Garden with solar clothes dryer

It’s spring. And no-one welcomes the lengthening days more avidly than our household. Cat sprawled in a sun patch, chickens in the veggie patch and kids clambering on the swing set. And the wife and I, shod in old jeans and oversized gardening gloves, planting and sowing, raking and mulching.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, it has been suggested that detached houses with large gardens are the culprit behind Australia’s sprawling suburbs and urban gridlock, but get this: our entire block is only 250 square metres. The average new subdivision, at around 450 square metres (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics), is almost twice that size.

Wow. If we can find enough room in our inner-suburban garden to squeeze in a swing set, a veggie patch, courtyard, compost bins, water tank, fruit trees and native shrubbery, think how colossal those new yards must be. Like parks, I bet.

Think again. The yard in your average new subdivision is far more likely to be a patch of lawn, a courtyard or an “outdoor room”, to use that fashionable phrase. And the house? The wonder of it is that while the HIA says subdivisions in recent decades have shrunk from a quarter acre to an eighth, houses – built houses – have gotten bigger.

That’s right: despite subdivisions having shrunk by up to 50 per cent, the average new house has grown by 50 square metres since 1986. Meanwhile occupant numbers have fallen from nearly three people to 2.5.

More house and less yard – for fewer occupants. A bigger, emptier house in which to play your Wii and watch your 50 inch 5.1 surround-sound plasma from a safe distance, and for every person to have their own bedroom, their own ensuite, their own spare room and spare ensuite, plus a rumpus room, den, pool room and home theatre.

So if you want to know what’s sending our suburbs sprawling, think big house, not big garden.

At its peak in 2006, new houses reached an average 240 square metres, up from 167 square meters only 20 years before. The large house trend has been put down to strong household economic growth. The expansion in house size has tracked, almost exactly, the long boom of 1996 to 2008.

A more likely explanation is that the drive for the ever expanding house came from property developers and builders who saw extra large houses as a way to increase the sale value of smaller blocks of land.

Consumers have been paying high prices for smaller blocks of land because big houses have been sold on the premise of being a good investment.

What consumers of super-sized homes are missing is the additional building, furnishing and running costs that come with larger houses. Nor are they reflecting on the environmental burden.

Ninety-five per cent of Australia’s current housing stock (big and small) operates on or below a 2.5 star energy rating. Medium density houses (detached dwellings) account for 12 per cent of Australia’s energy consumption. Our preference for big houses has gained us the international ranking of a residential carbon footprint nearly four times the global average.

Australia’s housing obesity epidemic has reached the point where no more house can be squeezed out of the block and gardens have all but vanished. Yet large houses are by no means more liveable. Well designed rooms with generous windows, that bring the outside in, can create more comfortable spaces that cost much less to build and run, and won’t cost the Earth.

James from Walcha, NSW doing maintenance on his 5kw Westwind

The housing sector has the most potential for emissions reductions in built environments. Just by instituting energy ratings of a minimum 7 stars, which includes solar hot water systems, rainwater tanks and ceiling insulation, we could save 75 per cent in heating and cooling.

And the simplest measure, reducing our houses to pre super-sized proportions (around 167 square metres), would generate an average saving of one tonne of carbon emissions per dwelling per year.

The big house trend is one that needs reversing. The encroachment of houses into traditional garden space is an urban blight. Consider the childhood obesity epidemic. There’s a reason your parents always nagged you to go outside. Consider the elderly, and how many are sustained, invigorated and kept out of nursing homes by their tending of a garden.

And consider the ordinary gardener: I’ve never been much chop at meditating, but there are times when I think I understand that deep serenity when I’m in my garden.

It’s time someone stood up for gardens, and pushed back on big houses.

Michael Day is editor of sustainable housing magazine, Sanctuary, published by the Alternative Technology Association – a national not-for-profit that supports households to create sustainable homes.
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