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Up until around the late 1960s in Australia and New Zealand, the standard plot for a family house was the quarter-acre block, roughly 1,000 square meters. Typical dimensions were 60′ wide by 180′ deep (20m x 50m) but blocks with wider frontages were prized, especially if on corners. Houses were described as double-fronted or triple-fronted according to the number of habitable rooms facing the street along with the front entrance, a one-car garage, a front door and a side gate leading to the rear garden and back door.

The back door was the family entrance as cars and bicycles would have been parked at the side. Visitors would have phoned to say they were coming over but you’d see or hear them as they drove up. You’d meet them in the driveway and everyone would enter the house through the back door. The front door was for strangers. If you had to go out, you might even leave the back door ajar just in case somebody arrived while you were out. This was incomprehensible to people from overseas.

This is the suburb of Dalkieth in Perth, Western Australia. The blocks are still quarter-acre but the houses have grown to almost completely fill them. There’s not as many trees as I remember. I don’t see any side lawns. In less affluent parts of town, quarter-acre blocks were split into smaller blocks and two or more houses built.

This photograph shows more trees along roads than in gardens.

With narrower blocks, something had to give and the first things to go were the side garden and the side driveway and garage. Having the garage at the front meant it was now possible to have a more natural link to the house as, when it had been on the side, it had been adjacent to either the living and dining areas or the second and third bedrooms. Narrow advertisements offered narrow plans adapted to the new normal.

Lake House shows many of the typical adaptations.

  • Fifty years ago a standard house would have had one bathroom and one w/c. The norm is still for only the master bedroom to have an en-suite. Here, the space that would have been used to link the bedroom corridor to the hallway, is used to make the master en-suite larger, and what would have been a small fourth bedroom is renamed Theatre and linked to Family/Dining.
  • Only Bed 2 has a window facing the side boundary most likely one meter away. The Theatre doesn’t need a view but is still a habitable room. Here, at least it’s a secondary source of light to the Family/Dining area.
  • The rear boundary is almost certainly going to be 1.5 meters away from the window of Bed 3.
  • The alfresco dining area is the covered area in the corner of the plan, adjacent to what remains of the garden.
  • Australian homes generally don’t have a separate guest toilet.
  • The laundry has a sliding door but it’s not clear where washing would be hung.

Australians do like meals outdoors but these alfresco areas are suspiciously ubiquitous. Sure enough, it’s a legal minimum open space requirement.

Much effort is being made to not make these narrow houses feel like the shotgun houses they are. Mostly, this is achieved by a contrived change in corridor direction to separate the corridor from entrance hall, or what’s left of it. This next example is rare in not doing that. If the living room is going to be a corridor then this is actually quite a decent arrangement. [c.f. Lobby Living]

This is a rare example of a separate corridor being used to bypass the living room.

You can see the same elements move around much the same positions but all have the “alfresco” corner space as the only useable outdoor space remaining.

I like the way these next two examples group the garage entry door with the laundry and kitchen. The second example also has this “new” space known as the scullery.

America has its apartments with “chef’s kitchens” where all cooking requiring preparation or attention is performed, freeing up the counter space for wine and hors d’oeuvres before, and dessert assembly displays after. The Middle East has its “dirty” kitchens where the roasting is done. The Australian split is along the lines of before highlighting the social aspects of the kitchen as household hub and informal gathering place, and after being those activities guests aren’t supposed to want to see or know about. Here’s two more sculleries.

I’m in two minds. Doing the dishes can have a social aspect and dishwashers are noisy things. The prominence of the kitchen counter is one thing that hasn’t changed over the decades, even if it’s now more social centre than nerve centre or control centre.

This kitchen has two.

Innovation

Despite the advertising copy, there’s generally little innovation. This next layout is unusual in arranging living dining and alfresco across the rear of the block instead of along it, giving the possibility of the living area having windows on four sides, and wrapping around the area not built over. It’s almost a courtyard house. By comparison, the front half of the house is either informal by design or muddled by lack of it. A row of shrubs conceals what can be seen of the fence.

Decades ago, an attached suite of rooms for independent living would have been called a granny flat but, as the image on the right makes clear, there are many other possible types of use and tenure. Air B’n’B isn’t mentioned as such. This is the beginning of a new typology though it doesn’t’ have to be the smaller flat that’s the one rented out.

NB: A FIFO worker is a person who flies in for the weekend and flies out to their job during the week. Mining companies in the north-west of the Western Australia find this cheaper than building towns. It’s not a phenomenon unique to Australia. Oil companies attract workers to Basra by offering them generous allowances for housing in Dubai.

Aesthetics

One consequence of a front setback regulation combined with pressure to optimize the area behind is that the front elevation becomes flatter. Two or three materials are used create the impression of abundance and overlapping blocks and panels create the illusion of depth. This combination of restraints gives rise to the most prominent aesthetic “volume” being a balcony overhanging the front setback.

Despite the Mid-Century Modern marketing, I rather like the the Palm Springs with its decorative CMU shielding its uninhabited space gingerly overhanging.

It’s an interesting layout. Satisfying the alfresco requirement at the front of the house is an innovation that would make it feel less confined because of the front setback. The unusual depth of facade comes from using this alfresco open space to satisfy the following regulation that mandates compensation for spaces overhanging the front setback. It’s good thinking and nice work but I don’t understand why Palm Springs costs four times any of the single-story houses above.

Individuality

All the above houses could easily be on the same street, with their superficial differences masking underlying similarities. A strange consistency results when every house is trying to be different in its own way. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is irrelevant for such difference is still a characteristic of a line of detached houses and thus ripe for mimicking. These are curious beasts similar, I suppose, to Amsterdam’s Borneo-Sporenburg but less organic.

I’m not sure it matters. Images of terraces yet to be built suggest such posturing might be less important in the future.

Housebuilders

The suburban detached house has reached the end of the road as a typology. Useable outdoor space has almost completely vanished and neighbors’ windows are 3 meters away separated only by a fence. It’s not nice. Plan irregularities along side boundaries are a consequence of the following two tables that proscribe the amount of setback according to height and length of wall, and whether there are habitable room windows or not. [c.f. SPP 7-3_Residential_Design_Codes_Vol_1]

In this example, projecting the shower reduces the length of wall with major openings to less than 9 meters, allowing minimal distances all along.

In the past, this space along the boundary would have had a path but there’s no place now for it now. Semantically, this space is what makes a detached house detached. Functionally, it’s a combined light well and ventilation shaft but that’s only a residual consequence of its earlier essential role as construction setback.

For some, this minimal gap between buildings may still represent a preference to not share a party wall – independence and all that – but keeping that gap means houses can still be built one-by-one on small plots using small teams of non-unionized builders subject to less stringent health and safety standards and afforded fewer contractual rights.

It’s precisely the model created by William Levitt seventy years ago. Despite the advertising, the construction industry always prefers to build what’s best for the construction industry. Party walls and duplex, triplex or terraced houses are no problem if the block is already large enough. A landowner will readily subdivide their land and build for individual profit but it’s not so easy to get people to consolidate their land and build for mutual benefit. It may take some time to return to terraced housing but it will prevail.

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15 June 2016: In yesterday’s inbox was this advertisement for Park Villas, a residential development by Dubai property developer DAMAC.

The floor plans show similar concerns to their Australian equivalent. Blocks are narrow – perhaps 12m wide – to lessen the amount of subdivision infrastructure but also to squeeze maximum price uplift from views of artificial features.

What’s interesting is that the side setbacks are used to access the front and rear doors. Although the front door can’t be seen from the street, the central position means internal circulation area can be reduced as space isn’t wasted to get past the garage or the master bedroom. The only habitable room with windows facing the side boundary is the fifth bedroom upstairs.

Comments

  • Hello Graham,

    Many interesting thoughts. I never thought of the setback being there for the construction crew. I tend to agree that row houses (as they were called in my area of the US) are very effective for privacy and use of space. Some issues that come up in Germany are access to the back garden for removing garden waste – no one wants to drag it through the house. The zoning typically prohibits covering more than 50% of the plot, so everyone is left with something of a garden. People also don’t like running rain water drainpipes through the basement or under the house (when there is no basement).

    Pocket Neighborhood promoter Ross Chapin suggests placing the house on the north “property” line with north windows restricted to lighting and ventilation (no sightlines, high windows, textured glass) so that on the south-side there is 3 meters of spacing to the next house. These 3 meters are fully usable as a garden, path, or patio. He avoids property line regulations by placing all units as condominiums instead of freestanding houses. Not as efficient as row houses but more effective than standard “detached” housing.

    -Robert.

  • The reduced width of the house is worth the gap as it will act as a light well and a vent, as you mentioned. There won’t be any need for air conditioning, especially if the site climate is tropical or subtropical. I’m an architect from Kerala, we have a tropical climate here also having ventilation issues with row houses, though they are found rare.

    • says:

      Thank you HCS! I’m interested to know how you deal with these problems in Kerala. I’m currently devising a row housing solution for Perth but Perth is nowhere near as tropical as Kerala. Perth houses don’t normally have air conditioning. There’s an awareness that the afternoon sea breeze will cool things down and it generally does. In Perth wind finds a way. I see it more as a matter of cross-ventilation than one of orientation.

      Regards,
      Graham

      • I haven’t designed a row housing yet, since it is a rare typology here. But based on my experience in living in such buildings, I can share some of my observations.:

        1. A courtyard helps great for a good amount of lighting and reducing the temperature.
        2. Clearstorey windows and small sized skylights with louvers works (as a stack effect tower) .
        3. An attic or a a higher sealing is commonly found.
        4. Avoid metal roofing in the Windward direction at any cost.
        5. Clay tile roofing with wooden framework was a norm here, worked very well against the tropical climate and lasted more than a century. But these days wood is hard to obtain, and metal truss has became popular. Sadly even with claytiles on it, the radiated heat is very high.
        6. Regarding bedrooms, windows above lintel levels ensure privacy and ventilation during night. (At least in two walls.)
        7. A rainy climate demands for a built in front porch with large eaves or sunshade. Most residences have a counterproductive metal roofing designed as an afterthought.