Why are Canberrans so fixated on huge houses?

Shannon Battisson 16 February 2021 82
Coombs house by The Mill

Coombs house by The Mill. Photos: Supplied.

With 2020 being what it is, a year of natural disaster, climate crisis and global pandemic, it has offered up a great deal of time to think. I have been left with one recurrent thought, why do we invest so little energy into our homes, the spaces we ask to protect us in the most desperate of times?

I don’t mean the kind of energy that keeps our Netflix powering (the climate crisis makes it clear that we use far too much of that), I mean the energy that we invest in deciding what’s important in our homes before we build the buildings to which we return at the end of each day or, as we now appreciate more than ever before, retreat to in times of danger.

Despite how vitally important these spaces are, we continue to build in a way that prioritises size over character, outdoor space, and comfort.


Coombs house interior, by The Mill.

It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when architecture belonged to the people, to those willing to experiment, to the brave.

Young families bought blocks of land and employed architects to design homes for them to raise their children in. Budgets were low, experimentation was everywhere, and optimism was high. Canberra was built on it. In fact, we have one of the few truly designed cities in the world.

Currently in Australia, less than 5 per cent of single houses have any form of architectural involvement. Increasingly, public buildings have less involvement also.

Living area

The Mill at Jerrabomberra, by The Mill.

Our cities are becoming less habitable, and our suburbs both old and new are becoming edifices to maximum plot ratio rather than to the hopes and dreams of our nation. In Canberra, we also have a shortfall in social housing dwellings.

As a community, we need to ensure that the most vulnerable among us have somewhere safe and secure to live, and that their homes have meaning and are well designed.

So, what is stopping us from employing architects to design our homes? The most common reason I hear for not employing an architect is cost. And while, like all professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers) an architect’s time and expertise should be compensated, the myth that a custom-built home is unattainable on a regular budget needs to be dispelled.


Well designed small houses can suit all needs.

A few years ago, my husband and I looked to build a house of our own. Like most young families the budget for the build was highly constrained. On top of wanting a home that kept us safe and comfortable, we also wanted to prove that we could build a high performing home on a standard block for a reasonable price.

What resulted was an 8-star house for the same cost as a townhouse (our block was obtained under the ACT Government Land Rent Scheme). What we sacrificed to achieve that performance were spaces that were not important to the way we live as a family, spaces like a home theatre, an alfresco, and an oversized master suite.

And what we proved to more than just ourselves, was that architecture does not need to come with the luxury price tag.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if more of us chose to consider what we specifically need out of a home before we started the build.


The Mill at Jerrabombera, by The Mill.

Imagine if our suburbs were filled with more than just cookie-cutter versions of the same tick list of so-called essential ingredients: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, alfresco and double garage, all built to ensure maximum site coverage and apparent resale potential.

What if, instead, we built for the enjoyment of those building the home? What if we dared to care enough for ourselves, that we invested the time and energy in designing a home that meets the kind of life we live, and what if we built (to borrow from Kevin McCloud during his recent Australian tour) just enough. No more, no less, just enough.

So, in a year that has taught us so many lessons in the most painful of ways, let us learn this lesson too; let us care for ourselves enough to do better. To do better with our cities and better with the most sacred of all spaces, our homes.

Shannon Battisson RAIA is the ACT Chapter President of the Australian Institute of Architects.

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82 Responses to Why are Canberrans so fixated on huge houses?
Peta Swarbrick-Bryant Canberra Progressives for Kurrajong Peta Swarbrick-Bryant Canberra Progressives for Kurrajong 9:09 pm 22 Aug 20

Great article Shannon Battison!

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 6:38 pm 22 Aug 20

When we built 14 years ago, one was only allowed to build up to 30% of the block size. What happened?

O L O L 4:05 pm 21 Aug 20

why do you need outdoor space when you can have your in-house theatre?

Capital Retro Capital Retro 3:25 pm 21 Aug 20

Butler’s pantry in kitchen area now mandatory.

Jeff Smith Jeff Smith 12:40 pm 21 Aug 20

The Stamp Duty system used to tax the value of the house and the land. The current higher Rates instead of stamp duty model now only taxes the value of the land itself. Surely this encourages people to build bigger houses.

I also imagine that to obtain a loan from some banks, they want the biggest house built to maximise the value of the land. A neighbour couldn’t get a bank loan for the new expensive land purchase in Molonglo until they put a higher value dwelling on it (they originally wanted to do a small build on the block).

    JC JC 5:34 pm 21 Aug 20

    Stamp duty is charged on the purchase price. Whilst a block of land may well have a dwelling on it for many older houses that dwelling adds very little.

    Oh and when building a house it is quite common to split contracts, when you do that stamp duty is charged on only the land transaction. So size or value of the house is irrelevant.

    Jeff Smith Jeff Smith 10:35 am 23 Aug 20

    I don’t understand your spin on the issue. Out of all the hundreds of property sales made each week, how many have ‘split contracts’ that mean that Stamp Duty is only charged on the land transaction?

    How many sales are only purchased for the land and not the house the sits on it?

    Surely your examples are the vast ‘minority’ of property sales.

    HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 6:01 pm 21 Aug 20

    “Surely this encourages people to build bigger houses. “

    Yes – proponents of the move from stamp duty to land tax/higher rates proudly see this is as a plus of their favoured system because it supports the building industry.

    To the extent that is so, it also supports and encourages over-investment in residential property – one of the chronic problems of the Australian economy – which will probably be met, in time, with arguments for capital gains tax on the principal place of residence after stamp duties have been phased out (another reason for being wary of this “reform”).

    chewy14 chewy14 2:37 pm 23 Aug 20

    The change to broad based land taxes encourages people to maximise the use of their land, which will often mean bigger houses or multiunit dwellings where appropriate.

    And that is by design and a good thing. It incentivises the best productive use of land which helps drive economic efficiencies which benefits everyone over the long term.

Ian Hubbard Ian Hubbard 9:05 am 21 Aug 20

Good thoughts and the mock mansions are taking over. In the older suburbs changes to zoning are supporting a business model that removes most of the landscaping. With all the social and environmental impacts that you mention.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:19 am 21 Aug 20
O L O L 8:18 am 21 Aug 20

Pretty obvious that people in these houses are generally couch potato’s and don’t want a big yard.

    JC JC 5:36 pm 21 Aug 20

    Doesn’t make them couch potatoes. Maybe they rather spend their time enjoying themselves rather than weeding and mowing land that is rarely used. Evidence of this is to look around many older suburbs where many with yards are riddled with weeds and look nothing more than rubbish tips.

    Maya123 Maya123 9:01 pm 22 Aug 20

    In older, inner suburbs there’s a higher proportion of rental properties, and often the gardens of those are not looked after that well, as they don’t own it.

Carly Maree Carly Maree 12:12 am 21 Aug 20

I think a better question would be why do we pay so much for land we don’t even get to own?!

Jodi Bailey Jodi Bailey 7:31 pm 20 Aug 20

Love this article

Ellen Shipley Ellen Shipley 6:34 pm 20 Aug 20

Have a look at Urambi Village in Kambah. Small, flexible townhouses "in a country setting". 1977.

ChrisinTurner ChrisinTurner 5:58 pm 20 Aug 20

It amazes me that new homes in Canberra do not have room for a single tree. So much for 30% canopy.

    JC JC 11:45 am 21 Aug 20

    Lol. I live in Gungahlin on a 450m2 block. When I look out into my back yard I can see 100m2of lawn, I can also see 4 trees planted across my back fence, which is in a 50m2 garden. Out the front I have 70m2 of lawn, 35m of which is the nature strip which has a tree on it. And whilst I don’t have any other trees out the front I do have. 30m2 garden with shrubs and roses.

    It helps of course I have a double story McMansion as some would fall it which in turn allows for a yard.

    Anyway what I have is big enough for my families need. Enough room for the kids to kick a ball and play on the grass. Enough room for some trees, plants and even a veggie patch.

Nick Swain Nick Swain 4:48 pm 20 Aug 20

To encourage smaller houses why not levy a significant surcharge when the house fills more than, say, 27.5% of the block (the limit in heritage areas). Heritage areas also require 40% ‘plantable’ area – another useful measure.

    Jeff Smith Jeff Smith 10:41 am 23 Aug 20

    Not the worst idea. It does concern me that in the ACT we changed our property tax system from including the house to solely be about the land it sits on.

Rodney Weber Rodney Weber 3:43 pm 20 Aug 20

Average block size decreasing and average house size increasing. Still plenty of large blocks in Canberra. It's not "one size fits all" and that's a good thing. Choice matters :-)

Madeleine Gisz Madeleine Gisz 2:10 pm 20 Aug 20

I'm loving my small place - partly because I can vacuum the whole house without changing powerpoint!

Kat Sychee C Kat Sychee C 8:08 am 20 Aug 20

In the end people will pay for what they see value in. The author of the article is from the Australian Institute of Architects so of course she's not in favour of 'cookie-cutter' homes. And if y'all want more space ( and arguably more 'character' homes) consider Queanbeyan. 😜

Tess L'Estrange Tess L'Estrange 6:28 am 20 Aug 20

Because during a pandemic, no one wants to be working and living on top of their family.

Emily Lander-Clarke Emily Lander-Clarke 11:11 pm 19 Aug 20

I would much prefer a smaller house on a block, the yard being bigger than the house, for growing food, having chooks and sheds for whatever.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 9:05 pm 22 Aug 20

    I have 12 fruit trees, vegetable gardens, decorative plants, a 48,000 litre water tank and a small shed on my block, and a reasonable sized house. A few houses away (same sized block), basically they have a McMansion and very little other space.

Roger Mungummary Roger Mungummary 10:40 pm 19 Aug 20

Beats me. And why 4-5 bedrooms for a family of 3 or 4?

Jordana Martin Jordana Martin 10:28 pm 19 Aug 20

For people running businesses from home, especially ones that require something beyond a home office because clients come on site (e.g. boutique fitness studios or hair/beauty salons) that extra space might be critical to someone’s livelihood.

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