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…

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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.