Why big households are better than big houses
OVER the last century, Australians have lived increasingly alone. When the first national census was conducted in 1911, an average of 4.5 people lived in each home. By the most recent census, the number had nearly halved.
But at the same time, we’ve been building bigger houses – a report by CommSec in late 2009 found our new dwellings were the world’s largest – and affordability has fallen.
As permaculture founder David Holmgren summarises: “We’ve got bigger houses, with more stuff and fewer people in them.”
Proportionally, smaller households use more energy and create more greenhouse emissions than larger ones.
“As you get down to double- and single-person homes, the efficiency of the household economy falls,” Mr Holmgren says. “Food preparation, food wastage, heating, cleaning and maintenance all become a bigger load for less benefit.
“And when it comes to more self-reliant living, in a small household you can’t do as many things, like growing and preserving food, keeping animals, or your own building and renovation.”
He notes that not only are fewer people living together, but we’re also spending fewer hours at home. The combination forces ever-more development, jams our transport systems and exacerbates social isolation.
“Our cities are crowded by empty buildings under lock and key, with people racing between them – whether it’s to work, the gymnasium, the restaurant or the childcare centre,” he says.
Given the spare capacity in existing housing stock, he argues the case for “higher density living”, not higher density building.
Bigger households, where people are home more often, are likely to be consuming less, producing more of their own needs and contributing to the vitality of the local area.
So how can we live in larger numbers? Mr Holmgren says the two most common ways are to take in boarders or share with extended family.
“From a hard-nosed, self-interested perspective, if you’re a homeowner with a mortgage, renting the spare room out to a boarder is the best thing you can do to reduce your debt burden,” he says.
Likewise, Ed McKinley, of the Groupwork Institute of Australia, argues young people should consider the financial, social and environmental plusses of teaming up to buy a house.
“It’s one way younger people can enter the market and still live in the groovy parts of the city,” he says. “There are big blocks around with enormous scope to be cleverly reconfigured to meet individual, family and group needs.”
From this Friday to Sunday, the institute is running a short course on living and working well together. Mr McKinley draws expertise from nearly three decades living at the Commonground community, near Seymour.
“People are frightened it won’t go well and they won’t get their own space. They’re real concerns, but you can make agreements upfront,” he says. “You can be clear about what is going to happen when someone leaves or if people get into conflict. You can set up good processes and expectations to deal with those things.”
And while the concerns are real, so are the benefits. “It’s about having one block working a lot harder,” he says. “You might need to work less to afford that location. Your utility costs drop dramatically and you may have more capacity to install things like solar panels or solar hot water.”