Words by Tomas O’Malley

For as long as I’ve been in the architecture industry, sustainability has been a fundamental aspect of the profession. At university we learn the best orientation for a building. We study passive ventilation methods and appropriate materials for various climates. 

In practice, we are bound by ever-stricter regulations on energy efficiency and must keep up with developing technological solutions. The focus is often on increased insulation, technical improvements in glazing design, ecologically-friendly materials and high-efficiency lighting, heating and cooling. These are definitely important but there’s an often-overlooked factor that contributes to a more sustainable built environment: the size of our homes.

In Australia, the embodied energy (the energy needed to manufacture, transport, and erect the building) of an average house is often the equivalent of 15 to 20 years of that home’s ongoing operational energy use (the energy needed to live in the house). In the last 40 years, while we have become more environmentally conscious, our new homes have increased in size by more than 50 per cent. Often the largest homes have the fewest occupants, as people generally reach greater financial security as their children are leaving the family home. The bigger the house, the higher the embodied energy to build it and the bigger the house, the higher the operational energy required to occupy it.

Bigger houses also mean higher build costs for equal quality. My philosophy is that a home should be special, with quality fittings and finishes and spaces that give the occupants joy. Budgets are an unfortunate reality for most of us, so creative use of space (and the occasional hard discussion on what is actually needed) is critical to achieve a great home.  

Our expectations on the size of our home needs questioning. Can we continue to justify building larger and larger homes for smaller and smaller households? I’m not sure it stacks up from an environmental, economic or social point of view. Sustainability is about more than solar panels on a roof. We need to start looking not only at our carbon footprint but our physical one too.


Architect Tomas O’Malley designs buildings that reflect Central Queensland’s climate and lifestyle.