Shared living: energy density, affordability and social sustainability

Issue 31 Words: Dr Fiona Whitelaw Photography: Katherine Lu

Australia’s cities are growing at a rapid rate, with projected population increases demanding dramatic changes to the way we design and live in them. Dr Fiona Whitelaw considers shared living, in varying degrees, as one response.

Australia’s cities have a problem: they’re sprawling outward, propagating energy-inefficient suburban housing and cannibalising arable land with large, low-density dwellings. By world standards, this model of living is pretty weird. Far more common is dense urban housing with flexible, often multi-generational dwellings where a variety of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws and children live together, sharing care, chores and resources.

For Sydney architect Andrew Benn and his wife Alice Penna, it was an appealing model, one that promised economies of scale in Sydney’s expensive property market but also a way of life that would enable them to sustain strong family connections.

When Andrew’s mother Suzanne, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at UTS Business School, sold the large family terrace in Sydney, Andrew and Alice, and Suzanne and Suzanne’s partner set about creating a ‘family complex’ where they could all live together while maintaining a sense of privacy and their own busy lives.

Andrew worked to renovate two adjacent Victorian worker’s cottages in Sydney’s Balmain, adding a small, self-contained apartment. The project would eventually win the NSW Architecture Awards in 2014, but not without its fair share of hurdles. Andrew needed to make sure that the design incorporated everyone’s desire for privacy while enabling light, liveable spaces. On top of that, both cottages lay within Balmain’s heritage area, which restricted possible changes, particularly regarding changes to the streetscape.

However, there was one crucial aspect they didn’t need to worry about; the cottages had north-facing rears. “I’d lived in a larger, but south-facing terrace, and it made me realise the importance of sun and light, especially in the parts of the house where you do the most living – generally out the back in the kitchen and living area,” Suzanne says.

Secondhand materials, including bricks and floors were used, while shared solar panels and water tanks make the most of the family’s inter-generational complex. But while the building is environmentally sustainable, it’s the social sustainability that especially appeals to Suzanne. For instance, the additional small apartment adds to the flexibility of the housing, meaning that more family members, perhaps a grandchild, or, at some stage, a carer, could move in too.

Flexible housing that accommodates more than one or two generations is increasingly popular, especially in inner city areas of Australia where land prices are high. It’s a model that Tone Wheeler, principal architect at Environa Studio, is familiar with. “Australians want more flexible housing, housing that responds to modern lives, and especially housing that supports multi-generational living,” he says. This kind of housing, “satisfies the ‘triple bottom line’ of energy density, affordability and social sustainability.”


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Cover of Issue 31
You can read more about Shared living: energy density, affordability and social sustainability in Issue 31 of Sanctuary magazine.

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