In Praise of Older Houses 2

The second article looks at a typical older Perth house like this one, below, built in 1961 with double brick walls and a clay tile roof by a project home builder with little consideration of ‘optimal siting’ or ‘design for climate’ principles. There were lower expectations in those days, in terms of space and luxury features; this modest 150m2 three bedroom one bathroom house accommodated a family of six – mum and dad, two daughters and two sons. The two smaller bedrooms had bunk beds.

The house has no claims to heritage and sits slap bang in the middle of an 845m2 block, with a 12m. set back east to the front (to the street) and a laneway (a relic of the night soil collection days) to the south. The coast is less than half a kilometre away, and the house shows the effect of salt laden air and strong sea breezes with peeling paint and filigree gutters.

The street is a busyish through road, with adjacent houses though only two actually fronting onto the same street; the others front adjoining roads. Diagonally opposite the house is a well-treed Council Reserve, large enough to accommodate a footie oval and a recently upgraded children’s playground. The major energy defect of the house is the lack of northern exposure. Natural light is deficient and winter sun barely penetrates the house, except for early mornings and late afternoons. On some winter mornings towards noon, without heating, it can be colder in the house than outside. There is also a massive 200+ m2 front lawn, which I have to mow. To reduce a burgeoning waistline, my wife threatens to confiscate the petrol mower and make me do it with a push mower! Yes, this is my house and I want to keep the old place, albeit upgraded and with a sympathetic extension which adds character to the street. It has to be brought up to present day energy standards, and maximise natural light sources. The site analysis, below, shows the main environmental factors to be considered.

Perth’s climate demands house planning with spaces that flow from the inside to the outside, not cellular rooms. Proximity to the ocean means making use of the afternoon sea breeze – the ubiquitous Fremantle Doctor – connecting all the internal social spaces with an open planning approach that also contributes to passive ventilation. An added critical briefing criterion is that Council has nominated the area as a housing infill site, which means that once a Town Planning Scheme Amendment increases the zoning from 20 to 25 houses per hectare and (when my arthritic knees call a halt to gardening activity),  the block can be sub-divided. The resultant sell-off of the rear block, accessed off the Laneway, will supplement my pension fund. So the extensions and renovations will need to allow for an easy sub-division to create a minimum 300m2 rear block, accessed off the Laneway. The superb 12m high Poinciana tree on the rear block, planted by a previous owner with foresight, not only blocks the harsh late afternoon summer sun but provides a haven for several bird species. Even a kookabuura makes the odd fleeting visit. Older houses compared to newer ones differ in many ways. So called Californian bungalows, very popular in Perth in the 1950s, always had a small front patio/porch at the entrance door, a place to sit and watch the world go by. Later houses like this one, and most houses built today rarely seem to engage with the street, presenting at most the entrance door, a double garage door and perhaps a bedroom window to passers by.  Newer two storey homes often have the master bedroom upstairs, with a small balcony that is more decorative than useful. New Urbanism and related planning theories recommend greater social engagement between house and street, encouraging better surveillance for both safety and ‘good neighbour’ reasons. At the very least, my house should address the street and I want to be that old boy in a rocking chair on a verandah waving to neighbours passing by. Though ‘passers by’, even on suburban streets, are usually car drivers and communication is limited to a cheery hand wave. Quiet streets, where I played as a child, remain in the form of cul-de-sacs though these are not favoured by today’s planners (preferring through streets for easier vehicle travel). But at what point did we hand over streets to cars? So what are the briefing criteria for this development? In summary, we want an adaptable house, with flexible accommodation, and to incorporate sustainability through passive design. I’ll pay extra for a house that is easier and cheaper to run. By flexible we mean a house capable of accommodating from time-to-time, with sufficient acoustic separation, an extended and overlapping family (my wife and I, with any one or two of our 4 sons and their families – 8 grand children, some now in their teens – plus nephews, nieces (some UK based have already been over here on Australian working visas); friends and others – who may visit or stay for a while. One large family home, capable of accommodating two or more generations of the same family in separate housing units. State Government, in its planned Urban Infill programme, is encouraging the construction of what used to be called ‘granny flats’. Now termed ‘supplementary (or ancillary) dwellings’ and a maximum 70m2 (previously 60m2), the accommodation can be leased out to non-family members. Maybe even one day in the future, with green titles, sold off as one bedroom units. Not only will this increase housing density, it also widens the range of available accommodation in suburbs like ours, made up predominantly of single family houses. Older people can remain in the locality and younger people can afford to move in – perhaps the first step in the property owning ladder. Demographically average Australian households are becoming smaller and older; why should old people downsizing have to move to a different suburb away from friends and neighbours? 70m2, by the way, is quite generous. Ikea display in their showrooms how to achieve a 35m2 one bedroom unit and a 55m2 two bedroom unit. By adaptable, we mean a house capable of responding to changing needs without expensive alterations. For my wife and I, who intend living here for as long as we can, this means adaptatibility to meet future physical limitations. “Adapable house’ specifications are now covered by Australian Standards and include ‘universal design’ and ‘accessible house’ features such as wider doorways and adequate space around wcs and showers for wheelchairs, lever handles to doors and taps more easily operated than knobs by those with reduced muscle function, lower light switches etc. You don’t need necessarily need to build wheelchair ramps now, just to retain the space to add them later if need be. By sustainable, we mean a house that is passively designed to maintain thermal comfort without mechanical cooling or heating. Western Australia’s State Premier drew considerable flak last year by saying we do not need air conditioning in Perth homes. He should have said ‘if houses were better designed, we would not need air conditioning’.

The third article will look at the development proposals in more detail.

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