A small idea

A red-haired woman, wearing a yellow dress, climbs up a ladder above a compact kitchen to a loft.
A tiny 7 Star project home on the outskirts of Geelong represents the culmination of years of practice and thinking for builder and designer Sally Wills.

As a project home designer, Sally Wills is something of an anomaly. But it’s not just the fact that she’s one of a handful of female builders in a male dominated industry that surprises. Her approach to design is also one that bucks the national trend; she encourages her clients to opt for smaller – and cheaper – energy-efficient homes.

“I start with the premise of designing as small as possible,” Sally explains. She says there are several ways to limit cost and size beyond the number of bedrooms. “I try to encourage just one bathroom, for example, and then compromise on another toilet if they feel it’s needed, rather than two bathrooms.”

Her newly founded company Small Change Design’s first constructed project, on the outskirts of Geelong, Victoria, is just 56 square metres, but size-wise, this is midrange in the suite of adaptable designs Sally offers. There’s around 10 customisable plans, which come in xxsmall – a minute, 20 to 46-square-metre plan; the xsmall – a 46 to 60-square-metre variety, or the simply small – a more roomy, but decidedly modest 61 to 80-square-metre design.

Sally worked as a building designer in Western Australia for 12 years, where she developed an interest in energy-efficient housing. She found that people were willing to be convinced on technology like double glazing, insulation and water saving, but not necessarily on size. “I realised it would probably do the environment a much bigger favour if we cut the house size in half,” she says. “A huge component of the impact of housing is the embodied energy, and we are not measuring that as an issue – some research says that it can equate to around 15 years of operational energy.”

In addition to designing and building tiny project homes, Sally has lobbied the state government on relaxing rules for small secondary dwellings, a move she says would allow us to build at greater density in a way that gives people flexibility over how they live. While she acknowledges small living isn’t for everyone, and may not suit families, she suggests that energy-efficient additions can offer changes in occupancy and use, with people moving between dwellings at different life stages.

Her designs are now also available in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, where they are constructed by designer and builder Kevin Ryan of Jemade Design and Construction.

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