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.

The “Reincarnated McMansion Project” taking on big issues

The Reincarnated McMansion Project of an Australian artist keeps developing:

His plan is simple enough: buy one giant, carbon-hungry McMansion on more than 800 square metres of land and carefully demolish the brick veneer home to rebuild four sustainable, affordable and architecturally designed townhouses for $450,000 each – less than half Sydney’s $1 million median house price…

Gallois’ dream is to create a company or strata-titled commune where like-minded “model citizens” embrace sustainable living rather than climbing the profit-centric property ladder…

The community-funded project has attracted sponsors and some of Australia’s best environmental architects – including Tone Wheeler, who designed the eco house on reality TV show Big Brother – which is why the price tag is so reasonable.

“We have raised half the money and we want one or two more families with like-minded values to register their interest,” Gallois said.

The price tag could be even cheaper if there was a family currently living in a McMansion who wanted to join the project and downsize into one of the eco-townhouses, which feature greywater treatment, a shared laundry and “features that save space and are good for the environment”.

Gallois is taking aim at several issues at once: the growing size of Australian homes, limiting the carbon footprint and energy use for single-family units, avoiding the “profit-centric property ladder,” and finding alternative funding to make this possible. It will likely take some time to do all of this; the third and fourth ones seem more difficult to me while the first two are already prompting a number of people in the United States and Australia to consider other options. The market for smaller homes may be growing as people consume differently and both retiring residents and younger people want some smaller options. Being more energy-efficient is more attractive with rising energy bills and it isn’t too hard to do some simple things in newer homes that could have positive long-term consequences. But, how do you get buyers to see their homes differently such as moving away from “the most bang for your buck” and having lots of extra space for things that owners might need? Or to find large enough funding sources to do this on a bigger scale when it may be more profitable to develop, build, and sell McMansions?

See an earlier June 2015 post on the project here.

Australian architects to demolish McMansions, reuse materials for multiple homes

Three Australian architects have plans to create multiple, more sustainable homes out of McMansions:

The project aims to demolish existing McMansions which have seen better days and reuse as much of the materials as possible – up to 80 per cent – to build between two and four new homes on the site using minimal new materials and sustainable practices.

Mr Gallois said the project aimed to show how housing could be more affordable and could also deliver zero emissions green homes…

“In the face of Sydney’s housing affordability crisis, the Reincarnated McMansion Project provides a real solution to the financial challenges of owning a home in Sydney in 2015,’’ he said…

Australia has some of the biggest homes in the world and the largest CO2 footprint per capita in the world so the aim was to work on both of these issues.

While many don’t like McMansions, few have developed plans of what to do with the many that have already exist. This sounds interesting: find ways to reuse the materials (cuts down on a lot of waste) and split the property into multiple single-family homes (denser housing but still lets people own single-family homes). I’m not sure there are many redevelopment projects that use a lot of the demolished materials – perhaps it requires detailed planning or builders and architects want to start with a blank slate rather than be constrained by older materials.

I wonder how neighbors would view these projects. In a neighborhood full of McMansions, would a group of smaller homes be met with approval? Teardown McMansions in particular prompt criticism because they interrupt the existing aesthetic of a neighborhood. Plus, homeowners want houses nearby to match their housing value, not units that provide less space and drive down prices. Would would the prices be for these new homes and what kind of architecture would they feature?

A video tutorial on how to build a McMansion in The Sims

Two players put together a McMansion in The Sims and you can see the process here.

A few thoughts:

1. If I heard correctly on the video, this originally took 3 hours to build.

2. The builders note that this is a modern home yet the headline says it is a McMansion. While it is a large home and clearly has some wealth (located on a canal), the design does not necessarily make it s stereotypically American McMansion.

3. This has over 21,000 views in 2+ days.

4. The designers intended to have a fountain outside the house but alas, it was never constructed. That fountain would have contributed to a McMansion style.

5. Interesting that this features two Aussies. If there is one country in the world that can rival the United States in McMansions, Australia is it.

6. I get the impulse to design things in games like this. While I have never done much with The Sims, I’ve spent a lot of time doing similar things with urban planning in SimCity. Yet, I’m curious to know how much homes like these enhance the gameplay. How much better is it to have a family of Sims living in a custom-designed home like this compared to the average home?

Wherever you go, you just can’t escape those pesky McMansions…

Decreasing interest in McMansions in Melbourne, Australia

The demand for McMansions has decreased in recent years in Melbourne:

MELBURNIANS are moving away from McMansions with the number of medium density home approvals in Victoria growing a whopping 109.5 per cent over five years.

The Bankwest Housing Density report shows that 23,390 medium density approvals were granted in Victoria in the past 12 months. Five years ago that number was just 11,164…

KPMG Australia demographer Bernard Salt said Melbourne, in particular, was densing up.

“A new generation of Generation Y and X have different values to preceding generation that wanted a three-bedroom brick veneer on the edge of town,” Mr Salt said.

This and other stories I’ve seen in recent months from Australia seem to suggest that the McMansion craze may have run its course. Older adults wanted to have the big house outside the city but for a variety of reasons, including a change in preferences among younger Australians, interest in smaller housing, and interest in more affordable units, fewer McMansions have been built.

What will be interesting to observe is whether the McMansion paths in the United States and Australia diverge in the future. Does the average Australian want to join the United States and leave a legacy of McMansions?