Are you a home buyer?

My hometown is in an urban growth area. The builders have purchased multiple blocks from the developers. In turn the developers have created millionaires from those who once lived on productive land now being bulldozed into boulevards and alleys. I could write about the miserable space each new owner will purchase but on this occasion I prefer to write about their home.

One of the things I did when I retired from active work nearly twenty years ago was a course at Swinburne University on home sustainability. It is a pity the builders erecting these new homes missed the course because the homes they are building do not meet the least of the best criteria. The eventual home purchaser will not be buying the house the builder has led the buyer to believe is on offer if the budget is tight.

If you have read anything I have written you will be aware my interest in home building is not new. You will have read that as a ten year old I clambered over one of the Post war brick veneer homes Eddy Evans was building. Eddy never went to university but he learned that there were many things he must do in building one of these, off the shelf plans, to make life better for the owner. His home should allow the winter sun into the home but protect the furnishings from the burning sun in summer. This is but one simple rule drummed into anyone who has lived through an Australia summer and winter.

This is not an issue of fashion. It is an issue of fact. Our sun makes homes too hot to always glare into the home. Other fashions come and go. This one stays as a first principle of sense. Another fashion built into Eddy Evan’s home were window pelmets. Living in cool Victoria it helps if in winter windows are fitted with heavy curtains and pelmets because this simple measure keeps out the cold. We can get away without pelmets and heavy curtains today if double glazed windows are fitted.

Technology has helped the new home builder. In the post war period windows were limited in size by the availability of bigger glass. Today they can be the size of the side of a bus. Previously the glass was smaller, and so incidentally, were buses. The big picture windows illustrated in the display home will have the best available glass, but the copy eventually built may not as the cash strapped buyer negotiates a final price for the home that is eventually built. It will be built to a price and not to a standard. And that is a fault that will stay with the home all its life.

Before pulling this essay together it is necessary to examine the work of a great Australian architect, the man who wrote “The Australian Ugliness” nearly sixty years ago, Robin Boyd. Boyd was always going to be an architect but first he was also from one of the most influential family of artists. This background must have given him a love of aesthetics before he drew the first of his notable homes. The book he wrote critically examined the homes that followed those after Eddy Evans built.

Boyd called for an Australia style. He wanted us to adopt a home suited to this country. He deplored the influence of America. Because we had adopted the California Bungalow. We did have many houses well suited to our climate such as The Queenslander, and the others with wide verandas around the perimeter, but in the rush to build new suburbs we saw the development of home builders like A V Jennings. This company and many others were building houses in bulk much like mass builders are today.

The question of sustainability is not without its problems though. Take for example the trouble the English projects of Kevin McCloud . For 20 years Grand Designs has been a feature of our screens. He had television audiences hooked on watching good designs grow out of the ground. In 2007 he started Happiness Architecture Beauty (HAB) Homes. This week I read that it is in trouble and investors are unlikely to get more than cents in the dollars they have Invested. It seems he has had none of the ruthlessness of our developers seemingly hell bent on putting their return before quality.

Sustainability has a quality. McCloud was searching for it, and the one thing Boyd insisted on it was beauty. The philosopher Alain de Botton has written much about architecture and how good architecture, and good furnishings, add to the beauty of one’s life. His organisation has invited great English architects to build beautiful homes for holiday rental, in a program he has titled Living Architecture.

In cold climates like Norway the need for sustainability is accepted as the norm. The home owner enters the home via a climate lock. The home is sealed to keep in the heat. This is one of the first measures of home heating. The next is to harvest whatever heat is available from the sun using heat exchangers. These devices allow the stale air to be extracted from the building and the incoming air to be heated before it is circulated around the home users. We have little need for such extremes in our more moderate climate yet the sun we have in abundance is barely harvested. On most modern buildings there is token solar hot water collection. Before it can be used it has to be gas heated because the most efficient solar hot water systems are too expensive for a mass produced home.

Which brings me back to the major criticism Robin Boyd made of our suburbs over sixty years ago. The same criticism can be more openly made of the vast building estates being developed today. Cynically it seems the public spaces the developers are required to provide shrink as newer estates are opened. The same can be said of the housing blocks themselves and the road easements. They are too small.

A year or two ago a woman died in a tragic house fire in one of these estates. The fire brigade members sent to fight the house fire were not trained for such a job but worse their ability to reach the home before it was engulfed was set back because the roads were too narrow for their vehicle to get through residents parked cars on the roadway.

In addition to everything shrinking the first principle of a home building program is to consider the orientation of the home. The morning sun is welcoming as it streams in from the east. By lunch time in summer it is necessary to block out the suns direct rays. As the sun goes through it’s arc the south western corner of the house can be quite pleasant in the depths of winter but the setting sun is most unwelcome in summer. To benefit from the best of the sun and to exclude it in the worst times one needs to engage an architect to get the cheapest house in the long run.

Project builders may well have used an architect in preparation of their homes but once they have their initial drawings it seems they dispense of their services. The untrained first home buyer is perhaps happy to find a home and land package within the set budget not realising the ongoing costs when compromises are too easily made. As negotiations begin the buyer discovers the project home viewed includes many elective features.

Likely as not they are not included in the budgeted figure. It may have double glazing. It might include superior fitting and fixtures. It may have light wells. The same house will have six sustainability stars on paper. During construction the film wrapped around the property will have to be perforated to allow the electrical fittings, the plumbing, the heating or it will have accidental breakages. Once holed like this it reduces the effectiveness of the barrier. Simple quality omissions rewrite the standard the buyer expected

Most hurtfully the star system works best on the planned original orientation. Unwittingly the buyer agrees that it will only fit on the block when positioned in another direction. Doing that the worst of the sun will become a lifetime problem. In time compromise after compromise means the home erected has none of the advantages the prototype offered. The owner is left with heavy power bills to heat and cool the place in an estate of similar ugly problems. Far too often the home is built a long way from community assets like schools, shops and leisure centres. The isolation just adds another level of ultimate frustration.

If we could but learn close density housing can be community building. We would stop increasing city boundaries so willingly if we better measured the real cost of growth. Housing can be built with fewer operating costs than the single homes now built on tiny blocks with greater amenities just by following the housing patterns of world’s best practice. If we did that people could live fuller lives than they do now.

The photo is a work by Howard Arkley

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