Doing more with less: the 5 x 4 Hayes Lane Project

12 August 2016

When advertising photographer Ralph Alphonso finished building on his block of land in East Melbourne, he was left with a small parcel of remaining land with a run-down shed on it and not much else. Instead of taking the usual approach of building a garage, or a courtyard, Ralph decided to build a unique, carbon neutral abode using only the diminutive footprint of the original shed (five by four meters) with the aim of encouraging discussion around sustainable living.

“When I built the first building, we put low-e glass in which cost $15,000 more than standard glass but the builders didn't insulate the window frames so the glass was largely ineffectual. This frustrated the hell out of me because things weren't being built in a whole, systematic way. It was just one or two products being sold as ‘green’. I don't necessarily blame the industry for this but they're not being pushed on it – it's not being challenged. 

“So I then started looking at what I could do with the property. I looked at case studies for sustainable building and again I found projects with one or two elements, or even quite a few elements, that were sustainable but not the whole picture.”

Ralph was presented with a host of challenges right throughout the planning and building process, from finding the right team members and building materials, to accessing this extremely tight spot!

Ralph adopted the ‘One Planet Living’ method of ecological footprinting analysis. One Planet Living is an initiative based on 10 guiding principles of sustainability developed by BioRegional and WWF. The framework aims to make sustainable living easy and affordable for all.

With space at a premium, Ralph had to come up innovative ways to save space. The kitchen table (above) folds back into a couch, and a TV can be raised up from inside the bench in front of the windows.

“From my understanding of things the whole picture is ‘life-cycle’ (factoring in the amount of energy used to manufacture and transport materials into their ‘green’ value). There are plenty of passive houses being built but what I wanted to do was not only build a passive house but do it in a low impact way: to look at that whole picture, the recycling content and so on. I'm no expert but I had enough interest to research for several years before I started looking at architects and the like. I wanted to pull a great team together to get great results.

The transformations of the Living room/Kitchen. The couch is designed by owner/builder Ralph Alphonso, and built in collaboration with 2nd Chance Tables.

“One of the best examples of life cycle in 5 x 4 is the glass. We've got high performance glass: low-e glass that is also double glazed. We considered going to triple glazing but (thanks to calculations done by Melbourne University) we worked out that because we've got efficient heating and cooling systems in here, the amount of energy to produce that triple glazing was going to far out way any benefits to the project," says Ralph. 

The fridge, freezer, dishwasher and oven are all snugly positioned under the kitchen bench.

“That's the whole thing with looking at life cycle - looking at the whole picture, you balance things out and the net result is the same. I think that's a great story of how you can let engineering drive design without compromising things overall. The aesthetic of the building is still integral to the result of the project and I think we've held that.”

90% of the house is made up of timber that would have otherwise ended up as wood-chip.

Even the laminated beams Ralph has used holds to these principals. They’re made up of off-cuts, finger joined together to make a long length and then laminated. 90% of the structural timber in the house is finger join laminated in this way - the flooring, the stairs the exterior cladding – so effectively 90% of the house would have ended up as wood-chip on any other day.

The resulting building stands three levels high in addition to a rooftop garden complete with hot-tub and barbeque area. Testimony to the efficacy of its design, the whole house is light-filled and airy as well as being completely carbon neutral and aesthetically breathtaking: a study in doing more with less. 

Readers interested in finding out more about the products and design of  5 x 4, and to how to get involved, can head to