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Embracing design change

AFTER decades of sticking to the safe boundaries of Federation or French provincial architectural styles, many Western Australians are now embracing contemporary Australian architecture.

Characterised by casual living, environmentally sympathetic design and a dissolving of the distinction between inside and outside spaces, the new Australian house is built on a smaller block, is usually larger and has a much smaller backyard than the suburban houses of times past. 

According to one local architectural firm, few clients now ask architecture firms to design south European-style houses on their block in metropolitan Perth. 

These days clients are more educated about design practicalities and want their buildings to be correctly orientated, energy efficient and functionally designed.

They also expect high-quality fittings and are willing to create buildings that are an expression of contemporary Australian style.

Escalating land prices have resulted in smaller lots, which in turn has encouraged a rationalisation of space in housing design. 

Materials such as iron, weatherboard, aluminium cladding and glass are often used in preference to the standard double-brick house. Metal is being used more widely for roofing as it is a more malleable material than tiles. 

Architect Ian Dewar said the Perth market appeared to have outgrown its love of nostalgic period in the year 2000.

“In the last three years the papers are full of cutting-edge architecture,” he said.

Mr Dewar said more clients wanted their homes to incorporate solar passive design.

“We have been doing it for the past 40 years but no-one was interested,” he said. “In the past, cheap air-conditioning on the market had overcome the causes of bad design.”

For most architects this change in the market has yielded a long-awaited chance to design and develop fresh and innovative housing, however many architects are finding that current planning regulations and local government policies and decisions encourages mundane rather than innovative architecture.

Hofman and Brown Architects partner Debra Brown said architects spent a lot of time fighting to get their clients’ housing designs approved.

“It is becoming more and more difficult to get approvals, and it is taking longer,” she said.

“What used to take six to eight weeks now can take six to eight months.”

Ms Brown said that, on top of the standard issues surrounding heritage buildings, some councils now required that new houses be constructed to replicate the heritage style in particular areas.

“Houses should be designed in the contemporary design of the day and hopefully they will end up being the good examples of that style in another 100 years,” she said.

With the double-storey house on a smaller block becoming standard, many architects face housing privacy issues. Building setbacks, windows facing onto neighbouring properties and noise attenuation are just some of the contentious issues that must be surmounted when trying to balance the need to incorporate climate-friendly design, innovative and creative design, residential design codes plus local council policies.

Ms Brown said when people chose to live in higher density areas they had to expect that their neighbours would be aware to some extent of what they were doing.

She said regulation was important but when local authorities policed housing design to the letter of the law it was to the detriment of the design solution.

“The sensible solution is often the hardest to get approved,” Ms Brown said.

“The really, really bad houses don’t get approved but neither do the really, really good houses.”

Architect Richard Szklarz said that, as housing lots became smaller, regulating bodies had to be softer with the ‘R-codes’, or residential design and planning codes.

“Architecture is a reflection of social change; it is being bombarded by technological change and is trying to keep up with both creative and flexible designs, but it is dealing with dinosaur requirements,” he said.

“If we had creative planners our problems would be over.”

Mr Szklarz said his clients were more discerning and were interested in a responsibly designed house that responded to the surrounding environment and climate.

“There is an upsurgeance of contemporary work across the board and more examples of good work. People who would have just done something architecturally different on the interior are turning their house inside out,” he said.

Mr Szklarz said it was difficult in the WA market to use building construction materials other than double brick as it made council approval harder to secure. Insurance companies also had encouraged the double brick standard, he said.

“There are different types of building materials available. For example, reverse brick veneer is probably more suitable for our temperate climate,” Mr Szklarz said.

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