Less is more: The small house that is just big enough to hold a winning landscape

Three days before 2022 Wynne Prize winner Nicholas Harding died of cancer last year, the artist with his family and friends crowded into a room smaller than a single garage to see his landscape in its newly completed home in Surry Hills.

Harding, 66, needed help up the seven stairs to see hanging in the room designed to be just big enough to fit the nearly four-metre wide painting.

The home’s owners, architect Adam Haddow and his husband Michael Combs, had commissioned Harding to imagine what life would’ve been like outside before white people arrived.

It was an emotional afternoon tea, said Combs. “Nicholas cried, and everyone cried. Then he smiled and laughed, and we all laughed,” he said.

Architect Adam Haddow at the front of his Surry Hills home. The award-winning painting by Nicholas Harding can be seen through the window.

Nick Moir

With everyone comfortably seated in the room taking tea, it was a poignant reminder to Combs and Haddow that the house had a touch of the fairytale about it.

Haddow’s bathroom.

Nick Moir

The new 69-square-metre home on a 30-square-metre footprint – which is only 3.2 metres deep from front to back wall – was a fifth of the size of their previous apartment and rooftop garden. It was right for them, said Haddow.

The new home – designed by Haddow, an award-winning architect who is the principal of SJB, with project architect Stuart Cowan – was one of 13 shortlisted in this year’s new houses awards in NSW.

More than 130 entries were shortlisted for awards for public architecture, residential architecture, sustainability and small projects.

The house is not tiny, but it is small by current standards. It is a bit more than half the size of the average new apartment – 121 square metres in 2020.

It is about a third of the size of the average new home of 235 square metres that year, according to figures released by CommSec.

When Haddow and Combs realised they were spending 80 per cent of their time in 20 per cent of their old apartment, they decided less could be more.

As the NSW chapter president of the Australian Institute of Architects, Haddow sees the home as a case study in sustainability and improving the supply and quality of housing – the two most pressing issues of our time.

The rooftop in Adam Haddow’s new home in Surry Hills. It has been shortlisted by the NSW chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects for the award for best new house.

Nick Moir

“There’s no silver bullet for each. Each of them has nuances. Sustainability is about how long a building lasts. Where do the materials come from? How well does it perform? How much do people love it? Because if people love it, they’ll keep it for longer,” he said.

“Some of that is quite emotional. And some of it is really technical,” he said.

Haddow said seeing housing as a stepping stone – bought for one stage of life before moving to a larger home – wasn’t sustainable.

“If you can get [people] committed to a place then they’ve committed to their community, and then that creates social sustainability around volunteering, all of those other things that actually improve a society.”

His home is made of rubble, odd and unloved tiles, and damaged bricks.

It includes broken Krause bricks that were custom-made for Phoenix Central Park, the private performance space designed by Durbach Block Jaggers that swept the architecture awards in 2020.

These bricks were destined to be crushed to make roads. On the tiny rooftop garden where Combs likes to barbecue, a bench is covered with five different bits of Carrara marble. “I got it out of the bin at the tile guys,” he said.

They also bought the floorboards second-hand.

Haddow likens the home to something you’d see in a film by Jacques Tati, the French version of Mr Bean.

The facade is dotted with different doors and windows, including one low and tiny enough for the couple’s dog Eric to see the street and sniff the breeze.

Rooms revolve around the central staircase. A palm tree grows inside a skylight, which provides a cool draft through the house.

On the rooftop terrace, a boab tree grows in a patch of grass about the size of two beach towels, where Haddow and Combs like to recline with wine on Friday nights.

There’s no air-conditioning: the bricks, the insulation, the garden and the airflow keep the house a steady temperature and eliminated the need for it.

The couple had been looking for a site in the inner city before they found a mess of a 90-square-metre corner terrace with a shop. Decades of additions were demolished to build the new standalone home: “Less for us, but more for others [a shop, a self-contained flat and a home]. Three uses out of one.”

Will the jury, including this reporter, be able to treat his entry without fear or favour, given he is the NSW chapter president of the institute running the awards?

Haddow replied: “The fantastic thing about the awards program is that the jury are judging the buildings, not the person or the practices behind them.”

From the street, the painting is visible. Harding’s painting and Haddow’s architecture now attract a stream of rubberneckers.

“Eora” was the word used by Aboriginal people of Sydney to describe where they came when the British invaders asked what the place was called.

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