Inside the Collection

Don’t renovate, detonate!

Exterior street view of a house under construction
Photography by Charles Pickett, Powerhouse Museum

You might have seen in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald a piece about the Knock Down Rebuild (KDR) phenomenon. Across Sydney’s middle-ring suburbs – from Strathfield to Granville, Earlwood to Hurstville, Manly to Avalon – old timber, fibro and brick cottages are being purchased for ‘land value’, demolished and replaced with new homes.

I’d been looking out for some research on KDR; you don’t have to spend much time in the burbs to notice it. The basis of the Herald story was a study by the City Futures unit at the Faculty of the Built Environment, University of NSW. Led by Bill Randolph, City Futures has for some years been producing unique insights into urban change in Sydney. Its investigation of building applications in several municipalities shows that the KDR phenomenon is biggest in Bankstown (627 applications for KDR between 2004 and 2008) followed by Ku-ring-gai (616), Warringah (580), Hornsby (408), Canterbury (388), Hurstville (385) and Fairfield (353).

Photograph of residential neighborhood
Photography by Charles Pickett, Powerhouse Museum

The district with the highest proportion of KDR dwellings is Strathfield, with 5 per cent built between 2004 and 2008. I know Strathfield a little (my kids attend school and preschool there) and the transformation of this former ‘Old money’ suburb is striking. Federation-period houses are being replaced by McMansions and other monster dwellings. Of course, it is central to the KDR phenomenon that the new homes are larger than the ones they replace, a big part of the reason that Sydney now boasts the largest new houses in the world.

In her new book (and exhibition) 52 Suburbs Louise Hawson gives a jaundiced summary of Strathfield: ‘Turns out the suburb is covered in mansions, built in the early 1900s when Strathfield was country and wealthy families required rural retreats. They are handsome but what really sent my camera snapping were some of the ridiculously grand old institutional buildings – Santa Sabina College and the Australian Catholic University in particular.

Aside from the beauties, Strathfield has its fair share of crappy old apartment blocks and crappy
new million-dollar homes’.

Despite all this the political and media focus has remained on the long-running argument about urban consolidation – the thirty-year old NSW Government policy to encourage medium and high density development in established suburbs, while restricting the growth of new suburbs on the city fringe. The rationale for urban consolidation is economic, social and environmental; higher density housing in old suburbs reduces the need for new transport, social and commercial infrastructure while containing the city’s environmental footprint. However it is not universally popular. Our new Premier Barry O’Farrell is member for Ku-ring-gai, site of the loudest recent protests against apartment development despite its aging and unusually dispersed population. (From the figures above it seems that the burghers of Ku-ring-gai don’t mind McMansions however). So it is not surprising that the Premier has promised to shift the development balance back towards the urban fringe.

New old houses in the surburb of Strathfield
Photography by Charles Pickett, Powerhouse Museum

Yet the popularity of KDR means that most new houses are being built in established areas rather than far flung new suburbs like Kellyville, a long established focus for design and media commentary due to its concentration of large project homes. Shortage of building sites is less of a problem than proclaimed by the advocates of endless suburban expansion. In any case, large houses are declining as a proportion of new dwellings, simply because families with children are also a shrinking demographic.

However KDR is also undermining urban consolidation; blocks in older suburbs are often very large, up to 600 square metres, easily big enough for two new dwellings under dual occupancy laws, townhouses or terraces . Instead they continue to be occupied by one family. In addition, KDR is maintaining property values; how you feel about that probably depends on whether you are one of the slowly shrinking proportion of Sydney’s population who have scrambled onto the real estate escalator. And of course the new monster houses have the usual McMansion issues of energy and water hunger.

KDR has become a large part of the project home market. Blocks which are frequently deep but narrow are difficult when combined with the compulsory large garage in the front of the house. Bizarre floor plans are a common result, as is the usual project home problem of poor relation to aspect, sun etc. And finally there is heritage: councils (including Strathfield) assiduously list notable local structures. Even my house in Canterbury has a local heritage listing. But unless these houses graduate to the more exclusive state or national listings, a local listing does not guarantee protection. Unless you live in Ku-ring-gai, perhaps.

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