What you can do with 6 by 7 metres ?

by Bronte Hogarth

Sustainable House Day started in 2001 as an initiative of the Australian Solar Council. It gives people the chance to get a glimpse inside houses that have been designed, built or fitted out with sustainability in mind.

It is rare to find a vacant lot in inner Sydney, and even more improbable to build a five-level house on it, yet ‘Small House’ surprises in many ways.


Small House. Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia

Located in Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia on a site of seven metres by six metres, Small House challenges conventional thinking about homes. The single-family residence was designed with sustainability in mind by architect Domenic Alvaro of international practice Woods Bagot. The philosophy of Small House proposes to build upwards rather than outwards, by assigning multiple uses to single spaces, with flexibility for change in the future.


Located on a tight site in Surry Hills, this four-storey house with a roof terrace sits comfortably within office blocks and other mid-rise buildings. Image: Trevor Mein

The vertical house was designed by Alvaro not only to be his own home, but also to test a development model for downtown urban living as an alternative to the ubiquitous luxury apartment, or the Australian dream for the McMansion.

“With an eco-conscious spirit in mind (and relatively modest budget), innovation was required for the construction, based upon a model of pre-fabrication. The two basic ideas were a structure with no columns to make effective use of the limited land area, and to achieve a final result which erased the sense of individual panels – in effect to make the building feel monolithic.”


Image: Trevor Main

The residence is an impressive and slightly odd-at-first looking structure, with one idea of living on each level. With flexibility for change the house can be subdivided into many different spaces:

  • Ground floor: utility/store/bicycle/parking
  • First floor: sleeping/bathing, storage,
  • Second floor: living (with optional additional zone for sleeping)
  • Third floor: food prep/eating/entertainment
  • Roof: a ‘working’ roof terrace terrace (the circulation space enables a small study on the roof space, and the panel sliding doors open to enable the roof to become the 5th room of the house- albeit an outdoor room and herb, flower garden with over-scaled fig tree; thus creating a canopy effect)

The single bedroom and bathroom are contained on the first level. Image: Trevor Mein


The living area is contained on the second floor, intended as an undefined and flexible space. Image: Trevor Mein

The third floor contains the dining and kitchen area. The kitchen is simple and efficient, with a storage wall along the southern edge. Artwork by Iain Dawson Gallery. Image: Trevor Mein

Looking through the study out onto the rooftop garden. Image: Trevor Main

Sustainable characteristics

The effect of light in the house is an important element and as one ascends upwards the intensity of light increases proportionally. On a practical level, the large sliding windows on the west facade, with low-e glazing, control the light entering and lessens the need for lights to be turned on until absolutely necessary whilst also controlling heat gain.

The provocation behind the Small House is the new suburbia in Australia of five-bedroom, three-bathroom houses and two-hour commutes to the city. Small House, argues for a change in inner city living that is cost effective without giving up lightness and space. Inner city living can have many benefits for living a sustainable life, like not commuting so much or so far.

The fifth level being a rooftop garden is another aspect of this house utilising the space with an eco-conscious. It could be a herb or flower garden, bringing biodiversity into the urban space and also displaying inner city living doesn’t necessarily mean in a concrete jungle.


View of the rooftop garden from the neighbours. Image: Trevor Main

Australians tend to hold a dream about a house-and-land package, their outdoor space, and scenic views, but such large houses cannot be sustained forever. Another Australian architect Andrew Maynard claims that many new large project homes (McMansions) claim to be sustainable, and he asks, “How do they make this claim?”. He believes there is a cult around sustainability leading to lot’s of money being thrown at big projects to make them ‘green’, rather than looking at the core issue of sustainability and how a design can achieve it.

For example a past project of his, the Ilma Grove House involved knocking down a 1950s addition to a house and reusing the brick in an unconventional way. This is another interpretation alongside Alvaro’s of sustainable strategies in architecture and building. Alvaro and his partner have demonstrated a replicable model. Already the adjacent plot has been acquired by another future resident who will follow the fine example of Small House.

Alvaro calls this an affordable housing model. In his explanation, the current and converse model available in inner-city Sydney is a two-bedroom, one-carpark apartment of 60–85m², valued at $850,000. The Small House, by going up and not outwards, adds more space, more car parking, and comes out around $200,000 less if one does not take into account the land acquisition value of $200,000, rather cheap for the location. Alvaro says, “It is the same cost as a one-bedroom apartment in the same area.”

As the sizes of cities continue to sprawl endlessly, Small House proposes an affordable and sustainable way to live in the inner city and avoid long commutes. It demonstrates a way to live smaller and a rethinking of what conventionally constitutes a house in Australia.

DID YOU KNOW? Five of the top 40 cities in the world with the best urban infrastructure are in Australia. Sustainable urban infrastructure means low impact development projects along with sustainable urban habitats and energy efficient landscaping in the urban environment.

Want to know more about sustainable building? See our post Sustainable considerations for homes Part 1 & Part 2.


The southern facade is a relatively blank concrete wall, with windows primarily on the western edge. Image: Trevor Mein


Image: Trevor Main

Don’t forget to head over to the 1MW website for information on taking action against dangerous climate change! We are daughters, mothers, sisters and grandmothers getting on with practical climate action to live better for us and the planet. Join the movement at www.1millionwomen.com.au