By Lishi Li, final year student, Master of Architecture, UTS

11 October 2011  – A staggering 77 per cent of Sydney households have one or more empty bedrooms within their dwellings (ABS,2007-2008). It is unacceptable that this much empty space exists unnoticed and not discussed in the current housing crisis. It demonstrates the urgent need of a shift in perception of housing provision and questions the current housing design and regulation of the market.

It is not only important to rethink the use and potential of these spaces but that these wasted spaces be minimised in future developments. In this immediate context, the 13000 new allotments that the government is proposing to release for housing in the outer Sydney need to be reviewed for their mix of bedroom offerings

Housing is a complex issue, therefore any solutions to this problem requires collaboration across disciplines – the buyer, the designer the developer and the regulator.


There are four key demographic groups, the lone person, the couple, the single parent family, and the family with children.

Lone person and the couple groups have the highest percentage of empty bedrooms.

The majority of couple households – 97.9 per cent –have one or more spare bedrooms, while 85.9 per cent of lone person households have one or more spare bedrooms. (ABS, 2007-2008).

This may be because the couple households are planning to start a family and therefore providing for future needs.

Older couples and lone person may have empty bedrooms because their children have moved out.

The cost of housing and the cost associated with changing the property, for example, transaction fees, stamp duty, removalist fees, make it difficult for people to change their property once their needs change. There is the further disincentive to move because of potential disruption to community.

One solution is to provide a greater range of housing stock within any given development or area. Equally important is a reduction in transaction costs, especially stamp duty, which is in the control of state governments.

These two changes would stimulate greater buyer confidence in the market and we could expect greater choice of adequate housing for each stage of a buyer’s life.

Diagram by Lishi Li (a cropped version of this appears above) Click on image to enlarge

The designer (architect, builder, developer)

The design of housing is another major contributor to the empty bedroom problem

and innovative and flexible design is called for. This would allow households to change space use to meet their changing needs.

A recent report from CommSec detailed in The Fifth Estate notes older people prefer to remain in their family home, so more flexible design might accommodate their needs if they become disabled or wish to share with other family members, while retaining an element of independent living.

This might take the form of  apartment-like semi self contained spaces, for instance.

This change in design outcomes needs to be a cross disciplinary conversation between architect developer and local authority.


The process of unlocking the bedrooms can be fostered by government incentives and regulations.

These could include benefits for older couples when they rent out their rooms, or tax reduction and subsidy for families who are willing to renovate and divide their lots into smaller lots for more housing or community space.

Developers could be encouraged to provide a greater range of housing stock through regulation such as quotas of housing size and mix, or tax incentives.

Insufficient variety of housing stock is the root of the problem, coupled with the transaction cost of trading houses.

The situation can only be improved if buyers, designers, developers and government work together.


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2009-10, Housing and Life Cycle Stages, Australian Bureau of Statistics, viewed 06 September 2011,<>

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2009-10, Housing Utilisation, Australian Bureau of Statistics, viewed 05 September 2011,<>

Tina Perinotto 2011, CommSec and IBISWorld point to smaller houses, more renovations, The Fifth Estate, viewed 02 October 2011, < >

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