes I think, if we do run out of air, there’ll be a war, just for the last human lungful, fly or no fly.
Hurry, before we run out of air.