A grand plan for small homes

A service headed by Robin Boyd in 1947 brought affordable housing design to Melbourne.

IT WAS a cheap way for Melbournians to build a distinctive new house – for just five quid you chose from a range of architect’s plans, complete with working drawings and specifications, then you found a builder to build it. Almost certainly, your new house would be unique in your area – only 49 other houses in Victoria would be built from the same plans, 25 in the Melbourne suburbs and 25 in the country. After that, the design would be scrapped.

It was called the Small Homes Service and famed architect Robin Boyd was at the helm when it was launched in Melbourne in July 1947, with backing from the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and The Age.

Now 64 years later, with Melbourne housing stretched to the limit, the Boyd Foundation is hoping to bring the small-homes service back.

”The idea first arose in the 1930s,” foundation chief Tony Lee said, ”but got a massive boost after the war because there was this huge housing shortage – as there is today. It was estimated that the backlog was 80,000 houses.


”So the idea – and it was unprecedented in the world – was to provide well-designed houses cheaply. They produced standard designs for houses, then each week in The Age, Robin would write an article and people would get enthused about the possibilities.”

Boyd drew up the first designs, then architectural colleagues submitted others. A typical ”small homes” brochure carried 32 plans with designations such as ”T310”, which was described as an ”economical design for a larger family – only 10.5 squares, saves labour as well as space”.


The T310, with ”grouped plumbing and simple roof” was expected to cost 1710 pounds to build. Initial hostility among some architects was defused by the system of payment – a portion of the five-pound fee, multiplied 50 times, totalled approximately what an architect would get for a one-off domestic project. It became popular among young architects. Everyone was happy.

Eventually the small-homes service morphed into today’s Archicentre and by the mid-1970s, the off-the-shelf plans had disappeared.

Said Lee: ”Boyd estimated at one stage that around 40 per cent of new homes in Melbourne were being built through the Small Homes Service. We still think there is an opportunity to do it again. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have the confidence to go to an architect. Building a house is a significant project, with huge cost implications.”

The foundation already has the support of the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and the Australian Institute of Architects and it has spoken to some prominent architects about the first selection of house plans. Lee said prices would be well below current fees for an architect-designed house.

”Fees can be anything between 17 and 20 per cent of the cost of the house,” he said. ”Really it is only the wealthy who can afford it.”

Veteran architect Neil Clerehan, who took over from Boyd as director of the service in the 1950s, said it was a successful idea for its time, but cautioned that conditions had changed. ”Robin was unique because he could also write,” Clerehan said, ”and the service back then had a newspaper behind it.”

Dr Tom Alves, at the government architect’s office, said: ”It’s the kind of thing we would like to see. The underlying housing scenario is similar – a large unmet demand. And we share a belief in good design.”


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