16 November 2023

The Chief Minister is right, 120 squares should be enough for some to call home

| Ian Bushnell
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Chief Minister Andrew Barr

Chief Minister Andrew Barr lives in a 120 square metre home. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Is a 120 sqm home big or small?

Chief Minister Andrew Barr seems to have got the town talking about this with his “That’s enormous!” comment in response to a question at the ACT Property Council’s recent lunch where he gave the keynote speech.

Mr Barr, who lives in a 120 sqm home himself, was defending the size limit imposed on dual occupancy developments in RZ1 zones.

He tends to hyperbole when making a point, but the Chief Minister’s response that a 120sqm home was bigger than most two and three-bedroom townhouses was correct.

My partner and I have downsized to a two-bedroom townhouse that we find surprisingly spacious and adequate for our needs and it is just over the 100 sqm mark.

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Planning Minister Mick Gentleman also chimed in during the week, retelling his now familiar tale to journalists of his children growing up in a 120 sqm home and more than surviving the experience.

Having lived in standalone homes of varying sizes with a backyard all my life, first as a child growing up and then raising a family of my own, the notion that anything else would be too confining was hard to shake.

I still rue the decline of the backyard and the implications for families and children, so I have some sympathy with calls for more detached homes to be built, but Mr Barr was talking about increasing the overall diversity of housing stock in Canberra to meet the needs of people in different phases of their life.

The other factors driving greater density are the sheer overwhelming cost of housing these days, not enough homes to meet demand, the need to contain the city within a manageable footprint and the fact that many people want to live closer to the city and near services.

Offering a smaller and hopefully more affordable home in an established suburb makes sense.

And there are good reasons to limit dual occupancies to properties greater than 800 sqm while restricting the size to 120 sqm because the fear is that Canberra’s garden city values will be swamped by brick and tile.

There should still be sufficient space for a garden and shade trees to meet the living infrastructure goals, prevent the urban heat effect that unrestrained densification would bring and maintain or enhance a neighbourhood.

Far from being shoeboxes, 120 squares should be plenty to play with if good design principles are employed to be economic with space.

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Architects will tell you that poor design wastes space and chews up land that could be used for greenery.

But Mr Barr is not talking about cramming families into smaller homes, although I’m sure some with one or two small children would manage nicely.

He sees them as mainly options for young people and downsizers, especially those who want to age in place on a single level.

These, along with apartments and townhouses, should free up bigger properties for growing families.

Canberra really has no choice but to increase the supply and type of homes available to meet its growing population and put the housing that people need within reach, either to be purchased or rented.

The 120 sqm home on a divided block is one important part of the equation but far from the only one.

It should not be seen in isolation or denigrated as some sort of ‘granny flat’.

If it’s good enough for the Chief Minister …

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HiddenDragon9:09 pm 17 Nov 23

As so often happens in ACT politics, life imitates art – or could this be a secret recording of the ACT Planning Directorate discussing densification policies……?


Humour aside, the 120sqm rule has a strong whiff of Trojan Horse to it – highly likely to be dropped after the next ACT election, when it will miraculously be found to be “not fit for purpose” or words to that effect.

Those who variously refer to a 120sqm house as a shoebox or worse, a dog box are not living in the real world. My O’Connor ex guvie is less than that and comfortably accomodates a family of 4. We have 3 bedrooms and one living room which means we do things as a family and utilise our garden. If only the scorn was directed at mcmansions instead of smaller and more sustainable homes, then Canberra would be a much better place.

I’d love to downsize into a 100-120sqm townhouse without a body corporate but there is very little available and when one comes up the competition is intense.

Not The Mama1:56 pm 17 Nov 23

I’ve lived in a 140 sqm bungalow for almost 30 years. Raised two children in it and now I am thinking about downsizing…

Stephen Saunders9:59 am 17 Nov 23

Canberra really has no choice? Nonsense. Albanese and Chalmers overshot their Treasury immigration target by an inconceivable 130% (265,000). Deliberately.

We’ve already arrived at permanent rental crisis and housing un-affordability. Good luck even buying a home, unless you have the Bank of Mum & Dad.

Australians don’t want this widening inequality, Ian. They don’t want to be told, they don’t like backyard BBQs and swings, and actually, they’d prefer vertical schools and vertical living. Or, if they’re lucky, a new house, 50-80km from town.

But you don’t even see the immigration deluge. You line up with Mr Barr, who is equally chill, about this all-time social engineering under federal Labor.

Ian once again ‘not asking’ the key questions of an ACT Government policy but instead parroting the promotional taglines.

The theory of two standalone houses and at least one of them a well designed single level smaller house with at least an average of 400sqk of land is great for a city. I’m sure reasonable people all agree on that.

But Ian should be asking…
Are the eligible RZ1 blocks for higher density in the right locations for densification? Analysis showed the vast majority of blocks eligible under this policy were towards the outskirts of the city.

Are existing houses generally situated on their block to allow this second dwelling build? Architects will tell you No they aren’t. Two architects I talked to said a lot of eligible RZ1 blocks are sloping in the backyard. Adding cost to the build.

Will the second houses be affordable. At approximately $4-500k per build, that’s not an efficient or productive way to add extra dwellings to a city.

Why are so many blocks in the actual inner suburbs that people want to live in, exempted from this policy? Reid, Ainslie, Turner, Forrest, Griffith. This policy is not targeted at increasing the city’s population near key infrastructure, services and amenities in fact it will achieve the opposite.

devils_advocate3:43 pm 17 Nov 23

You forgot about the lease variation charges, which will render such developments unviable from a financial perspective.

Yeah good point. I think the LVC will mean either absolute high end builds for the $1 million plus or very cheap and shoddy builds to recoup build costs.

If I wanted a 120sqm shoebox I’d move to Singapore or London, the appeal of Canberra is more space and land!
Also, the ‘If it’s good enough for the Chief Minister then it’s good enough for us’ mentality is cringe and just shows the writer can’t think for himself.

Robert Fisher9:53 am 17 Nov 23

No one is going to force you to move into one of these new houses. Canberra has a lot of low density suburbia, this is about increasing the options available.

You can still have a large house and block in Canberra. No-one is going to be forced into a 120 sqm house. This is about providing options for those who want something smaller.

Robert – “…this is about increasing the options available.”

“Increasing options available” by arbitrarily restricting the options available for redevelopment… I’m honestly wondering how the math for that works in the heads of supporters of this plan?

megsy – Yes, the options are you can either a) Be rich enough to buy an exceedingly expensive inner city property on a full block or b) Move out to the outer suburbs as they have made it very clear that they have zero interest in families being able to live in these areas.

“The other factors driving greater density are the sheer overwhelming cost of housing these days, not enough homes to meet demand, the need to contain the city within a manageable footprint and the fact that many people want to live closer to the city and near services.”

It’s almost like it’s a problem of their own making. Yes, housing is extremely expensive, exacerbated by the trickle release of land. You want the price to come down? Make more land available to buy.

Yes, many people would love to live close to the city, hence the cost of these suburbs. They still have zero issue selling off any new land they choose to release though, even at the outskirts of the ACT, so it seems that many people are happy to live further out on a decently sized property as well.

Lets not forget one of the justifications for this plan that was stated was that it was “better for the environment”. When you are making decisions based on ideology, it rarely works out well.

Robert Fisher9:55 am 17 Nov 23

Perhaps you don’t live in the environment and would prefer to buy a block outside of it?

Robert – Do you honestly believe that opening up more land in one small, low population city is going to do anything to the environment either way?

There are of course multiple problems with this idea:
1) Just because some singles/couples can live in a 120sqm dogbox doesn’t mean it makes sense to enforce that size on all redevelopments.
2) They are admitting that these are not meant for families so they are saying that if you have a family, we’re not interested in catering to you. Begone to the outer suburbs with you. Hardly seems fair now does it? Families may be able to stretch to a decently sized duplex but the vast majority have no hope of affording full sized residential blocks in these areas.
3) The idea of densification of inner city areas with multiple tiny houses won’t work when the land itself is valued at 1-1.5 million. After taking into account all the costs involved, they’d have to be selling these tiny houses for approx 1.2+ million each just to break even much less turn a profit. Who’s spending that kind of money on a glorified granny flat?
4) Granny flats can already be built up to what 90 or 100sqm? so yeah, 120 IS essentially a granny flat.

Nobody is trying to enforce this size on all redevelopments, nor force families to live in this arrangement. It is merely recognizing this option for people who want a smaller home – singles; downsizers or people looking for something simple as a first step into the market. It has never been a one-size-must-fit all approach.

This restriction provides a sensible compromise for competing needs in established suburbs. Trying to fit two massive properties on a 800m or less block will not work. It will block out light and cause parking and noise problems. Limiting the size of the second dwelling allows for dual occupancy without ruining the life of neighbors.

megsy – I find it ironic that you are trying to argue that it shouldn’t be a one size fits all solution when this is literally what they are trying to enforce with their arbitrary restrictions of these RZ1 blocks. There are many much larger blocks than 800sqm yet they will still be restricted to two granny flat sized dwellings.

I never argued that they were forcing families to live in these properties, the very opposite, they will be forcing families further into the outer suburbs as these changes only cater to singles/couples.

These properties will not be purchased by first home owners as you stated, as new dwellings in very expensive inner city suburbs, even tiny ones will still cost more than full sized houses with back yards further out.

There is actually a middle ground rather than the extremes of the proposed dog box sized and “massive properties” that you stated. It’s not just a matter of one or the other.

How do larger houses cause parking problems? Larger houses typically have more garage space available than smaller ones.

When you claim it will be forcing families further into the outer suburbs, you are not factoring in the people currently occupying houses that are too big for their needs but are living there because the only other options to them are either blocks of flats or townhouse complexes with body corporates (or as those who live in one know – cash cows for so-called management agencies who do bugger all but get away with it because of the cosy arrangements between developers and property management agents). If you can find a viable alternative for these people, some will vacate the family-size homes which will allow families to have access.

My partner and I have a 3br house on a 750sqm block in an older suburb. It’s an ex-govie and is only 92sqm. While it’s cozy for a 3br house it would be fine for even a family with 2 kids. I’d actually consider a 120sqm house BIG
I recently helped a friend renovate a 3br investment property he wants to sell. It’s living space is much is much much bigger then our place but is on a 300sq block in Gungahlin. It has a nice courtyard and outdoor space. That entire house aand block would fit in my frint yard.
The house I grew up in Evatt, my parents built in 1974. It was on a 1,000sqm block and was not much bigger than our place now. I would say it was around 110sqm. When my parents sold it in the late 80s the agent at the time said it was the first 3br house he’d seen in the ACT that had an en-suite. That was unheard of in a small house at the time.
120sqm of living space should be more than enough for a family.

We bought our 3br home in Kambah (that we still live in, though it’s now bigger) in early 1977 and it had/has an ensuite, so that agent in “the late 80s” can’t have seen too many 3br homes in Canberra. It was definitely not unheard of, as we knew other people who had the same.

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