Small home BIG LIFE competition winners announced

Keeping homes modest in size is a quick and easy way to reduce their environmental footprint – fewer building materials are required, and there is less house to heat, cool and clean. Small homes are also an important element in increasing urban density and limiting urban sprawl.

The Small home BIG LIFE competition, brainchild of building designer Sally Wills of Small Change Design & Construction, asks first year architecture and building design students to design lovely, liveable spaces in two categories: XS and XXS. Entrants had to give consideration to how occupants would live in, move through and use the home; how it would be furnished; and most importantly, how a small space can be made to feel inviting.

Sally is very pleased with the calibre of this year’s submissions: “There are some great design solutions and presentations, all the more impressive given that the entrants were in first year when they got the brief.”

To see the winning entries, click here

Feature image: Heidi Stoll’s winning entry in the XS category


Right to light: solar access and the law

Solar access for the living areas of your home and/or office is a key consideration in achieving a highly sustainable and effective passive solar design, not to mention an important factor in improving the physiological health and psychological wellbeing of those living and working in these buildings. Direct sunlight is also fundamental for the effective function of solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays, solar hot water systems and traditional or solar-powered skylights.

However, circumstances can arise where direct sunlight into these important areas of a building, or onto these collectors, is partially or completely obscured by unchecked vegetation growth or increased development on nearby lots. Most states have various development controls or legal principles that regulate solar access, but the levels of protection over a landowner’s right to sunlight have plenty of room for improvement.

It is generally accepted that even the presence of an easement for the right to sunlight is a tenuous measure to protect solar access. However, there are a number of other ways in which private landowners can protect their living spaces and solar collectors from actual or threatened overshadowing.

Solar access and passive solar design

The legal regimes that regulate planning and development do not provide any explicit protection of solar access to a building, although certain planning laws which control development such as the construction of school or TAFE buildings and new residential flat buildings in NSW, include the requirement for overshadowing of neighbouring buildings to be limited only so much as to allow for a minimum of three hours of solar access to principal private open spaces between 9am and 3pm on the winter solstice (21 June).

This ‘worst case’ scenario for solar access is considered to be the acceptable standard for measuring overshadowing on existing buildings by trees or new development, as well as the standard by which new residential flat buildings are approved. This is concerning for two reasons.

Firstly, effective passive solar design for living spaces situated along the northern elevation of a building requires more than a mere three hours of direct sunlight striking the thermal mass within these living spaces (insulated concrete floors, internal brick walls). Every hour of lost sunlight has an adverse impact on the ‘enthalpy effect’ (in this instance, the ability of the material constituting the thermal mass, i.e. concrete, to store heat) that provides passive heat to the room, such that most passive solar design is ineffective with only three hours of direct sunlight.

Secondly, these overshadowing standards do not consider any impact upon the operation of solar collectors, with there being a sharp reduction in effectiveness for every hour of lost sunlight during the winter solstice.

Solar PV development controls

A number of local governments across Australia have taken it upon themselves to create development controls that operate to protect, or at least inform, the installation of solar panels on residential and commercial buildings. The City of Sydney, for example, has a two-fold requirement in the section of its Development Control Plan 2012 that considers solar panels. Owners of solar panels must take into account the potential permissible building form on adjacent properties when orienting the panels, while proponents of development applications for new buildings or alterations and additions to existing buildings are to maintain solar access to existing solar panels, having regard to a number of factors.

These are not mandatory controls for new development, and non-compliance with development controls may not of itself be grounds for refusal of a development application. As such, while these are useful guidelines that indicate council’s preferred position, they are not tantamount to complete protection of solar access to solar collectors. This is a similar position taken by many local governments across Australia, so check the relevant guidelines in your local Development Control Plan, or similar planning controls.

In Victoria, a number of local governments have published advisory notes to be considered in the assessment of development that might overshadow solar panels, with an example being the Moreland Planning Scheme (1) clauses that direct buildings to be oriented to make use of solar energy, and not to ‘unreasonably reduce’ the energy efficiency of existing adjoining dwellings. Note that this loose guideline permits ‘reasonable’ overshadowing and gives minimal consideration to poorly placed solar collectors.


The denser the development permitted in or near the zone your property is in, the less expectation you can have that your right to solar access can be protected. Many planning guidelines determined by local government, and a number of legal principles established through case law, have enshrined this presumption as almost certain.

Established legal principles

Disputes over solar access have been heard in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. These disputes have covered overshadowing of panels and living spaces by both trees and adjoining development, and have resulted in a number of principles being established in these states. Such principles include but are not limited to the following:

  • Overshadowing of a passive solar-designed home arising out of poor design of a neighbouring development is not acceptable, even if it satisfies numerical guidelines; (2)
  • Trees may be the subject of a height restriction if there is sufficient proof that their overshadowing compromises the passive solar heating of a neighbouring property; (3)
  • Developments may be ordered to be modified if an alternative design would result in greater solar access to a passive solar-designed house; (4)
  • A loss of sunlight to a solar array, resulting in a total loss of energy generation greater than 50 per cent, has been held to be unreasonable; (5)
  • Solar panels that are poorly placed will be unlikely to be protected from overshadowing by neighbouring development; (6)
  • The term ‘solar access’ could be defined as ‘sunlight onto walls and other surfaces of a house’; (7)
  • Even the additional heating and cooling costs of less than $100 a year that would be necessitated through lost efficiency in a solar passive-designed home has been held to be grounds to order a neighbouring development to be adjusted to eliminate overshadowing; (8) and
  • New ‘high quality’ residential developments ought to be considerate of their context if their surrounds include a number of buildings that exhibit solar passive design or feature solar collectors, even if development controls might otherwise permit overshadowing. (9)

Thermal mass out in the cold

The above principles were not determined in consideration of factors such as the amount of sunlight that needs to fall on thermal mass within private open living spaces. It is apparent that this aspect of solar access has not been judicially considered so as to form a precedent that might be relied upon by owners of homes with passive solar design features. An opportunity might exist to argue that bodies of thermal mass within private open living spaces (adequately insulated concrete floors, for example) ought to be afforded the same degree of protection as solar panels or solar hot water systems, given that such bodies are technically ‘solar collectors’.

Right to light at your place

As always, you ought to seek legal advice if you feel that your rights are being unfairly or unlawfully impacted by trees or development.

There is no enshrined right to solar access to the extent required by solar passive homes to remain effective in most states and territories. The common law does not generally recognise a neighbour’s right to sunlight unless it is protected by an easement, which is an extremely undesirable arrangement for most private landowners and can be easily rendered void by state laws. Even then, unless the terms of the easement are finely crafted, such a right is unlikely to be enforceable.

Further, there is no official right to protect yourself against overshadowing of solar panels by neighbouring development in most states and territories, although there are development controls that make the reasonable permissibility of development and the reasonable protection of solar access competing factors in deciding whether a local government should grant consent to a proposed development.

Compromise and negotiation

In the event that your living spaces or solar collectors are being overshadowed by a proposed development, it is best to register your objection to the development application through your local government during the provided notification period. This will give you the ability to voice your concerns to council and to the project proponent, and potentially enable you to engage in presenting an alternative design solution that maximises the amenity and development potential of your neighbour’s property, while still protecting the required amount of sunlight into your solar passively designed building or onto your solar collectors.

If you cannot reach an agreement on an alternative design that would minimise overshadowing, consider entering into an arrangement with your neighbour to reimburse you for lost energy generation or increased heating and/or cooling bills (or even the installation of a reverse-cycle air conditioner that may not have previously been required). In the event that there is no suitable area of roof that receives an adequate amount of direct sunlight to allow for the relocation of affected solar panels, you might consider selling the panels or other collectors and requiring your neighbour to make up for the shortfall in the value of the panels or other collectors, in addition to the other mitigation measures mentioned above.

If the overshadowing to your living areas or solar collectors is caused by trees or hedges, you should check the laws in your state or territory that control how such disputes are to be conducted and/or seek legal advice. If you live in Tasmania, Victoria or Western Australia, where no legislative regime exists relating specifically to tree disputes, you might want to consider entering into an arrangement with your neighbour that balances their privacy concerns with your right to the required amount of solar access. Such an arrangement might require a contribution towards the cost of maintaining the vegetation at the required height, so you ought to consider the financial cost of entering into such an arrangement in comparison to the financial savings generated by the passive solar elements of your home and/or the solar collectors on your roof.

Community Justice Centres and Neighbourhood Justice Centres can mediate disputes regarding trees impacting upon your solar access, and should be approached prior to any legal action being commenced.

Need for a national approach

There should be a continued shift towards the protection of solar access in Australia, given the need to move towards a low carbon economy and increase the use of solar and battery storage at a residential and commercial level. The commensurate limitation on potential development of surrounding properties, particularly in residential areas, means that this paradigm shift may face considerable opposition. Without continued pressure from homeowners and industry bodies on policy makers to enforce a national approach to this issue, the current ad hoc and inadequate approach to the protection of solar access will continue.

You win some, you lose some: protecting solar access at Christie Walk, SA

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When she moved into one of the 27 dwellings in the Christie Walk development in the Adelaide CBD, Josephine Thomas didn’t expect to become a student of the local planning code. But her self-education began when a four-storey development proposal next door to the north threatened to block most of the direct sunlight required for her passive solar designed home, her solar PV and solar hot water systems and the communal vegie garden.

“We got hold of the development plan, read it and tried to start understanding it. We read previous judgements of the ERD [Environment, Resources and Development] court, started to talk to people and investigate what the legal process was and what rights we had,” said Josephine. She found there were few explicit protections for solar access. “But we did find there are avenues and mechanisms to oppose loss of solar access that are not necessarily obvious.”

The Development Assessment Panel had already rejected the development on neighbourhood character grounds, among other concerns, and the developer had appealed. “But we were not really notified of any of that,” said Josephine. “You don’t automatically get to be involved.” She then discovered that a ‘joinder’ application would allow her to join with council, and this offered the chance for her to present data to the court explaining how overshadowing would impact her energy bills. “A joinder application is very mysterious. Council wasn’t inviting it, we had to work it out ourselves. But once we were involved we had very well developed arguments which their team could then use. We had done a lot of research and I made a good witness as an informed consumer.”

Sunlight to windows, patios and other principal living areas are protected in development controls, but are often hard to quantify. Josephine found it was quite different at her house: “With PV and solar hot water collectors you can actually provide hard data to show impact. We gave them expert solar modelling showing losses from hot water and PV. We were able to give them great stats on electricity generation thereby proving how the running of household was going to change.”

Development control principles explicitly protect direct sunlight at the winter solstice (22 June) in order to ensure solar access even on the shortest day of the year. “It’s meant to be the worst-case scenario but this can be turned around,” said Josephine. “You get shadow diagrams at 20 paces and the argument can run that you don’t get much sun in the winter solstice anyway so what’s the problem? But winter isn’t the most productive time of year for gardens or PV.”

Rather than opposing its character, Josephine’s arguments centred on the overshadowing caused by the development’s unbroken bulk, which could be somewhat ameliorated with setbacks. “Character can be subjective. Some people don’t like Christie Walk and say it’s out of keeping with the local area,” says Josephine. “But if you look at congruity from the point of view of how far things intrude into the street, the development was going to be very intrusive and one of the things that lost [the developer] the case.”

The developer is reapplying for a four-storey building adjacent to Christie Walk, which has addressed many of council and Josephine’s concerns; he has also opened a dialogue with the community that had not happened the first time around. “We will still lose the solar hot water, but there are ways around that. We rejected the developer’s offer of a gas hot water system, though, because that is not a sustainable solution.” It is also likely Christie Walk will lose a majority of the sunlight to its community garden, but the larger setback to the north in the proposed re-design will protect Josephine’s passive solar house and solar PV.

“It’s not for mere mortals,” Josephine said of the process of representing herself in court. “It’s not transparent and is not cost free. We hear about the ERD court as being a no-cost jurisdiction. But we were warned if we went joinder and it went to the High Court we could be liable for all costs.”

The iconic Christie Walk is an environmentally sustainable development that has long been celebrated as an example of urban density done well, with its low-energy homes, shared spaces and productive garden. However, regardless of how many public figures go on promotional visits to the community each year, it was still possible for some of the best things about the site to be compromised. “There’s not a cohesive and overarching plan. Governments give rebates and incentives for one thing (such as open space and renewable energy) and then allow rebates and incentives for developers for features that are quite opposite. I’d like to see a plan of where the tall buildings should be, so residents know where panels, for example, can be guaranteed solar access.”

With strong arguments for Australian cities to become more dense, but also greener, the calls for clarity around solar access laws are becoming a chorus. In the meantime, the number of rooftop solar systems has expanded beyond 1.6 million, forcing more households to head to the courts to test their right to light.

Feature image: As the city goes up around them, the 27-dwelling Christie Walk community in the Adelaide CBD has had to negotiate solar access rights with a number of neighbouring developments, including going to court to prevent unreasonable overshadowing from the north. “Each time someone submits a proposal to council the whole process starts again,” says Christie Walk resident Josephine Thomas. Their experiences are just one example where clearer solar access guidelines would improve the outcomes for everyone.

2 The Benevolent Society v Waverley Council [2010] NSWLEC 1082 at [137]
3 Kelly & anor v Dehnert & anor [2015] NSWLEC 1173 (20 May 2015)
4 Parsonage v Ku-ring-gai [2004] NSWLEC 347 (30 June 2004)
5 Chen v Melbourne CC & Ors (Red Dot) [2012] VCAT 1909 (13 December 2012)
6 John Gurry & Associates Pty Ltd v Moonee Valley CC & Ors (Red Dot) [2013] VCAT 1258
7 Kirkman v Hobsons Bay CC [2012] VCAT 1463 (17 September 2012)
8 Deodato v Moreland CC (Correction) [2014] VCAT 1583 (19 December 2014)
9 Ned Ritan Design v The Corp of the City Of Adelaide [2016] SAERDC 32

Reviving the art of repair

Much of what we own is designed to be discarded and replaced. Fashion and technology industries entice us to buy the trendiest clothing each season or the latest phone or gadget every couple of years. Planned obsolescence results in items breaking down too soon, where buying a replacement is often cheaper and easier to do than fixing it ourselves.

But this is changing. The art of repair is making a comeback. Repair cafés and similar fix-it initiatives are starting to appear in communities around the world. Repair cafés are free meeting places where volunteer fixers gather to share their repair skills with their neighbours who bring in their bikes, clothing, appliances and other household goods that need mending. The sessions are usually held on a regular (often monthly) basis in cafés, community centres and at various other halls and venues around town.

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Opening up a turntable. Even if an item can’t be fixed, it’s interesting to see the inner workings of these gadgets – sometimes less complex than expected, sometimes more! The problem with Terrie’s turntable was that it didn’t turn off after the record finished. The fix: not only did Mikel get it to turn off properly, but he also fixed it so vinyl records can now play at different speeds.

Repair cafes in Australia

Australia is host to five repair cafés, with numbers growing. Repair cafés have been set up in Mullumbimby and Marrickville, in Albury-Wodonga and Melbourne and, most recently, in Highgate Hill near Brisbane. New mending initiatives are being trialled elsewhere in Victoria and in Tasmania. Over the last six months, Mend it Melton and Repair Café Seymour have started holding repair sessions, with Bendigo Repair Café actively planning their launch in the coming months. The concept has swept through Tasmania under the auspices of Zero Waste Tasmania and Permaculture Tasmania, who have offered to support local groups across the state to host an initial mending workshop as a taster before communities decide to set up repair cafés on a more ongoing basis.

The repair café model was first established by Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009. Since then, Postma has set up the International Repair Foundation to support local groups in the Netherlands and other countries to establish repair cafés in their own communities. There are now over 1200 repair cafés in more than 30 countries.

Who’s involved in repair cafes?

So what motivates people to come to a repair café with their broken goods? At the Melbourne Repair Café we see people come in for all sorts of reasons. Commonly, there’s a desire to reduce what goes into landfill accompanied by a feeling of stewardship to better look after the earth and our possessions. Volunteer fixers and visitors alike see the value in keeping the art of repair alive. When something gets fixed during a repair session, you can see the pride and accomplishment on the faces of visitors who have just learned new skills to better look after their things. Sometimes, simple curiosity and the thrill of successfully troubleshooting and problem-solving are the drivers.

Ultimately, the reason people come to the repair café is to extend the lifetime of a cherished item that has served them well – be it a bike they use to cycle with their kids, a dehydrator for preparing meals for camping trips, a vintage record player handed down from their mum which they can play their vinyls on, or their most comfortable pair of jeans which they want to wear for another 10 years. Not having to spend money to buy replacements is a bonus!

It’s not just about electronics: repair cafés can provide the skills, equipment and confidence to help you mend rips and alter clothing – or even just sew a button back on.

It’s not just about electronics: repair cafés can provide the skills, equipment and confidence to help you mend rips and alter clothing – or even just sew a button back on.

Manufacturers get interested

Businesses too are starting to see the value in building for longevity, and in repair. Greater interest is being shown in supporting companies who build things to last, like the shop. Some manufacturers are also starting to promote and facilitate reuse and repair of their goods. Patagonia’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign, for instance, encourages consumers to think twice before buying something new. Patagonia recognises that people cherish their possessions and celebrates this by publishing The stories we wear, which sits alongside their repair guides – DIY guides developed in partnership with iFixit, a free online repair manual with countless videos of how to fix all manner of items.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Repair is but one part of ‘reuse’ in the three Rs. Fleshed out, reuse can take many forms. In addition to simply using an item again, it can be:

  • repurposed – used for a reason it was not designed for (for example, a jam jar used as a vase);
  • repaired – allowing the item to continue to be used for its original (or alternative) purpose;
  • refurbished – where an item cannot be repaired, finding or building parts or materials to make it usable again;
  • rehomed or re-gifted – passing the item onto another person to use, after the owner has finished with using it or simply no longer wants it;
  • redesigned, remade or upcycled – taking all or some components from the item to make or merge into something else.

By expanding our notion of what reuse means, we can keep an item in circulation for much longer than if we move more immediately to recycle and, for a lot of goods, disposal. The environmental benefits are clear: the more that materials and goods cycle, the less is extracted from the earth and the less that goes into landfill.

The longer that items are cycling in the economy and society, the less of a drain there is on our resources and the energy to make things, and the more opportunity there is for localised livelihoods in remaking and repair, and in building community through the sharing of skills and stories.

The grinder seemed to have no power: wouldn't turn on/operate. The fixer, Howard, opened it up and gave it a clean inside and then it was up and grinding again within 10-15 minutes. As Sam said, "I couldn't believe what an easy fix it could be!" Howard noted that you'd never have known unless you were game to take it apart. It turned out to be simple maintenance but not something readily known by (or made known to) users.

The grinder seemed to have no power: wouldn’t turn on/operate. The fixer, Howard, opened it up and gave it a clean inside and then it was up and grinding again within 10-15 minutes. As Sam said, “I couldn’t believe what an easy fix it could be!” Howard noted that you’d never have known unless you were game to take it apart. It turned out to be simple maintenance but not something readily known by (or made known to) users.

Know your right to repair

The ‘right to repair’ movement in Australia is in its infancy. Repair rights do exist, but are relatively limited. Under the Australian Consumer Law, consumers have a right to request that certain goods be repaired if they break too easily or don’t work properly. Manufacturers must provide spare parts and repair facilities for a ‘reasonable’ time after purchase, where the time for what is reasonable will depend on the nature of the product – is it the sort of item that is generally expected to last a long time, was it relatively expensive (compared to say, other brands), and were claims made about its quality or durability? If the product has a minor problem, you can ask for a free repair and, if the business is unable to fix it, you may be able to get it fixed somewhere else and recover the costs. If a major problem is involved, where the product cannot be fixed or is too difficult to fix, you can ask for a refund or replacement. Consumer law guarantees are over and above any warranty provided by the manufacturer.

These rights are limited, however. They only apply to goods purchased after 1 January 2011. They do not apply at all if you are told at the time of purchase that repair facilities and spare parts will not be available after a specified time. And there is nothing to prevent a manufacturer from making it difficult or impossible to fix things (for example, by designing ‘tamper-resistant’ screws or by gluing components in place) or producing cheap goods designed to fail, such as using relatively fragile parts or connectors internally, sometimes belying how sturdy the unit might appear from the outside. There is also no obligation to provide information or diagnostic tools to allow people to repair their things independently of manufacturers.

Consumer-driven legislation

In the words of influential online repair community iFixit, which advocates for repair rights: “If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it!”

One area where there are signs of change is the car industry. Over the past six to seven years, independent repairers have campaigned for manufacturers to make vehicle service and repair information more readily available outside of authorised dealer networks. Following a national review in 2011-12 by the Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council, in 2014 a voluntary agreement was adopted by automotive industry participants to establish principles for the sharing of automotive repair and service information, with a view to enhancing consumer choice about where they can get their cars repaired and maintained. However, the agreement was criticised as a light-touch regulatory solution by the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association that represents providers of vehicle service and repair. It was said to be failing due to “the lack of goodwill by the car makers, no monitoring or measurement, no government oversight, no agreed dispute resolution mechanisms, and no implications for non-compliance by the car manufacturers.”

More broadly, if people want to fix their things in a timely, safe and cost-effective way – whether by doing it themselves or taking it to a repair service of their choice – it is essential that access to parts and information is made available. ‘Fair repair’ bills are currently under consideration in six states in the USA, seeking to ensure repair information and parts can be accessed outside of manufacturers’ networks. To find out more about this, go to

Michelle Fisher is founder of Melbourne Repair Cafe (Inner West), the first one to open in Melbourne. To find out more about the vibrant repair network in Australia, head to:

Feature image: Toby brought in his kettle advising that it no longer turned on. Dean had a look but wasn’t able to fix it. The problem was thought to be a computer failure. Toby was still pleased with having come, writing on the feedback form that it hadn’t been fixed “but I learned something.”

Sanctuary 39 out now

Our efforts to wrench the Australian housing sector onto a sustainable footing are entwined with climate, energy and, increasingly, housing affordability. Decent policies in these areas remain elusive and the politics more divisive than ever. Thankfully, we’re not completely without options.

In Sanctuary 39, Tom Nockolds highlights the 90+ community energy projects already operating around the country. And we share stories of how savvy consumers are preparing their homes for the inevitable transitions in energy. In particular, we focus on shacks and studios under 75 square metres that have gone back to basics with design and materials. A Tassie backyard shack doubles as a residence and writer’s studio, a one-bedroom Kiwi ‘bach’ expands like a Tardis to sleep visitors, and prefab construction saves on build time for a rural retreat in Victoria. With clever floor plans, small structures like these could also be adapted to become affordable secondary dwellings.

Owner-built homes are a rare treat for Sanctuary and we’ve enjoyed the chance to feature several in this issue, including a rustic recycled container cabin in Queensland and a sleek family home built on a modest budget in the ACT. We also visit architecturally designed projects. The True North House is a remarkable response to an unusually shaped site. From the inside, its curvaceous form makes it feel like “looking out through a water drop, or hiding inside a musical instrument”. The Cube renovation reached a 7 Star energy rating for the whole house – already an impressive achievement for an old cottage – and the owners continue to monitor its performance to see how much further they can go. We wish them luck.


We investigate your right to repair the products you own and look into solar access laws; there are new legal precedents being set all over Australia as more solar households head to court to test the right to the sun in the suburbs.

Anna Cumming helps you keep cosy through winter with a guide to high-performance curtains, blinds and shutters and Mara Ripani encourages you to think more creatively about fence design. If you’ve already pushed the boundaries in this area we’d love to hear from you!

Sanctuary 39 is on its way to letterboxes and newsagencies near you, full of advice and inspiration for sustainable living and building.

And as always, we feature a wide range of innovative sustainable products and design tips for your home.

We welcome your feedback. Perhaps there’s something else you would you like to see in Sanctuary? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or email.