Alex Symes has designed a home you can afford, build yourself and take anywhere

Meet the architect behind Australia's first flat-packed residence: Big World Homes - one you might actually be able to afford one day

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Credit: Elin Bandmann

You will never own a home in Sydney.

But Alexander Symes would like to change that.

Later this week, the Sydney-based architect will unveil his design for Australia’s first flat-packed, off-grid ‘tiny home’ created by his project Big World Homes at the Sydney Architecture Festival.

Over the course of one afternoon, a group of non-skilled volunteers (friends and family of the architect) will erect a prototype Big World Home at The Commune in Waterloo before transferring the structure to the Festival Hub at Central Park, where for the duration of the festival it will act as a striking new proposition aimed at a class of young Australians fast becoming accustomed to the idea that they will never own a traditional home in a housing market best described as, well, inhospitable.

Symes and his collaborators have designed what’s being billed as Australia’s most progressive, socially driven housing project. The result is a portable, modular home that can be built by two people in as many days using a hammer and a drill. Designed to be built off the grid, each home comes fitted with a living room, bed, running water and a plumbed bathroom. Solar panels provide electricity and running water is sourced from inbuilt rainwater tanks. They’re intended to be sited (with permission, of course) on unused development sites and vacant blocks, where the hope is that Big World Communities will spring forth from the communion of other Big World Homeowners for whom the idea of traditional ownership has become a fantasy thanks to declining wages, a system geared against them and the difficulty (or undesirability) of obtaining a mortgage.

Through removing the costs of both labour and land, Symes and his associate have estimated that they’ve reduced the cost of a first home by as much as 80%, or around $65,000. It’s a very attractive proposition, one that Symes hopes you’ll consider not just for your own benefit, but for that of the environment.

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A rendering of the first Big World Homes prototype, as envisioned in situ as part of the Sydney Architecture Festival
Credit: Supplied

“I’d always struggled with the idea of sustainability and it only being for the rich,” Symes recently told GRAZIA. “It didn’t really fulfil me to think I’d spend the rest of my life doing that. I wanted to use my passions and my skills for more than just doing one off residential houses.”

Symes has been a practicing architect since 2007, initially cutting his teeth on bespoke homes in a smaller, luxury residential market. His passion, however, was always in sustainability and in 2009 he took on the design for a house in Austinmer, on the Illawarra escarpment south of Sydney, designed in collaboration with Furio Valich of g+v architecture. The house won a number of national awards for its environmental sustainability initiatives, including recycled and low environmental impact materials; an electronic home user guide to assist the family with operating their home; a passive thermal comfort strategy that negates the need for air-conditioning; and solar heating and electricity generation, which means the house is energy positive (it generates more than it uses) and feeds it back to the grid. A desire to quantify those tools accessible to architects lead to a brief detour away from architecture to become a building façade engineer at Arup, after which time Symes established his own practice with an ambition to “create more larger scale social and environmental change”.

Big World Homes began as an extension of that ethos, a project that began internally but has now become, to hear Symes tell it, "bigger than Ben Hur!”

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An interior render of the Big World Homes prototype, which will be available to view in Sydney's Central Park precinct for the duration of the Architecture Festival from September 30 until October 3
Credit: Supplied

“We were very fortunate yesterday to get contacted by IKEA and they’ve come on board to style the first Big World Home. My dream is that a big company like that will take the technology and make it so that people can actually build their own home.” It’s a natural partnership when you consider that Big World Homes are a natural extrapolation of IKEA’s entire ethos: flat pack living, albeit on a much larger scale.

It’s also an idea that Symes says has its genesis in his youth spent building using Lego bricks and wondering why you couldn’t upscale “something a little bit bigger than a brick but smaller than a curtain wall system for a façade and make it easy for someone to assemble themselves.”

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Austinmer Beach House, designed by Alexander Symes in collaboration with Furio Valich of g+v architecture
Credit: Nicholas Watt
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Credit: Nicholas Watt

Inspiration struck again in the work of Dresden Optics, an eyewear company founded by a friend, client and GoGet founder Bruce Jeffreys and Jason McDermott, whose approach to eyewear involves using recyclable interchangeable modules that allow for infinite customisation. “They took an inflexible system and made it modular,” recalls Symes. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing this with housing?’”

Then there’s Big World Homes’ perhaps more obvious international precedent in the WikiHouse movement, the open-source platform for sharing housing designs that can be manufactured and assembled in days with no formal construction skills required. Watching co-founder Alastair Parvin’s TED Talk made Symes realise “architects need to become more involved in correcting systems and less involved in building one-off houses. It made me think outside of the box.

“[Wikihouse] a more altruistic concept than Big World Homes, however it has limitations in terms of [it doesn’t have] integrated thermal and waterproofing elements. It’s just a structural creative commons platform. I really love the idea of it, however, I believe it’s unsafe for DIY people because you do have to create a scaffold or work on the roof.”

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Dresden Mobile, an education tool designed to raise awareness about closed loop recycling systems and ocular health, was also inspired by the 'tiny house movement', which began in response to the GFC and the rising costs of living
Credit: Alexander Symes

A large part of Symes’s process was then to try and design a structural, thermal, waterproof building envelope system that people could safely construct themselves – one that reduces the need for costly heating and cooling systems while using sustainable construction materials like timber with lower embodied energy.

Creating transparency around the cost of materials and giving consumers more control when it comes to manufacturing and procurement is another of Symes’s long-term goals with Big World Homes. He believes that once consumers are given the tools to choose, say, a particular timber because it’s locally sourced or there’s no loss of biodiversity through its production, then people will vote with their feet to create “closed loop, zero waste systems. That’s my ultimate ambition.”

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The prototype Big World Home in the final stages of its testing and construction process
Credit: Instagram

Improvements in terms of simplifying the assembly process even further and greater control over visual customisation are more immediate short-term goals for the architect and his team. They’ve received their first orders for Big World Homes, though no contracts have been signed just yet, and Symes is currently negotiating with a few different landowners to create the first pop-up communities while navigating the challenges of funding through the support of groups like the Strategic Open Urbanism Platform [SOUP] and a crowdfunding campaign.

Twenty-six year old documentary filmmaker Ella Colley, a Big World Homes ambassador, will be the project’s guinea pig and has signed on to live in the first home for four months after which time she’ll develop an experiential journalism project to highlight the housing affordability crisis at the heart of Big World Homes.

Under Australian Design Requirements, Big World Homes are effectively caravans, meaning those so inclined could travel to remote parts of the country engaging in a practice ordinarily reserved for those in their twilight years. It’s a strange inversion of the natural order for ‘millennials’, though one that will doubtlessly appeal to a generation systemically prohibited from forming material attachments to the idea of a home – the same homes which we’ve been seemingly irreversibly priced out of.


The first Big World Home will be available to view from September 30 to October 3 in Central Park as part of the Sydney Architecture Festival. You can find out more information here.


Tile and cover image: Courtesy of Alexander Symes