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Step 3. Navigating councils and codes

Updated: Dec 27, 2021

Building a community means that you will need to understand councils and code. Ignore them at your peril.

Don't we all just want to forget building codes and hula hoop all day? :) - Sept 21 at Maleny Eco Village

Humans have been living in village for a millennia, yet the 'box in the suburbs' of 'one house per block', and all the negative social consequences that come with it, is the only thing council understand. Things are changing though. Councils know that we are in a housing crisis, and council are, in fact, representatives of the people, so laws in the future will reflect our changing needs. Collaborative housing options, like more tiny houses, tiny house villages, eco villages and co-housing will become normal, but right now, we have to work with outdated ideas of housing and community and work within them (spoiler alert - we have found an easy way)

Relationship is key

People in this eco community space often come with a reactive and combative spirit. Don't see the authorities (or neighbours) as the enemy. Rules and regulations are there to help. Yes, they are restrictive, yes, they will cost your money, but don't fight them. Best to foster a good, open relationship with council and neighbours and keep it light and friendly. Council can make you disband your community and knock down non-compliant buildings. You need to know your council codes.

Councils usually are reactive - they respond to complaints. Throwing a BBQ and inviting the neighbours, or sharing produce, might just be the best insurance you can take out. Chances are, your neighbours are suffering from 'affluenza' and disconnection - so reach out. Lead with love and goodwill. We have had to deal with more than our fair share of neighbourly friction. People are nervous about anything different - perceived or otherwise. Just keep your heart open, positive and gracious. Love wins. Always.

How planning code works:

  1. the state governments (or federal in NZ) set the planning code

  2. local government areas (LGA's) interpret and define it

  3. the law courts clarify it.

Generally LGA's update their code every 10 years. They often ask for community consultation, but in the past this has proven to be largely symbolic (which is a nice way of saying that it's usually not a genuine attempt to engage residents) . There is a huge difference between how some councils interpret the code. For example, Brisbane City Council forbids more than five unrelated people living in a household. To my knowledge. no other council in Australia has made this law (and don't let them!).

The codes and its language are legal frameworks, so invariably they are misinterpreted, misunderstood or ignored, so the law courts are often used for clarification - sometimes not in a combative way. A developer in Bundaberg recently built a whole street of ‘dual key living’, and promoted it to investors that they could live in the primary or secondary dwelling, and rent out the other one. They went to court and LOST; as the secondary dwellings intent is that it’s an EXTENSION to the household; that they are meant to be areas of shared resources, such as outdoor spaces or laundries and certainly utility bills.

Legal advice is often needed to understand the law. Eco Villages Australia has paid for legal advice in the past to understand its legal obligations. We, however, offer this advice as general advice only and point to resources that you will have to follow up in your area.


If you want to build a village, you'll need to learn another language. So let's start. Councils are very helpful in this regard - this is what they understand. They will often have pdf's on the website clearly explaining the relevant codes. A town planner will be invaluable - this is their "bread and butter". Sometimes councils will allow you to consult a council employee town planner for an hour free of charge. The eco village network has town planners that you can access. Ask us for contacts.

There are four key areas to get your head around.

  1. Material Use of Land

  2. Definitions

  3. Development Applications

  4. Building Code

1. Material Use of land

Each block of land has a "material use of land' set by the state government. It might be medium density housing, or rural. You cannot build what you want on any piece of land. The most common eco village dream of having a 100 x ½ acre blocks with a commercial business centre attached under current law is simply not going to happen.

Talk to your council development team first (we have found them to be friendly and helpful).

Applications can be made to change the material use of land, however this will cost much time and money to change. You will also need to convince the neighbours that what you are doing is a good idea. The councillors will also need convincing as they will make the final decision.

We have found that attempting to change the 'material use of land' is NOT a good use of resources. It can take ten years and several million dollars. We had to find another way.

Some councils have a 'urban footprint'. This is usually a large area in which they want to encourage population to gather. Get to know this and what it means, Some communities will want to be inside or outside the footprint, depending on your focus,

2. Definitions

Council will define their language based on the state legislation. It's vitally important that you find and understand the following councils definition relevant to your property/potential property.:

  • Zoning definitions

  • Dwelling house definitiuon

  • Household definition

  • Definition schedule

  • Fees schedule

  • Local town plan (some towns have another overlay to keep the towns characters intact)

  • Camping regulations

Often councils often write their code in terms of "acceptable;' or "potentially acceptable" so in certain areas, a standard house is acceptable, but a corner store may be 'potentially acceptable'. Anything potential acceptable, or anything that lies outside the accented uses will require a development application (DA).

You will find that councils are very keen to keep to one house / one kitchen policy. And they are getting stricter on this, and using more technology to monitor it. You will be able to build a secondary dwelling in most places with a second kitchen but that is it. Rural or "rural residential" (terms vary between councils), often allow a third dwelling for a farm worker/caretaker. Some councils require a business plan to ensure that you are actually engaged in farm work or whatever you say you are. Councils do not want a large group of people living in a rural area. That's for urban areas - which is difficult for eco communities, who know that living in community around food production is actually a very healthy way for people to live. Get VERY familiar with the zoning and definitions (listed above) that your council has.

Some councils won't allow more than six people (family and friends) to camp on a property for a weekend. Some consider renovations as requiring a DA, so you can repair a house, but not renovate it. These are all good questions to ask.

3. Development Application.

You may often have to complete a DA, even for the removal of a native tree, but when applied for a building there will be different levels on assessment. For example:

  1. A non-controversial build will be 'self assessable'. It fits within the code. All good.

  2. A building that, for example, sits on a severe slope might be deemed as 'code assessable'. This means that council will require a site visit at the owners expense. Not the end of the world.

  3. If you want to do a subdivision, for example, it might be impact assessable. This is not ideal, as your submission is made public so that neighbours get to put a submission in regarding your application. If you don’t know your neighbours and are yet to build their trust, it’s unlikely that neighbours will understand and agree with what you are trying to do. Community consultation and extra care with neighbour relationships are key.

If you build a house that is considered standard, councils need not be involved. Just get a building certifier to sign off on a building application (BA).

4. Building Code

Building code are Australia wide (federal) and are designed to stop your house from falling down. They are there for your protection and should not be flouted.

What are our options for community then?

  1. Caravan park. Cons: Very expensive council fees. Impact assessable - so neighbours would have to agree - unlikely. Councils vary on the tenure of a caravan park, but usually people are allowed to legally stay there for a period of 21 days to three months (check your LGA). This is not going to work for communities. Long term permits can be sought, but can be difficult to procure, and they usually do expire. Possibilities. There are rare examples of privately owned caravan parks. These may or may not have long term permits.

  2. A relocatable home park. Some caravan parks have been converted to 'relocatable home parks' (or new developments built as manufactured housing estates). Cons. Impact assessable. Often poor community design.

  3. A Standard Dwelling house. Start a small community in a standard house. Cons: Most hours are designed for 'Mum, Dad, two kids and a dog'. You will find that residents length of stay is inversely proportional to the privacy and so communities in standard house are usually very fluid. Pros: Some dwelling houses are huge! Buy a McMansion or build a pavilion house with 8 other people and start a community!

  4. Dual Occupancy These could potentially double your capacity. Most urban areas will allow a 'dual occ'.

  5. Buy a cheap village Sometime whole villages can be purchased for a bargain. Often there are remote or overseas. Plenty of cheap villages in Spain going!

  6. Buy houses in one street There are some world famous co-housing communities that have done this. It's expensive, but this would work in a small country town where prices are lower. The EVA model of land ownership could be applied. Cons: This is often a good model for families, kids play in the street, but community connections are often limited.

  7. Rooming Accomodation / Boarding houses. Rooming accomodation allows for private spaces and communal spaces. Brisbane City Council allows upon to five units to be built or retrofitted without council intervention - just get a certifier. Ian Ugarte from "Small is the new big" is an expert in this area.

What about subdivisions?

Yes, you can subdivide in urban areas. Subdividing in rural areas was allowed 40 years ago, but not now, Expect to pay around $80-100,000 in fees and development charges per subdivision. You will be treated like a developer, you will often be required to install roads, curbing, power and sewerage connections. Some of the big eco villages go down this route, but it's a long and expensive one. You need deep pockets.

EVA's workaround

As you can see there are lots of legal barriers to community. There are two things working in our favour.

1) There is almost no limit to the size of a house. There are many examples of 2000 square meter houses, and 2) One house does not have to be under one roof.

A single dwelling house, living as one household built as an 'exploded' or pavilion style house is our go-to option. One shared kitchen and laundry and a slightly different way to consider community, and you can start community now. You can build a big house, under different roofs, if practical, have the space you need but live in a supportive community. At the Maleny eco village we cook for each other, support each other and live well.

We all just need to learn how to work together - which is possibly humanities greatest challenge for the next 100 years.

In Eco Villages Australia villages, will only ever be a 'large household' (or small community). Your project doesn't need to be big to be good. A small group of people living authentically and supportively is easier to manage than 150 people who happen to live in the same geographic area loosely defined as an eco village. People who live in communities such as these often find that they have all the problems of a large community without the benefits.

So what's an exploded house?

An exploded house (councils will understand the term 'pavilion house'), is a dwelling that meets all conditions of a dwelling house - it has one kitchen and one laundry, but can be under different roofs (which it more expensive, and in cold areas, less efficient). Some councils will require all pavilions to be connected with covered walkways (some falsely interpret the state code as saying so - generally the intent behind this is to ensure that a pavilions style house doesn't become a 'village' of self contained cabins dotted around d the countryside). Some council allow up to 10 cabins built on a property over 10 acres, for example. These cabins will most certainly be designed for short-term recreational accommodation. Some council require a log book to ensure they are only used for this purpose.

Design always wins. If you design for 'privacy' and isolation, you'll get it. Use your unique opportunity to design for interaction - while getting the delicate balance of privacy and community right.

Case Study - Sunshine Coast

Our meetings with Sunshine Coast Council made it clear that they determine a single household as:

  • the residents would need to be in the householders family, friend or community network

  • having one power, water, internet and gas bill,

  • needing to share key functions like meals, shared indoor and outdoor spaces and laundries

  • The householder would need to live in the house. (ie not an investor)

  • all rooms would need to be able to be accessible by the householder (ie: no deadlocks on rooms)

  • have only one kitchen and one laundry.

If these conditions are not met, then a house owner would be seen as an investor or rent provider, and therefore would invoke the 372 page “2008 Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accomodation Act” (QLD). Obviously other states and jurisdictions have similar legislation.


Eco Villages Australia and other organisation in the space are more than happy to offer your group consultation in this area. Please contact us.


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