Going back to Galicia: Why: Housing standards

One of the reasons that helped me decide to go back to Galicia is the quality of housing, especially when related to the price of it.

It is my observation that, in Galicia (as in many other places in Europe, as far as I know), rich people live in luxurious houses, middle-class people live in regular houses, and poor people live in poor houses. This might not be socially fair but it make sense from the point of view of one’s expectations. But in Sydney, middle-class people live in poor houses, and rich people live in average houses. For example: Isabel and I are both highly skilled and have both full-time jobs with above-average salaries. I would expect that, given this, we would be able to afford housing in Sydney of a decent quality. Don’t get me wrong: we didn’t have a luxurious house in Santiago, just an average one. Our neighbours were plumbers, housewives, secretaries and university teachers, a bit of everything. But the units are appropriately insulated, have central heating, car space, storage room, etc.

With the same kind of salary, in Sydney I am forced to decide between living in a decent house or living in a decent location. I mean, I can get a house with heating/air conditioning and perhaps (being lucky) with appropriate thermal and acoustic insulation for a reasonable amount of money, if I go 60 Km away from the city. If I want to live closer (in order to avoid long commuting times; more on this in a separate post) I can only afford crappy housing.

As my Finnish friend Timo says, Aussies have no idea of building. When he started to rant about the poor quality of housing in Sydney, I was thinking “wow, it’s not only me, he thinks the same…”. Basically, houses here are rarely properly insulated against thermal losses and noises. They rarely use double glazed windows, only in “luxury” housing, and heating or air conditioned, similarly, are only present in extremely expensive places. Walls are often plank boards painted over. As my Aussie friend Matt said once, Australia is probably the place where Europeans suffer the cold more, not because it is colder than Europe but because it is cold inside your house! In Santiago we have winters with -5 degrees Celsius quite often, but inside my house it never goes under 15. That’s because it is properly insulated and I have central heating. When I turn the heating off, the house stays warm for hours because of the well built walls and the double glazed windows, which are common features of any average modern house. Here, as soon as I turn off the heating (which I had to buy separately and set up at home), temperature drops dramatically in a few minutes.

Nearly as bad is the summer without air conditioning. We don’t need that in Galicia, but you do need it in Sydney. Unless you are one of the West Sydney schools in which the kids went into a strike because they had to endure summer with no air conditioning, suffering temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius regularly. One the newest building at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, where I am a visiting researcher, has no air conditioning! And, of course, no double glazed windows. Try having a 3-hour meeting there, in a room with 5 people, in February, with 35 degrees Celsius and a 90% relative humidity. Try attending a lecture.

The super fancy building where I work at UTS does have air conditioning, but no double glazed windows. What a joke! That is like trying to fill your bathtub without using the plug for the hole. I would expect Aussie architects and engineers to be familiar with the concept of heat transfer and how single-glazed windows work. Hello? Read Economia by Geoff Davies and see how billions of dollars are wasted in the world every year by using air conditioning in poorly insulated buildings.

Let’s leave the heating/air conditioning issue to one side. The second problem with housing quality in Sydney is the obsession with views. If you can see a square meter of water from your bathroom window, then prepare to pay twice the price! I don’t give a damn about views. I want a nice house with decent services, i.e. a good kitchen, a nice bathroom and good insulation and heating/air conditioning. All these seem to be secondary to the most important aspect of a house: the views. Last year I went to inspect a 70-year old unit, dodgy bathroom, tiny kitchen, with one small bedroom and a sunroom that they were trying to sell as a second bedroom (even though no bed would fit in there unless you blocked the door!), and they were asking for $700,000 because it had views! I could not avoid laughing. That is ridiculous.

Another issue is that, perhaps due to the modern lifestyle fostered by capitalistic trends, kitchens in Sydney houses are designed for display rather than to be used. They are usually too small, too crowded and not separated from the living area, so when you cook a nice meal, all your house smells like it. If you like cooking and do it often, you want a stand-alone kitchen with enough room.

I read the other day that Sydney is one of the few places in the world where you can earn a six-figure salary and yet be unable to afford having a house. I agree.

I had all this in Santiago and I lost it when I came to Sydney. This is a reason why I want to go back.


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