By Bettina Deda
An environmentally-conscious couple, looking to retire to a location closer to their children, found a block in the ACT suburb of Forde and couldn't believe their luck. It sat opposite a nature reserve where they could pursue their interest in bushwalking and bird watching, and was the perfect place to walk their dog.

The couple's love of nature also extended to the design of their new home – they wanted a house that was small, smart and energy-­efficient. To realize their dream, they engaged Jigsaw Housing – a collaboration of architects, builders, and a scientist – to design and build their brand new home.

"Their brief aligned perfectly with our modular housing system and core business philosophy," says Jigsaw architect Sarah Lebner. "We provide a simplified process for smart, high-performance homes with small footprints and affordable price tags."

At a Glance:

  • Who lives here: A retired couple and their dog, Toby
  • Location: Forde, ACT
  • Completed: January 2015
  • Size: 113 square meters
  • Architect: Sarah Lebner, Jigsaw Housing

Budget: $300,000 – $340,000 depending on the site; including carport, excluding soft landscaping

That's interesting: There are a number of impressive sustainable design features in this modular house. It has high levels of insulation in the ceilings and walls to regulate temperatures. It also comes with a 2500-liter water tank, a photovoltaic (solar power) system, PVC-lined double-glazed aluminium windows, and has been tested for moisture control and air leakage.

These features and more have given the house an EER (Energy Efficiency Rating) of 7.9 stars.

The red front door opens into a small entrance, which leads to the kitchen and dining area. The Stratco Carport system on the side of the house is designed to integrate clear Ampelite roofing over the entry, to provide a light-filled shelter at the front door.

Natural light floods the kitchen and dining area. Square-set cornices and higher doorways increase the sense of space and allow for plenty of cross ventilation

Natural light floods the kitchen and dining area. Square-set cornices and higher doorways increase the sense of space and allow for plenty of cross ventilation.

In winter, electric heating panels on the walls add to the warmth that radiates from the insulated concrete floor. For the owners, it was very important to achieve the feeling of spaciousness in their home, but also to live in a house that maintains a comfortable ambient temperature throughout the year, with minimal heating and cooling.

Soft pelmet lighting is a feature in the living areas. "We used laminate joinery in 'Carcass White' – usually used inside cupboards – as a feature throughout the house to not only increase the sense of space, but also save on costs," Lebner says.

The architect designed the joinery and had it built by Affinity Kitchens. The kitchen features finger-pull handles that also appear as shadowline details, and push catches to overhead cupboards. The sink disappears behind a slightly higher bar bench, which hides dirty dishes and clutter when entertaining guests.

At just 113 square meters, the available space works hard, according to Lebner. Flexibility is the key to space-saving, with the living room and second sitting area both able to be opened up or closed down for shared or private use. The guest toilet combines with the laundry, and a generous study desk and storage bank share the hallway space.

Ease of circulation, level surfaces, and low-maintenance finishes make life in the home easy and safe, and allow the owners to age in place.

The living room at the front of the house can be closed down as a second guest area if needed, or opened up to flow through to the kitchen. By separating it from the kitchen and dining area, it provides an additional room that is versatile and functional.

The concrete floor is a burnished slab and the windows have aluminium profiles, thermally broken by an internal ERP (Extruded Rigid Polymer) insulating skin.

The owners and their dog Toby particularly like the living room, as it's a very inviting space and has lovely views to the gardens and the bushland beyond.

A large, built-in study desk along the hallway activates otherwise dead space and makes the small home look more spacious. The second bedroom – also usable as multi-functional space – is located opposite the study desk. It features a custom-built sliding panel that can open to the study to allow for plenty of light, or close down if guests are sleeping there.

"We made sure that all living spaces and the master bedroom have access to generous northern light during the day, and passive heating in winter," Lebner emphasizes.

Both bathrooms feature under-tile heating and Hydrotect self-cleaning tiles. The black and white palette flows through the house, accentuating the minimalistic interior.

"An 8-star home uses 53 per cent less energy per square meter than a 6-star home, which is the industry benchmark in the ACT," Lebner explains.

The architect optimized the home's orientation, the location of windows, and the sizes of the eaves to ensure that the design maximizes sunlight striking the slab in winter, but also shades the slab completely in summer. Insulating the underside and edges of the slab keeps the house warm in sunny Canberra winters. However, the insulation only works effectively when the orientation of the house is ideal. Overheating can become an issue if the home is not designed to shade the windows in summer. A well-positioned home that is ventilated during the evening can take advantage of the concrete slab to keep the house cool during summer too.

The modular design easily fell into place. Wherever you look in the house you always have views to the outdoors, with windows at the end of every corridor. A tiny planted courtyard garden between the carport and the dining room complements this home's connection to nature and the outdoors.

The retirees are delighted with their home. They asked the architect to design a small, smart and energy-efficient house. Having built before, they knew the importance of having an experienced builder committed to their design, energy efficiency, and a high quality of construction.

TIP: The owners' top tip for empty nesters starting their downsizing journey is to shed all the accumulated baggage and unnecessary furniture, and start with a clean slate. Even if it's a scary thing to contemplate, they found it very liberating.

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