Fighting McMansions with higher densities in Sydney

Australia has a reputation for McMansions but some Sydney neighborhoods and suburbs have seen a shift in recent years toward higher densities:

But while Sydney’s Hills District has been synonymous with the Great Australian Dream – life in the suburbs with a large backyard and Hills Hoist – it is quietly carving out a new identity.

Five years ago, in nearby Rouse Hill, 90 per cent of homes were houses. Today, it’s 60 per cent, census data shows. Houses in these suburbs regularly sell for Sydney’s median $1.15 million, while five years ago the prices were below $700,000.

Signs of change came as early as the opening of Rouse Hill Town Centre in 2008. At the time, there were plans for mixed-use apartments, but not all the locals were sold on the idea…

“Developers prefer the small lot subdivision, townhouse and apartment-style dwellings over the mansion style lots because there are more buyers than can afford them,” he said.

It sounds like the shift toward more housing units is not a backlash against McMansions per se but rather a high demand for more housing. Why build one McMansion when several townhomes could fit on the same lot?

In the long run, creating more housing units has multiple advantages: more people can access these communities, the townhomes are a better use of land opposed to detached houses and large lots, and higher population densities could support more vibrant street life. But, there could be one downside: how much will the new units help make housing more affordable? On the whole, more units in the metropolitan region should help reduce housing prices. However, if these new units are primarily concentrated in hot and/or desirable neighborhoods and the townhomes are more of luxury units rather than starter units, swapping McMansions for townhomes might not help many of the regions average residents.

Final thought: numerous people have suggested replacing McMansions with higher densities through a variety of means (teardowns, subdividing existing homes, building fewer McMansions in the first place) but Australia seems to be ahead of the United States in this regard.

Architecture based comedy: “McMansions have taken all of the Australianness out of the burbs”

An Australian comedian has several complaints about the McMansions of his country:

“They don’t work with the site, they’re too big on the block of land so you lose all your outdoor space. They’re too close to the neighbours and the real sadness is they’re also not great from an energy point of view,” Ross explains.

Ross says McMansions have taken all of the Australianness out of the burbs — “you could be driving down the streets of America” — and that the fashion for driving into the carport and walking into the house disconnects people from their neighbourhoods…

You might consider a comedian telling people how to live is some sort of joke. But Ross has corned a gap in the entertainment market — architecture based comedy — and it’s taken him around the world from London to Venice…

Ross’s two part series Streets of Your Town is about the contrast between the classic, well designed mid-century modernist homes and the not-so-great McMansions of today.

The TV series is coming up in a few days. As I’ve discussed before (see the most recent example here), I’m skeptical of the claim that modernist homes would entice more buyers or admirers in the United States. They may please the architectural community but not necessarily homeowners.

I am, however, very intrigued by the idea of “architecture based comedy.” I don’t know if this will be present much on the TV show – it sounds more documentary like – but seeing a standup routine based around architecture would be fascinating. For my money, one of the better architecture and urban planning based routines I have seen is James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs.” On the other hand, another attempt at this – the film Radiant City – didn’t quite work as well.

New Australian homes shrinking in size

Not too long ago, new Australian homes rivaled those of the United States. Times have changed:

The country’s homes — some of the biggest in the world — reached peak size in 2009 at an ­average of 222sq m for newly built houses and apartments combined, according to research under­taken exclusively for The Weekend ­Australian.

But the global financial crisis ­put paid to that. The average new home now stands at 192sq m, making it smaller than in 2001, senior KPMG analyst Simon Kuestenmacher found in an analysis of 15 years of data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Market pressures, a shift in values to ‘less is more’ and spending on experiences rather than material goods, especially among Gen Y, has put Australia on a trajectory towards smaller homes,” Kuestenmacher noted…

firefox_screenshot_2016-09-25t22-25-53-040z

Such trends regarding home sizes can fluctuate as economic conditions, local regulations, and cultural norms change. Now that the new home size has shrunk in Australia, will this continue for a long time? Hard to tell.

I also like the extra analysis that breaks down home size by location: there is not necessarily a singular trend in a country. While much analysis of home size in the United States relies on the single figure produced by the Census each year, I imagine there are some disparate trends across cities and regions in the U.S.

Australia losing 800 older houses a week

One writer highlights the demolition fate of numerous older homes in Australia:

A record 800 heritage and “character” houses are falling under demolition hammers each week, destroying miles of unique streetscapes and slicing billions off their value…

Original houses remaining in a streetscape transformed by a “McMansion” (a house or apartment considered to be ostentatious or lacking in architectural integrity) can lose between 10 and 25 per cent of their value from the loss of street appeal, say property specialists.

It could also be a short-sighted strategy for owner-developers because scarcity of character houses, which in many cases can be adapted to modern living requirements, will continue to increase their value, according to buyers’ agents (independent consultants acting for property purchasers)…

The “nightmare on main street” for home owners who want to retain the integrity of their neighbourhoods is worsened by the multiplicity of planning rules and codes, which often provide contradictory outcomes.

This sounds very similar to American arguments against teardown McMansions: (1) the large new homes often do not fit the character of the neighborhood; (2) this change in character affects the property values of people in the neighborhood; and (3) local governments and agencies are often limited in what they can or will do in response. Aesthetics is not an unimportant point nor is historic preservation but the economics work for someone (particularly builders/developers as well as the new owners, as noted above) if teardowns keep happening in American and Australian communities.

This article seems to appeal to local authorities to check the spread of teardowns; there are a variety of ways to combat McMansions.

Summary of problems with Australian McMansions

One Australian columnist covers a number of the critiques of McMansions:

THEY’RE not McMansions. They’re Shateaux. They’re houses so big they take up the entire block, stretching fence to fence like a Neo-Georgian Graceland. From Caroline Springs to Camberwell, Werribee to Wantirna, many new houses have six bedrooms, three living rooms and five bathrooms — not to mention teen retreat, parents’ zone, indoor/outdoor cabana and entertainers’ deck.

Many are the slums of tomorrow being built for the people of today. In established suburbs these houses are being built by Chinese investors for other Chinese investors so they have somewhere safe to park their money amid the financial crisis. The Chinese don’t care about heritage trees, visual intrusion or the lack of privacy; they just care about getting maximum box for their buck.

For Aussies, it’s more about having the appearance of wealth and upward mobility, even if they don’t quite have the funds to match. With a four-wheel drive out the front and a jetski in the garage, it’s all part of our modern sense of entitlement. People tell themselves they deserve it, even if it’s all on credit and interest-only loans…

As long as it meets the state building code, no one has the ability to stop anything from going up. It’s too bad for residents affected by the monolithic monster being built next door that blocks out their light, overlooks their backyard, is three times the size of any other nearby house and stretches from boundary to boundary. They can’t even look at the plans, let alone object…

Sure, we all want bigger houses, but there’s a difference between big and supersized. What’s the point in having a house that is so massively huge that you can’t afford to heat or cool it, let alone meet other utility costs?

What’s left? Covered here: bad architecture; too much space; slums of the future (either because they are poorly built or push buyers into debt); outsiders entering the neighborhood; about showing off wealth; fits broader patterns of consumption; teardowns ruin the homes of their neighbors and nearby residents can’t fight back; McMansions are inefficient in energy use. Perhaps the only thing missing in this article is a connection to the terrible sprawling suburbs. Or, perhaps the suggestion that such homes exemplify all that is wrong about society.

Transforming McMansions might offend architects?

The creators of The Offset House discuss possible reactions to their plans to renovate McMansions:

It’s easy to imagine NIMBY night-terrors if a neighbor suggested building this, but architects might not appreciate you treating McMansions so reverently, either. Who did you want to offend more?

Neustein: We wanted to offend Australian architects’ sensibilities. We don’t want to offend any actual [inhabitants]. We’re trying to appreciate what’s great about suburban life, because someone needs to if many people live there. A lot of architects are out of touch with ordinary aspirations for living and want to impose things from the top down.

Has this idea of outdoor verandas in housing appeared in Australian architectural history before?

Neustein: It’s important to recognize that we’re not necessarily talking about bringing this type of suburban environment forward; we might be talking about bringing it backward.

It is suggested in the first question that any neutral or positive use of a McMansion might be abhorrent to architects. Is this really the case? McMansions are not typically paragons of architectural design: they can have poor proportions, present a mish-mash of styles, and are often mass produced. Additionally, their setting in the suburbs may represent to many all that is wrong with modern society. Yet, if bad products can be made better, why wouldn’t architects support this? Perhaps this first question is intentionally overstated to present two opposites. At the same time, it is rare to find prominent designers or architects who are willing to work with “ordinary aspirations for living.”

For Thanksgiving, carve up McMansions

The Financial Review serves up this headline: “Architects sharpen knives to carve up McMansions.”

He says there are different ways to redeem McMansions. One could be divided into two side-by-side dwellings or even three separate townhouses. Alternatively, the division could be horizontal, with a ground-floor apartment and separate first-floor one. Fences could be knocked down to create common garden areas between dwellings.

Neustein calculates that to turn a typical seven-bedroom, three-bathroom McMansion into a split-level two-unit dwelling would cost about $350,000, or a $770 per square metre.

The procedure would involve removing the brick veneer walls and plasterboard lining, weatherproofing the newly exposed timber frame, demolishing internal walls and putting in new external walls with double-glazed windows and doors, rerouting plumbing and electricity, waterproofing decking for the new verandah space and installing a rainwater tank and sprinklers to fire-proof the timber structure.

It’s a cheaper outlay than buying a new apartment, the median price of which in Sydney was $675,000 last month, would let the existing owner stay in their home and area, and would create an asset they could rent.

This article provides a lot more details about these plans that were featured at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Two quick thoughts:

  1. If apartments really are so expensive in the Sydney area, it seems like there is a lot of financial incentive to try something like this. Imagine a local business or institutional investor buying up some of these large McMansions and converting them into rentals with the aim of long-term profits (as opposed to the big profits made by building and selling such a big home in the first place).
  2. As the article goes on to note, it is hard to know whether people would want to rent so far out from job centers. Yet, I imagine another issue: what would the neighbors say? These large homes are probably built in neighborhoods with a number of similar homes. Renovations like these would be frowned upon as it would introduce renters (who are different kinds of people than those who own expensive large homes) and change the character of a quiet neighborhood. In the United States, such changes would have to go through municipal approval and to put it mildly, I think the neighbors would be opposed.