Robin Boyd’s House of Tomorrow was displayed by the Small Homes Service in Melbourne in 1949. (Supplied: National Library of Australia)
Tiny houses are all the rage for people looking for compact, affordable accommodation.
But it’s not the first time Australians have thought small.
In the mid-20th century a scheme was set up to help people build modest, cheap homes — with a distinctly modern look.
The Small Home Service was an architect-driven initiative that produced dozens of plans that gave low-income earners access to quality, affordable home design.
Matthew Jones, curatorial manager at the National Library of Australia (NLA), said the off-the-shelf service was started in response to the post-war shortage of houses and traditional building materials, such as bricks.
“They were using new materials,” Mr Jones said.
“There was a lot more glass … a lot more prefabricated material and wooden sheeting.
“They focused on very small, humble properties because there was also … a shortage of land at the time.”
The plans were printed on fold-out brochures that sold for around $4 each in today’s money.
The brochures featured a range of modern house plans. (Supplied: National Library of Australia )
Potential home owners paid the equivalent of several hundred dollars for an individual plan which contained detailed information on how to build the house.
Many plans were designed to incorporate future extensions as a family’s size and income grew.
“That was one of the things that was a selling point … that this might be all you can afford now, but we’ve made a design that will make it possible to add bedrooms … or even a play area,” Mr Jones said.
Light-filled rooms and open-plan living
The Small Homes Service began in Victoria in 1947 with the support of the Royal Institute of Architects and expanded to New South Wales in 1953.
Its first director was Robin Boyd, who along with Harry Seidler was an early champion of architectural modernism.
“In the Small Homes Service, he saw an opportunity to integrate modern design with affordable housing and materials and … hopefully stop what he called the great Australian ugliness [of] cheap houses,” Mr Jones said.
Combined kitchen and dining rooms signalled the start of open-plan living. (Supplied: National Library of Australia)
A brochure entitled Homes For Every Taste, on display in the NLA’s Treasures Gallery, contains eight designs, including the Butterfly and Suntrap houses.
Though larger than 21st-century micro homes, these small houses were less than half the size of today’s average free-standing dwelling.
The designs feature combined living and dining rooms, no entrance halls, and large glass windows and terraces to let in light and to link indoor and outdoor spaces.
“The post-war era was, I think, a turning point in Australian architecture towards an architecture that was more aware of the Australian environment,” Mr Jones said.
“It’s … the birth of open-plan living.”