Increasingly frustrated by what he sees as “Australia’s greedy spatial expectations”, owner Ben Raphael never felt that his 47m² site was too small to be useful. “When I said I was going to build here, friends told me it was too small, too awkward – that anything built on it would always be compromised – but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. It isn’t large but I have everything I need.”

That “everything” is contained within 78m² over two storeys. When compared to the 231m² of the average new built suburban home, it is small indeed, but its lack of size is offset by an abundance of attitude. With only a minimal setback, no off-street parking and a ziggurat-shaped upper level clad in grass-filled weathered COR-TEN steel planter boxes, it cuts a surprising sight amongst its heritage neighbours.

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The tapestry of plants brings to life the house's blocky construction

Architect David Luck’s interpretation of local planning regulations was similarly unlikely. With a block about the size of a three garden sheds, building close to the site perimeters was essential, yet doing so appeared to contravene the required regulations for five per cent permeability and 20 per cent open green space.

The planning department of the local authority was an unlikely source of support – glad to see “the most exciting building in years” making use of the tiny site. Nonetheless, the consent process was long and tortuous and the department’s backing was invaluable. The intention was never to court controversy.

As Luck points out, “Sites like these require the most sensitive of neighbourhood responses, and the more rules broken, the less likely you are to get permission to proceed.

“Cladding the exterior with weathered steel planter boxes and filling them with grass mightn’t seem the most obvious way of winning support, but by doing this we fulfilled the requirements for permeability and open green space. The building itself is, in effect, an eleven-metre-high shade tree.”

Hidden at the rear are rainwater retrieval tanks that recycle the water collected from the roof to water the grasses.

There was also a need to avoid overshadowing the boundaries. This was achieved by recessing the upper storey back in a series of steps so that the silhouette is akin to a head of shaggy hair perched upon solid shoulders – an effect perhaps enhanced by the sunglasses effect of wrapping the outer corners with a pair of intersecting slot windows.

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Tucked below the slanting roof and bounded by the balustrade of the adjacent staircase the kitchen is a masterpiece of tight planning

Internally the tight dimensions did not allow for a radical layout. Two bedrooms and a bathroom fill the ground floor. The second bedroom was only possible because the requirement for garaging was judged unnecessary in an area well serviced by public transport.

The entirety of the upper level is reserved for living, eating and cooking, and the spaces pop with energy. The inwardly pitched walls and obliquely slanting light, entering through the long slot windows which connect the sloping planes, render the interior form disjointed in an aesthetically pleasing way.

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Even a small area can appear large with clever use of space, as this master bedroom shows

Clouds scud across the glazed ceiling of the adjacent stairwell, and the outlook from the large window at the west-facing rear embraces the views of the neighbourhood as well. A small, semi-enclosed deck above the street is large enough to relax on, yet small enough to be almost hidden within the profile of the building itself.

All in all, the interiors are as simple as the exterior is complex. But possibly that’s because nothing could even begin to compete with the sheer mischief and whimsicality of that shaggy windblown roof.

Raphael feels it is a structure that fulfils his needs in many different ways. “I wanted something sensitive, but different. Something that worked for me as a Melbourne bolthole, but also contributed something new and exciting to the neighbourhood. I also wanted it to reflect the philosophy by which I now live my life – you could call it something like 'all you need is less'.”

This is an edited extract from Small House Living Australia by Catherine Foster (Penguin Random House, RRP $39.99), available online and in all good bookstores now.

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Photography: Daniel J Dixon