The changing face of suburbia

By Claire McCall

Urban design is more important than ever as we move towards higher density living. Claire McCall talks to architect Stuart Harrison about how New Zealand home design reflects society’s changing demands

This is the exterior of Elmstone. Photo / supplied.
This is the exterior of Elmstone. Photo / supplied.

In his book, New Suburban: Reinventing the Family Home Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne-based architect Stuart Harrison explores the dynamics of design for the suburbs. Harrison asks, "how can we get it right?" and showcases projects from both countries that, in his opinion, make a good fist of it.

Your previous book, Forty-Six Square Metres of Land Doesn't Usually Make a House, championed compact design. What's this book about?
That book focused on urban housing whereas this one re-investigates the suburb as a type. The suburb remains our main vehicle for housing so, as a society, we need to engage with it. We need to produce socially sustainable housing that delivers quality in terms of amenity and outdoor space - and do that amid the move to denser living.

What is the history of our modern-day suburb?
You can trace the idea back to the Garden City Movement initiated in England around the turn of 19th century. In those days, the suburb was seen as a "grand bargain" between the country and the city, a great piece of thinking that meant we could have the best of both. It was a place with a sense of landscape, with relative proximity to the city. Of course, it was linked to the expansion of the train system and later, freeways. The suburban dream was a good deal.

How, then, did this suburban dream turn into such a nightmare?
As houses got bigger on modest-sized blocks, our suburbs lost that connection to the landscape - both the evident landscape and the micro landscape around the homes. I've always said that the advent of air-conditioning destroyed mass housing.

It allowed lazy design. It meant that the need for native vegetation to screen and shade housing was reduced. The vegetation was denuded; along with that we forgot how to design good outdoor space.

With Auckland's Unitary Plan under discussion, property owners are concerned that with denser suburban housing, there'll be a concomitant loss of sunlight and privacy.
Higher density doesn't necessarily mean loss of sun and privacy, but the architectural issues become more complex, so good design becomes more important. Generic solutions have traditionally worked in the suburbs because sites were large, so it was easy - at least some windows would get light.

Orientation is a classic problem with suburban housing. When you're buying off a plan, it's fine when north is in the backyard. If north is to the street, as it's likely to be in about half the instances, that's when generic models fall apart.

What other problems does suburban design face?
Despite our move to denser living in established areas, new suburbs will continue to happen. In Australasia, private developers control aspects such as dwelling size. In one example from the book, houses had to be a minimum of 250sqm, precluding the idea that you could be modest in any way. It's troubling because it's a form of social apartheid.

Yet bigger is not necessarily better, as you'll be struggling to create any outdoor space. It also means that many contemporary houses are double-story to achieve this volume which creates more shadow for people's backyards, including your own.

This is the interior of Bisley Place. Photo / Supplied.
This is the interior of Bisley Place. Photo / Supplied.

In New Zealand, the 50s and 60s were the heyday of design in the suburbs but, by the 1980s, architects were pretty much absent from that picture.
Architecture lost a lot of ground in the 80s, partly because of failures like tower blocks but also because people started to question the value of modernism. There were some great moments in the 50s and 60s in suburban housing. In Auckland the council collaborated with architects such as Friedrich Neumann to build multi-unit housing blocks. It meant the planning dealt with issues like orientation and had a clear design.
These types of programmes were a bridge between the profession and the providers of mass housing.

As time went on, two separate worlds began to appear. Architects would design houses for informed clients but were not really involved in the mass housing market. The blame for this separation lies jointly with a profession that withdrew and the volume home-building fraternity who weren't interested in quality. Developers and architects need to get back together. There's still a massive distrust of each other and the consumer is caught in the middle.

You argue for banks to lend money towards design costs of new buildings.
The design process with an architect is more expensive, longer and harder to borrow money for. This puts it out of reach of regular people. It's ironic that renovations tend to need a custom-made, architect-led solution.

I like the chapter on "remaking" for family life, where older properties are altered.
Dealing with existing buildings is far more sustainable so I was keen to get away from formulaic renovations and showcase a different way. You can achieve more interesting results than starting with a blank piece of paper. Melbourne's Make Architecture actually took an existing home, made it smaller, but re-worked it so cleverly they created more space for a couple of decks, a pool and a studio out back. It's the perfect example of some strategic thinking that didn't cost an enormous amount.

You call the house in Remuera, designed by Daniel Marshall, a "retaining wall for living in". With its glass and concrete palette, it's the type of house that would horrify traditionalists.
It's a pretty hardcore house in a profoundly suburban cul-de-sac, a house that asks, "how do you do everything with just two materials?" While it has that real quality of solidity, there are lots of openings through it. It deals with a severe change of level on its site by itself becoming the retainer. It's aggressively integrated into landscape, fortress-like, with the driveway acting as a rampart. Yet it does the simple things well; for all its earthwork-y manoeuvres, it faces north and opens up to the view. Perhaps detractors can revel in that.

You say well-designed houses are the answer in the suburbs, yet the S House by Glamuzina Paterson caused a stir among the neighbours.
It's not unusual for good projects to have trouble getting through the planning process; when dealing with innovation there seem to be a lot of concerns. It would be hard to argue that this house looks similar to anything around it, yet it deals with how you might do a contemporary suburban house and not overdevelop a site. The building winds through its long, slender section and its 'S' shape allows good light to penetrate the whole house. Landscape enjoys a 50/50 importance with the building - a classic suburban idea.

This is the interior of Little Brick Studio. Photo / Supplied.
This is the interior of Little Brick Studio. Photo / Supplied.

House for Five by RTA Studio in Grey Lynn also caused some raised eyebrows and appears in the book.
This house supports innovation while trying to work within community expectations. I call it a suburban temple. It embodies some traditional ambiguity in that it has a pitched roof but crosses over into bigger scale with a facade that's a giant gable end, detailed with doily-like screening. There's a great shot of it in the book lined up with weatherboard houses either side; you don't need to squint too much for it to disappear within them. It's also cleverly planned, and has a courtyard and big back garden. It's almost two houses in one. To me it's a piece of future heritage.

Gardens used to be essential in the suburbs but now courtyards seem to have come to the fore.
Baby Boomers seem obsessed with not doing gardens, so there has been an enormous shift to hard landscaping. Yet so many outdoor spaces in generic houses are not like courtyards and are rather just poor alfresco areas. A courtyard needs light and to access the rest of the house - it's not just the leftover space between the back door and the back fence. Asian cultures have always put courtyards in the middle of the house, to allow light into the centre but we have not traditionally dealt with this concept well in Australasia.

In so many suburban houses the garage takes centre stage in the street frontage. The house by architect James Russell in a new Brisbane subdivision turns this idea on its head.
This house subverts the rules that try to control it. Two garages side by side was a requirement of that housing development. On a typical building, that's a mandate for half your front facade to be a roller door. In a counter-intuitive move, Russell decided to make the whole frontage garage. But he made them great. Four garage doors along the front are perforated, not solid, which allows connection to the street. Two open to the garage while the other two bays define the dining area, served by the kitchen. There's an ambiguity between garages and living space.

The way suburban houses have been designed in the past few decades seems to have contributed to the loss of a sense of community. They're inward-looking behemoths.
Those houses are the equivalent of four-wheel drives with tinted windows. We hide behind them. Yet, we should resist the idea of the suburban fortress. It has created a culture of fear, separation and anxiety. In design terms, I like the transitional idea that you include public space to the street and on the front lawn, a semi-private middle courtyard and a back area that is very private. That way you get a range of spatial experiences.


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