Debating the connection between larger houses and fewer children present

A working paper from an Australian researcher investigates what happens to children who grow up in large homes with relatively few people inside. Here is some of the debate thus far:

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

“My working hypothesis is that children now grow up too isolated within their own homes,” he said. “Too often, they have separate bedrooms and living spaces when they would instead benefit from more interaction with other siblings and adults.”…

Australians builds the second biggest houses in the world after the US, according to a report by CommSec and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which also found the average floor size of an Australian home (houses and apartments) was 189 square metres in 2018-19.

About 4 per cent of Australian households are considered overcrowded, or require additional bedrooms for the number of occupants, Professor Dockery said. “The vast majority of children simply do not grow up in homes that are crowded,” he said. “It appears they grow up in homes that are too empty.”…

Paul Burton, director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University, said overcrowding was a problem when it was a product of economic necessity rather than a choice.

I wonder if this possible issue extends to both countries with big houses – with the United States and Australia leading the way – and countries with lower birth rates where the homes may be smaller but there are fewer children. In the latter case, other features of social life might mitigate the problem of fewer people at home including more social ties and and more participation in public spaces. It may not just be the homes are larger in certain places; the emphasis on private space and private lives could be influential.

How much of this issue might be related to technology? I am thinking of Jean Twenge’s argument regarding the introduction of the iPhone and its affects on teenagers and young adults. It is not just about private space; it is using that space to interact virtually or in a technologically mediated way rather than having face-to-face interaction. (Or, for a previous generation, having a television in the kid’s bedroom limited interaction around the family television.)

And another thought: these large homes may have fewer people but they could be filled with a lot of stuff. It may not be just fewer people to interact with but more objects, material items a child sees and interacts with. This could include screens but also toys, clothes, decorations, and clutter. Does all of this decrease sociability?

Connecting urban planning and coping with COVID-19

McMansions might provide a lot of space for sheltering in space but an urban planner in Australia says neighborhoods of McMansions did not do as well during COVID-19:

bird s eye view of town

Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

McMansion-dwellers in suburbs far from jobs and services and uninviting to pedestrians fared badly during shutdowns, says a prominent Perth urban planner; meanwhile, residents in self-sufficient neighbourhoods with compact homes were much better equipped…

“Those in low-density neighbourhoods find it easier to stay at home, but they are forced to leave regularly in their cars for essential services and goods,” he said…

“For just $80,000, a home owner can build a 40-square-metre micro-workspace or granny flat that could assist a business to start up, or house essential workers – nurses, teachers or police – who often cannot afford to live in a McMansion,” he said…

Communities needed well-connected, shaded, pedestrian-friendly streets, front porches facilitating casual social exchanges while allowing social distancing, and walkable town centres with offices, restaurants, beach facilities and apartments.

It is interesting to compare this assessment to discussions in the United States. In places like New York City and San Francisco, journalists have reported on the move of wealthier residents away from density and to the suburbs. In these narratives, suburban homes and communities provide larger residences and more distance from others.

Yet, in the argument above, it sounds like the urban planner is arguing for New Urbanist-style suburbs as the middle ground: walkable places that offer some density and local community are better for dealing with COVID-19 that either really dense places or isolated suburban communities.

This might depend on what the highest priority is during COVID-19. If the goal is avoiding other people, public places, and mass transit all together so as not to catch the coronavirus, then neighborhoods of suburban McMansions could make sense. People today can have all sorts of goods delivered. And if suburban life is about moral minimalism, McMansions allow everyone lots of space. If the goal is to balance interacting with people and society alongside practicing social distancing, traditionally-designed suburbs could make more sense. Isolation takes a toll on people, COVID-19 or not.

Arguments like the one above are common among some urban planners, architects, and urbanists: neighborhoods full of suburban tract homes do not provide for community life and social interaction, depend on cars and limit opportunities for other forms of transportation, and waste resources. Whether COVID-19 helps advance this perspective remains to be seen.

 

Trying to figure out whether tiny houses are actually affordable

I ran across a story of a self-sustaining time home made in Australia and retailing for roughly $61,000:

In total, this Urban Tiny home on wheels is 8.2 feet wide, 14.1 feet tall, and 24.3 feet long, including its drawbar. The drawbar, which is 4.6 feet long, allows the 7,363-pound tiny home to be towed by several vehicle types, including pickup trucks and SUVs…

The home’s self sufficiency title comes from its power systems, which includes solar panels, a battery system, and a 240-volt inverter…

The inside of the home looks no different than a typical loft apartment…

The bathroom and kitchen source its water from the drinking and grey water tanks. But for those who want a more consistent stream of water and power, there are water and generator power connection points in the tiny home.

The home looks appealing and the built-in electricity and water units provide more flexibility and sustainability. But, here is why I wonder if such houses could truly be affordable housing:

1. The price on one unit is cheaper than most single-family homes in the United States. This does not necessarily mean it is affordable. It is almost double the cost of the average new car in the United States. Would lenders be willing to extend longer mortgages for these small housing units?

2. The owner of the tiny house still needs land. This would require buying a lot, renting a lot, or finding a free lot. The first two options could add significant costs while the third requires a personal connection.

3. It is unclear what the operating costs are for tiny houses: what does maintenance cost? How much are utilities? How long do these units last? What is their resale value after five or ten years?

4. Moving the unit is an attractive option (particularly given #2). But, this requires renting or owning a large enough vehicle to tow the unit.

5. This is not a large unit at roughly 200-250 square feet (including the loft space). In terms of price per square foot, this is not necessarily cheap (particularly if the costs for #2 are added in). If people have a lot of stuff, would they need to rent a storage unit or have a storage building/garage on their property? There is not a lot of private space in these units; would this require living near a community that provides pleasant public and private spaces (think coffeeshops, libraries, parks, etc.) and would this drive up the price of parking the unit?

Putting this all together, I’m not sure this is within the reach of many people (perhaps it is more in the ballpark for a retreat or second home for people with more resources).

Cooking meat in a suburban backyard and resolving suburban conflicts

A recent controversy in an Australian suburb highlights two key issues in suburbia: (1) what exactly can you do in a suburban backyard and (2) how do suburbanites resolve conflict? To the details:

The Perth woman said she couldn’t enjoy her backyard in the suburb of Girrawheen, claiming her neighbours deliberately allow their barbecue meat and fish smells to waft into her yard…

After her claims were rejected by a tribunal earlier this year on lack of evidence, she applied to the Supreme Court of Western Australia for right of appeal. It was also turned down in July…

And it’s not just the smell of meat and fish that has made her furious — it’s the smell of cigarettes and the sound of children playing with basketballs…

Mr Vu said he just wanted to “keep the peace” and had removed the barbecue out of his yard and also banned his children from playing basketball…

Mr Hammond said the first step in any dispute with your neighbours was to try and resolve the matter face-to-face.

Two issues are present:

  1. Suburbanites tend to assume that backyards are for private activities. The front yard is open to the public and can be seen from the street and the sidewalk. The backyard is more hidden, particularly if the yard is fenced or cut out from view in other ways (such as through hedges and trees). But, are there limits to what can be done in backyards? What is considered infringing on others? Overly loud dogs? Trees that cross property lines? Activities found undesirable by neighbors (such as grilling and playing basketball)? Where property rights end and neighborhood disturbances and nuisances begin could be a fine line (and there are surely some local regulations to help figure this out).
  2. Suburbanites are often not great at resolving conflict. Baumgarner argued suburban community is built around avoiding open conflict and using third party actors if necessary. It is not clear from the article above how much face-to-face interaction happened between neighbors but appealing to the courts seems likely to end badly for neighborly relations: no matter who wins, the fact that this led to media coverage and court cases likely makes it more difficult to have positive relationships.

On one hand, this is a small-scale conflict. On the other hand, multiply such conflicts by just a few and the suburbs look like a place where neighbors want to be protected from each other – wait, privacy and exclusion was indeed behind the creation of suburbs

Shrinking new homes, fewer McMansions in Australia

A few years back, Australia passed the United States for largest new homes in the world. Now, new homes in Australia are trending smaller, Australian new are firmly the second largest in the world, and fewer McMansions are under construction:

Australian homes have shrunk to 22-year lows as the “McMansion” fades in popularity and more apartments are built, Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals.

The average floor size of a new home is now 186.3 square metres, down 1.6 per cent over the past 12 months and the smallest since 1996, according to CommSec’s Home Size Trends Report released on Monday.

More on the longer trends:

The average size of freestanding houses peaked in 2011-12 and has stabilised over the past five years. The average house is 8 per cent bigger than 20 years ago and nearly 30 per cent bigger than 30 years ago in 1987-88.

The standard fit-out is also superior, with higher quality kitchens, bathrooms, floor coverings and inclusions such as air-conditioners.

It is good to have a reminder that new homes can both increase and decrease in size over time. On one hand, smaller new homes would be praised by some as a good move. On the other hand, the long-term shift is still toward larger homes with more expensive features.

It is tempting to consider whether a similar shift could take place in the United States. Could the ever-growing new home in the United States start shrinking as smaller kinds of new housing increase in number? This could happen either two ways: fewer large homes are constructed or more smaller units are constructed (in comparison to each other). I am skeptical this would happen for multiple reasons. Americans still seem to believe in the virtues of having more space and are still willing, to some degree, to tackle the issues that can come with larger houses (i.e., longer commutes, higher taxes, higher maintenance and upkeep costs). Smaller units may be popular in some circles but reasonably-priced apartments, tiny houses, and accessory dwelling units have yet to take off in large numbers. This, of course, could change as households and communities change over the decades, but I do not envision a major reduction in the size new American homes in the near future.

Could a community be green and have a lot of McMansions?

An Australian community is moving to become a garden city even as there is a demand for teardown McMansions:

The Monash Urban Landscape and Canopy Vegetation Draft Strategy suggests increasing canopy cover in Monash from 22 to 30 per cent by 2040.

Councillor Geoff Lake, who submitted amendments to the plan, said the people of Monash felt strongly about vegetation protection overlays…

“In particular, concerns related to overdevelopment on blocks where the site is razed to build a ‘McMansion’ and vegetation is not retained or replaced,” Cr Paterson said.

She said the council acknowledged that people valued the green character of Monash.

While it sounds like the vegetation plan is partly in response to teardowns, it could lead to an interesting scenario: a community that is both green and has a number of McMansions. The two are often assumed to not be compatible. McMansions are viewed as wasteful, whether because they are part of sprawling settings or provide unnecessary amounts of private space or use mass-produced materials. Garden cities, in contrast, feature plenty of green space alongside greener housing.

I have hinted at this in earlier posts: could we reach a point where McMansions are compatible with green settings? Imagine big homes with garish architecture that are built with eco-friendly materials and in settings that limit some of the worst features of sprawl. I suspect it may be difficult to convince McMansion critics that such homes could ever be green but given the public’s interest in such homes plus the ability to brand numerous products as green, the day where we have green McMansions may indeed come.

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.