Back around the 1950s, an era of innovation was unleashed as the design of many new homes in Australia broke away from the restrictions of a traditional and conservative style of English dwellings.
Nowadays, conformity has returned to many aspects of residential design.
Largely speaking, this is being driven by the growing prevalence of project homes churned out by volume builders. Less than five per cent of new homes in Australia are designed by an architect.
Yet another factor is the phenomenon of resale, and an associated need (real or perceived) to maximise the value of dwellings in the event of homes being sold. Partly, this is driven by a long-term appreciation in dwelling values, which has shifted the focus of houses toward being a capital asset as well as a place to raise families. It has been reinforced, however, by home renovation programs which promote notions of adding tens of thousands of dollars to values through cheap and speedy makeovers.
This raises questions about whether a focus on resale is pushing home design back toward the more conservative side. Such issues were explored during a panel discussion at last year’s Design Build conference in Melbourne. This involved architecture and design writer Stephen Crafti, Melbourne based architect Claire Cousins, FMD architects director Fiona Dunin and Multiplicity director Tim O’Sullivan.
Speaking of his own clientele, O’Sullivan said many are long-term occupiers. Resale considerations are thus mentioned only occasionally.
Nevertheless, he says the market has changed and housing has become a commodity.
Such a phenomenon was borne out by the experiences of his partner, who became curious about auctions and attended them frequently. Homes where owners had adopted a resale focus were easy to identify and were characterised by similarities to many other properties on the market. These included soft whites and common finishes in the kitchen.
“I think it is becoming embedded in the national psyche,” O’Sullivan said.
“A home used to be something that your parents bought to hold on to and wished to bequeath to someone in the family when they die. Nowadays, this has changed. A home is a commodity and a resalable item.”
As with O’Sullivan, Cousins’ own practice deals mostly with long-term owners. In one recent example, clients in a double story home insisted that there be no en suite nor any hierarchy of bedrooms. Instead, they wanted a singular family-oriented bathroom and more space for their children in their bedrooms.
Whilst this represents a mature approach, she says many opt for safer strategies.
This is unnecessary, Cousins and O’Sullivan say, as homes with less traditional features can be designed to accommodate more common approaches down the track. In one of O’Sullivan’s cases, the client wanted the laundry to be outside. He persuaded them to at least leave an inside space in which a laundry could be placed should future owners so this.
Moreover, both Cousins and O’Sullivan encourage owners to pursue designs which suit their own tastes and lifestyle. At any rate, O’Sullivan insists, provided the design behind more individualised homes is sound, skilled agents should be able to market the home’s unique character even if this does not fit within the norm.
“It’s that thing of houses being completely vanilla,” Cousins said, speaking of design for resale.
“People are trying to be so non-confrontational and they want to appeal to the broadest market.”
A common sentiment throughout the discussion was that the proliferation of home renovation shows has made delivering on design briefs more difficult.
Clients who see low-cost makeovers knocked up in two weeks easily become frustrated when the reality proves to be much more drawn out, Cousins says.
Moreover, O’Sullivan says these makeovers are often short on meaningful design consideration.
Instead, by bringing in real estate agents to give market appraisals, these shows grant what he feels is a concerning volume of power to those who possess little understanding of design fundamentals.
“They’ll get a nice bathroom and they will bastardise it in my eyes,” he said. “They’ll get the cheapest fashion tiles in five weeks, they’ll plaster it and then they will get a real-estate agent to come in and say, ‘you’ve added $50k to your bathroom.’
“Fifteen years ago, real estate agents were vaguely on a par with used-car salespeople. Nowadays via television, you have got agents coming in and suggesting their design prowess and saying that you’ve gained $50k.
“If you actually had someone who understood design come in, those reality programs could be a little bit better. But I’m concerned that they are giving power to people…who I don’t think have any understanding of design.”
Problems are also evident in print media. Here, Crafti says, many publications have eschewed professional architects in favour of stylists who are effectively turning houses into display homes.
These magazines present additional challenges where clients approach designers with ideas they have read about without appreciating how these need to be evaluated in light of the site context, budget and size of house in question.
Many publications, O’Sullivan said, have moved away from critiquing architecture toward a more sales related focus.
Beyond media, additional challenges involve notions of ‘timelessness’ and ‘future-proofing’. These, panellists suggested, draw focus toward plainer and more conservative approaches. Instead, they suggest that designs be right for a building of their time and that design strategies account for how future uses may evolve (such as having children, downsizing and other decisions).
If we are to hand power over to real estate agents, O’ Sullivan encourages agents to increase their awareness of design.
“When you go into the real estate field, it’s about selling,” he said. “If you walk in and say, ‘I want to tear the house down,’ (they;’ll say), ‘yeah, that’s a good idea’. Or (if you say) ‘I’m thinking of renovating’, – ‘That’s a good idea.’
“It’s about the sale. It’s not about the design. Apart from a handful who are good at design, that’s not the thrust of their area.’
“I’ve had this discussion with agents, saying ‘why don’t you learn about the architecture? it’s a difficult concept to get across.
“So really, we only have the print and TV media to get that message across and that’s failing at the moment.
“What can we do?”