Elegant infill

6.5kW of solar panels were installed on the super-insulated roof to help power the all-electric house. A recycled timber shutter protects the glazed entry door from hot afternoon summer sun and shade sails provide summer protection to the polycarbonate deck roof.

At a glance

  • Compact, carefully designed urban infill project
  • Multi-function spaces and abundant storage
  • Phase change material for thermal mass in a lightweight structure
  • Owner-built with the help of architecture students and volunteer labour through HelpX
Careful orientation, spaces with double functions, and plenty of storage combine to ensure this family home on a subdivided Brisbane block feels larger than it is.

After 12 years of living in an unrenovated 1920s Queenslander in inner Brisbane, Josepha Dietrich and Brett Beeson decided it was time to move out of their “leaky wooden tent” and build a home which performed better in the subtropics and suited the needs of their small family of three.

Wanting to minimise mortgage stress as well as build the least house necessary, Brett designed a compact home of 90 square metres in the rear half of their home’s 640 square metre block. Using Brett’s skills as an ESD consultant and mechanical engineer and with Josepha acting as the client, the new design is oriented to make the most of the northern aspect while retaining a decent area of green space. The smaller floor area also allowed for higher quality construction methods and finishes, a large solar array, a plethora of monitoring devices and a built-in air exchange unit within the budget.

The main living space features large north-facing glazing, built-in lounge seating with clever storage, abundant shelving and kitchen benchtops milled from a tree felled on site.

Brett and Josepha used clever tricks to make their “tardis-like” home feel spacious, giving rooms and elements multiple functions and providing abundant storage. “Our study converts into a guest bedroom, our shower turns into a sunken bath, our coffee table flips up to make the lounge room an entertainment nook and our kitchen splashback is a large rectangular window that allows light into the hallway and gives a view into our son’s play area,” Josepha says.

Prior to construction the biggest challenges were town planning (to subdivide the relatively small block) and bringing in services (road access, power, water and sewerage) from the rear cul-de-sac. “The challenge with small-scale developments is the upfront costs can be pretty high,” Brett says.

The land between the two houses was originally a swamp and is prone to overland flow, so Brett ruled out a slab-on-ground. After much thermal modelling of alternatives, he settled on an elevated, well-insulated, steel-framed timber floor and timber stud walls. The roof performance was enhanced by layering thicker-than-normal plasterboard, phase change material to provide thermal mass, 150mm bulk insulation, a plywood skin to provide a safe work platform and solid support to solar panels, and a waterproof membrane, all capped with metal roofing. While the building form is modest and modern, Josepha says “we designed our home with a nod to our old Queenslander; we used cypress horizontal weatherboards to connect with the streetscape on one half of the house and vertical tin on the other.”

Brett carried out much of the construction himself, using skilled tradespeople only when needed, so he could take time to test out more radical ideas and reduce build costs. He involved architecture students and volunteer labour through HelpX, where travellers work for half the week in exchange for board and lodging. This enabled some detailing to be carried out which would be prohibitive if paying a full contractor wage, “and was a bit of fun”, Brett says. As the build progressed, Josepha researched the most sustainable paints, finishes and products, chose colours and upholstered Brett’s built-in seating/storage in the lounge.

The built-in seating and storage makes the most of the north-east corner and was a collaborative effort between Brett and Josepha. A TV cleverly flips out of the chest coffee table.

Timber features heavily above the steel floor frame, as Brett enjoyed working with timber and recognised its low embodied energy and ability to be reused. The floor is remilled power poles, an old Cadaghi gum felled on site became the kitchen benchtops, cypress pine framing provides natural termite resistance, and plantation plywood provided an economical and robust material for cabinetry fronts, the abundant storage and open shelving. Ply is also used for selected ceilings not only for aesthetic value but also to be easily removed for maintenance. Brett salvaged hardwood from his workplace’s demolished lift shaft to clad sliding shutters for essential solid shade in summer to the east and west.

The small house makes the most of connections to outdoor spaces – the deck and the garden.

Healthy indoor air quality was assured by using VOC-free paints and clear finishes and easy-care Marmoleum to the entry and bathroom. The drop-in slatted shower deck has now been changed from timber to a composite plastic decking to reduce humidity and mould issues from the damp timber. Generous natural light and sunshine, aided by the clear polycarbonate deck roof and large glazed areas, is reflected by light wall and cabinetry colours inside and moderated by shade sails and the solid shutters in summer.

“Moving in here, it’s essentially the same lightweight construction, same floor area, same location as the old house,” says Brett. But the family loves the marked improvement in thermal comfort that their new home offers thanks to the careful design, and have no regrets about its neat size.

support our work

Renew is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to arming you with the unbiased advice and information you need to make your home and community more sustainable. If you enjoy our content, please consider supporting us by becoming a Renew member or buying our publications. Your support is critical to helping us achieve our goals.
support renew
further reading:
Family affair

Family affair

This flexible new backyard studio in Melbourne’s inner north has already accommodated singers, artists and musicians, and will continue to support living and learning into the future.

Read more
You little beauty

You little beauty

With a footprint of just 35 square metres, this renovated terrace in Sydney’s busy inner west provides a light and quiet sanctuary, with leafy outlooks and entertaining spaces that belie its size. 

Read more
Smaller, simpler, smarter

Smaller, simpler, smarter

For his new family home near Margaret River, designer Michael Lurie aimed for maximum flexibility, energy efficiency, natural materials and a passive income stream – all while downsizing.

Read more