Myth # 4 Increasing house sizes mean urban sprawl

17 Sep 2007
Added by:
Residential Development Council
Ross Elliott
Media Release

The issue of house sizes is often raised in connection with urban sprawl and environmental sustainability. In the face of falling average household sizes, the argument goes, we should be building smaller houses – not bigger ones – as part of planning for our future needs.

House sizes are in fact getting bigger, but it is a trend that began more than 100 years ago with house sizes on average doubling since Federation.

In 1900, the average house was around 150 square metres. But by 1950 it had grown to 200 square metres, by 1990 to 250 square metres and by 2005 it had reached 325 square metres.

Latest ABS figures show that average dwelling size (including home units) rose from 2.9 rooms per dwelling in 1994-95 to 3.0 in 2003-04. During the same period household sizes have got slightly smaller from an average of 2.7 people her household to 2.5 people per household in the same period.

This, combined with projections showing a rising proportion of sole person and couple-only (no children) households into the future, is seized on as proof that house sizes are getting bigger at precisely the time, we’re told, that ‘we’ don’t need bigger houses. But is this the whole story?

The implication behind these figures seems to be that bigger houses reflect some form of household greed and are an unjustifiable use of precious land – that the ‘dream’ of the quarter acre block is something we can no longer afford.

But land sizes are in fact decreasing. In 1900, the average block was 1,200 square metres. By 1950 it had fallen to 900 square metres (just under a quarter of an acre). By 1990, the average new block was 600 square metres and by 2005, the average new block was only 400 square metres (or less than one-tenth of an acre).

So the truth is that while the building size (in number of rooms and in square metres) may be rising, the land on which it sits, per household, is shrinking. So we’re consuming much less land, and sprawling less, than during the 1950s.

The ABS also reveals that the average number of rooms in a detached house for a couple with dependent children (the traditional ‘nuclear’ family) averages 3.5 rooms for an average 4.1 persons living under that roof (or 1.17 people per room). That compared with 0.4 people per room for sole person households which more typically live in higher density urban areas.

The conclusion? House sizes have been increasing, but you’d expect that with rising prosperity. None of the statistics suggest an excessive number of rooms per person, especially in larger family homes (or ‘McMansions’) where the ratio of rooms to people is actually the lowest.

But most important, land sizes have actually been falling. If we are actually consuming less land per dwelling (on average below one tenth of an acre) does this mean the critics of house size growth are actually looking at the wrong indicator?


Media inquiries:
Ross Elliott, Executive Director, Residential Development Council,  Property Council of Australia, 0407 177 591


The Residential Development Council is the Property Council of Australia's specialist industry forum for Australia's leading residential developers. Established in 2005 as a result of industry representations, the Residential Development Council focuses on key issues of concern to the residential development industry nationally and aims to show leadership in policy, research and understanding of industry fundamentals.