Mini masterpiece

Pushed close to the southern boundary of her small suburban block, Leith's house benefits from northern sun and there is space for her valued garden.
Leith’s home on a modest block near Fremantle was designed to be ‘eco-affordable’ – both to build and to run.

At a glance

  • Two-bedroom house designed for northern sun and cross ventilation
  • Cleverly located on the small block for maximum garden space
  • Owner-built with help from friends and local community
  • Use of reclaimed local hardwoods

Like many people, Leith had always wanted to create and build her own house. When she moved from Western Australia’s Albany region back to the city for family reasons, she happened upon a small subdivided block with a north-facing aspect that was within her budget, and the dream started to become reality. “It’s very near Manning Park with its beautiful lake,” she says of her block in Spearwood, south of Fremantle. “I did the owner-builder course and launched into creating my house – at that stage I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, which was probably a good thing!”

She didn’t have a firm idea for the design, but wanted it to be energy efficient and have a courtyard. She had an initial chat with her flatmate’s partner, architect Clinton Matthews. “He came back the next day with a design that had three walls right on the boundary and a north-facing courtyard, and I immediately said ‘I love it’. Because I like gardening and it’s such a tiny block, it was the best way to do it.”

Solar panels and batteries help power the all-electric house, including the induction cooktop in the kitchen.

A variation to the planning rules was required to be able to build to the boundary on three sides, but Leith reports that her neighbours all wrote letters of support because they liked the small-scale dwelling she was proposing. At only 87 square metres, the house consists of a kitchen/living area on the south and east boundaries, plus two bedrooms and a bathroom; all rooms have north-facing windows, and a services area to the south of the corridor allows for cross ventilation and houses the hot water heat pump, rainwater tank, reverse-cycle air conditioner and battery storage.

Best of all, the design includes a deck tucked in between the living area and the bedrooms, and as much of the 277-square-metre block as possible has been retained for Leith’s garden. She also opted for a separate shed in the north-west corner of the block, lined with plywood and set up as a sewing room.

Leith says that she co-created the house with many friends, overseeing it as an owner-builder. “The build itself was a fantastic process, as I had the privilege of working with people I knew and the people they knew,” she explains. “Every single person on the project enjoyed it. To me that’s also part of sustainability: making the building process enjoyable helped make the house sustainable on a community and emotional level.” She sings the praises of her builders, Sam Henderson and Nick Dowling, who lived just around the corner, contributing to the project’s ethos of “having everything very local and very connected”.

The living area opens directly onto a sheltered deck. Outside, a small shed has been fitted out as a sewing room.

The boundary walls are of insulated double brick, with 120-millimetre-deep timber-framed walls clad in recycled jarrah elsewhere. A concrete slab with terrazzo inserts by Leith’s stepdaughter Jesse Lee provides thermal mass in the living area, and the bedrooms are floored with reclaimed wandoo boards. Extensive louvre windows allow for great ventilation, and eaves block the high summer sun. “I grew up on a farm and I like the Australian vernacular look – greyed timber, louvres, big eaves,” Leith says. “The jarrah cladding isn’t painted or stained, just oiled, and will go grey over time.”

The house is all-electric, with a heat pump for hot water, a small reverse-cycle air conditioner in the living room and in-slab heating that Leith uses occasionally to take the edge off on cold days. A 7.5-kilowatt solar PV system and two batteries cover most of the home’s energy needs so far.

Leith has been living in the house since mid-2022 and is very much enjoying it. “When people asked, I used to say that I was building an eco-affordable house. It wasn’t dirt cheap, but it isn’t really high-end either. It mattered to me that I built a really beautiful house.”

Clinton Matthews
Spearwood, WA (Whadjuk Noongar Country)
House 87m2, Sewing room 10m2, Deck 13m2, Land 277m2

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