Australians are known for their love of space, but with urban land getting pricier and our focus on sustainability intensifying, the small dwelling is having a big moment. Laneway homes, clever additions and rooftop gardens – they're not just about fitting more in, but about living smarter. And Aussie architects and homeowners are leading the way, proving that small-scale alterations can have a huge impact on comfort, efficiency, and even resilience in the face of our unique climate challenges.

What sustainability trends are emerging in this space? Let's dive in.

Granny flat goes mainstream

Granny flats are increasingly popular for multigenerational living or additional rental income, but they are also a powerful tool for sustainability. For starters, compact granny flats exemplify space optimization through smart storage, multifunctional furniture, and efficient appliances maximise function within a small footprint. In addition, careful orientation, glazing, and shading optimised for the granny flat's specific location can dramatically reduce energy needs for heating and cooling. Plus, they can tie into the main house's solar power system, share rainwater harvesting infrastructure, or integrate greywater reuse for irrigation – boosting efficiency for the whole property.


With urban land at a premium, small-scale additions in the cities are getting more and more creative – and going vertical, too. Small-dwellings are maximising existing footprint by creating additional storeys by incorporating lightweight, prefabricated structures to minimise disruption. But this trend takes a particularly interesting shape in Australia’s most densely populated cities, and their most narrow laneways – architects and home-owners are capitalising on these tight urban spaces, transforming garages or under-used interiors into self-contained micro-dwellings or green spaces. 

Dead zones reimagined

Many small dwellings have underutilised areas ripe for transformation, promoting density without expanding a home's main footprint. Green roofs and living walls have been used to transform dead zones into urban biodiversity havens, and architects are also adding small internal courtyards that improve ventilation, let in more natural light and offer a green outlook. 

But we’re not only expanding up and sideways – we’re finding extra space under our dwellings. Some older homes with elevated foundations hold the potential for careful excavation, creating basement-level additions for workshops, storage, or extra living space with passive temperature control. 

Bushfire resilience

Due to an increased rural-urban edge living, more Australians seek space outside major cities – which often means increased bushfire risk. In bushfire-prone areas, alterations and additions must prioritise safety without sacrificing sustainability. Utilising materials like rammed earth or specially treated timber for alterations or additions, offers both a lower carbon footprint and greater fire resistance compared to conventional choices. Modern technology can also work with material specification to help with fire safety – integrated, automated shutters provide everyday shading benefits while doubling as fire protection. 

The urban heat island effect

However, even the areas that aren’t bush-prone are feeling the heat, especially in our cities. Combating the warming effects of dense urban environments is crucial. That's why small dwelling adaptations often focus on incorporating cool roofing principles – including reflective paints and coatings – that reduce heat absorption. Strategic shading – like external louvres or adjustable awnings – is another crucial device which can help provide dynamic shade without sacrificing winter sun.

Delicate dance with heritage

Australia's rich architectural heritage presents unique opportunities for conservation and adaptation, particularly in the small dwellings space. Sensitive renovations that not only retain but celebrate original features of heritage homes, reduce the need for new materials and more robust construction. The juxtaposition of contemporary additions with existing structures creates an intricate, harmonious dialogue while minimising demolition waste – and helps adapt older dwellings for superior energy efficiency, which is just as important.

The emergence of these trends demonstrate the power of alterations and additions to go far beyond simple square meterage increases. By embracing compact design, untapped spaces, and fire-smart materials in response to location-specific climate challenges, Australian architects, designers and homeowners can make small changes with big impacts on sustainability, resilience, and community.

The 2024 Sustainability Awards jury is looking for innovative and functional designs that prioritise sustainability and community, while also delivering an outstanding visual appeal. 

Don't miss out on the opportunity to showcase your project and contribute to a better future. Click here for more information.

Image: Music Room by Alex Symes Architect.