Add purple trim to cement a home’s McMansion status

How much does adding purple trim contribute to making a large home a McMansion? Residents in Auckland, New Zealand weigh in:

The house, which is still under construction, is now sporting a bright purple trim right around the multiple eaves, and from what we understand, the owner (who also owns the neighbouring section) is perfectly entitled to do this…

But not everyone is opposed to the colour. “Brings diversity and a spot of colour to the neighbourhood,” one wrote, while another suggested the owners must be Melbourne Storm rugby league supporters.

Negative comments about the design and colour (“Barbie McMansion”) are also slammed by other residents, who think homeowners should be free to do their own thing: “It’s not my cup of tea, but each to their own. They own the land and they build to their specifications, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”…

“Those colours should be illegal,” writes another local. “With all the compliance you need to go through to build anything I can’t believe this got through council. Go them if they like the colours and can navigate their way through the criteria.”

The discussion, as described here, seems to involve the property rights of the owners and whether such color and design are in good taste. There do not appear to be restrictions on the color. This would be true in many places in the United States that are not governed by homeowners associations or preservation guidelines. At the same time, official guidelines on colors are different than what people expect to see on homes. Purple is not a color that would be viewed favorably in many American neighborhoods. While it could fit in some locations where the color palette is different for exterior parts of houses, it would be viewed as inappropriate in many settings.

Mix these two discussion points regarding McMansions, homes that often involve property rights – can people build a giant house wherever they want or right next to homes of different sizes? – and aesthetic judgments – are McMansions out of proportion, built poorly, and badly designed? – and the simple choice of a trim color mixes with numerous emotions. It is hard to be neutral with such a negative term for a house.

In the long run, could the purple-trimmed McMansion end up becoming a kind of local oddity? Some might not want to live near such a home but others might find it interesting to view when out for a drive or as part of a varied local landscape.

The lost opportunity to transform a city for the better, Christchurch edition

The 2011 earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand offered an opportunity for a new approach to city life. What ended up changing? One writer suggests not much.

Photo by Wilson Malone on

The Feb. 22, 2011, earthquake killed 185 people and had an unprecedented impact on the built environment of Christchurch, a city built by white settlers on drained swampland. More than 1,200 buildings inside the central four avenues were destroyed by the quake or by demolition crews in the years after. In the suburbs, a process called liquefaction was just as devastating. As the ground shook, water and sand squeezed up through the soil to the surface, leaving the soil to subside into the space the water had vacated. Houses slumped, and roads folded inward like the icing on a failing chocolate cake. In the hardest-hit eastern suburbs, the government eventually bought out and demolished about 6,500 houses, upending countless families.

One of the champions for this area of the city, which is demographically poorer and browner than the rest of Christchurch, was then-opposition MP Lianne Dalziel. She left Parliament in 2013 to contest the mayoralty, won, and is now in her third term. When I asked her about lessons to come from the rebuild, she immediately mentioned “Share an Idea,” an inclusive project run by the City Council in the months following the quake. “It was an opportunity for people to submit ideas about how they might reimagine their city,” she said. More than 10,000 people contributed over 100,000 ideas, which the council used to influence its draft central city plan. Share an Idea empowered the community, produced concrete recommendations for the future, and won international accolades.

In late 2011, the national government rejected that community-generated plan. Sidelining local politicians, the government came up with its own version, formulated behind closed doors in about 100 days. With much fanfare, the government announced a “Blueprint” for Christchurch that promised a brand-new city peppered with big-ticket items: a stadium, a library, a convention center, a giant indoor sports facility. The CEO of the government agency set up to oversee the rebuild said that “this new city will absolutely set an international benchmark for urban design, innovation, and livability.” The minister in charge, Gerry Brownlee, noted that “the plan and its implementation are being watched by the rest of the world.”…

A 2019 survey of 30,000 Christchurch residents found that just 29 percent of them thought that the city was better than it was before the quake. I lived in central Christchurch for about a decade, both before and after the quake, and I have to agree with the majority. Rebuilding this city was an opportunity to make something great; instead, 10 years on, we’re still talking about Christchurch’s potential. What lessons can other cities, rebuilding from disaster or redesigning in anticipation of change, learn from Christchurch?

Given how major cities operate today, this might not be a big surprise. Do city and civic leaders tend to listen to the people or do they go with decisions that enrich the interests of elites?

Sociologists have written about this. More broadly, the growth regimes/machines literature suggests that city decisions are made by a pro-growth coalition that can make money off development. The broader public has limited influence in big decisions.

More narrowly, studies like Crisis Cities show how communities react to large-scale crises. In the case of New York City after 9/11, much of the money and redevelopment effort went back into expensive property. In New Orleans, relatively little was done to help poorer residents and neighborhoods while more effort went into rebuilding the tourism industry.

This does not mean such change could not happen. But, it would be unusual. Without sustained effort from the larger community or unusual efforts from leaders to incorporate the community, redevelopment and cleanup will be aimed in a particular direction.

You don’t have to loathe McMansions to support tiny houses

An interview with New Zealand actor/musician Bryce Langston about his interest in tiny houses includes his response to growing up in a McMansion:

8. Describe your childhood home.

I grew up in a McMansion, really. My parents have a large house on the Shore, four bedrooms, two lounges, an office. It was a great family home. I actually don’t loathe McMansions at all. I have seen wonderful large homes that have been constructed with great thought and care for the environment around them. They are just not a practical solution for all the people on the planet in a world with limited space and resources. The main problem is the debt associated with owning them. And the lack of freedom that comes with that debt…

10. Are you an evangelist for minimalism?

What I want to do is let people know there’s a choice. If you’re happy with how things are in your life and the work you do to pay for that then that’s fine. But lots of people aren’t. They’re really hurting and unhappy in their jobs and they don’t see a way out of being in debt for 30 years or whatever. People say you have to live in the real world, but the real tangible world is one where food does grow on trees and water falls from the sky and everything is provided for you to survive…

12. Will tiny houses take over the world one day?

That really depends on the path of human consciousness. If we grow into a culture that focuses on fair distribution of resources, care of the planet and pursuit of non-material happiness, then I think downsized homes will become normal. If our society continues down the path of uncontrolled material and economic growth, then it’s unlikely.

Langston offers some of the common critiques of McMansions – they are about materialism, they use too many resources, they put people in debt – while also noting that he enjoyed the large home he grew up in. If you read some of the criticisms of McMansions, it may be hard to imagine anyone could enjoy living in a McMansion.

There are also some religious and moral overtones here. Langston ties living in a home to larger issues in human life including defining success and what it means to achieve something. This isn’t unusual in discussing McMansions (see another example here or this recent case of a Catholic archibishop): homes could be considered necessary structures but they can also be places of meaning as well as important symbols for others to see.

Nice guy political leaders don’t live in McMansions?

As a New Zealand journalist paints a nice guy image of the leader of the opposition party, there is an interesting bit about the leader’s home:

The Goffs’ home is spacious and comfortable – it’s not a McMansion, those sorts of architect-designed, three-level monuments to money that have sprung up in the more fashionable rural suburbs of Auckland, although there is a small kidney-shaped swimming pool. You can tell a family has been raised here and that the family will always be welcome home.

This description contains some of the common complaints about McMansions: they are excessive homes built by social strivers in the suburbs. At the same time, there is a contrast to typical complaints: these are designed by architects? Also, are McMansions not capable of being welcoming places or having the traits that show kids were raised there?

But one does have to wonder whether this particular home might just be labeled a McMansion if the leader wasn’t such a nice guy or the journalist didn’t have a positive experience. By saying his home is not a McMansion, the journalist is painting a down-to-earth, positive image.

Become a world city by designating a Chinatown

A sociologist suggests Auckland, New Zealand would be closer to being a world city if it officially created a Chinatown:

Sociologist Paul Spoonley, who co-authored the report, said if Auckland is serious about being rated as a world city it needs to start promoting itself as one.

London, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver all have Chinatowns.

“I mean Chinatown in Sydney is the third most visited destination for tourists in Sydney,” Spoonley told TV ONE’s Close Up.

“These sorts of ethnic precincts are what tourists, international tourists, like to see as well.”

On the positive side: Spoonley seems to be suggesting that Auckland would show off its multicultural side by having an official Chinatown that it could then promote to tourists. It would suggest Auckland is serious about welcoming new residents and also celebrates their traditions.  On the negative side: having a Chinatown does not necessarily a world city make. I suspect Auckland might have to do a bit more before it is considered a world city. Such cities, often known as “global cities,” are often financial centers, with all of the business, wealth, and status that this confers, and centers of culture, which attracts celebrities, intellectuals, and tourists.

While this idea might need to be expanded, Spoonley’s broader suggestion is interesting: a city can become a world class city simply by promoting itself as such. Has this happened with other cities?

Homes still large in New Zealand

While new American homes have gotten smaller and this trend might continue into the future (I wrote about a piece in Slate that has been getting a lot of attention on this front), homes in New Zealand had also increased in size in recent decades though this might change in the near future:

Latest research from Quotable Value puts the average size of a home built since 2010 at 205 square metres, against just 142.4 square metres in 1980.

Quotable Value research director Jonno Ingerson said much of the increase could be put down to a rise in the construction of four bedroom homes, particularly during the last 20 years…

However significant increases in the cost of building in recent years meant the rate of growth was now slowing, suggesting homes may not get much larger, he said.

“There is also a push by some of the larger city councils to encourage medium density housing in fringe city suburbs. This type of housing will have smaller floor areas than the traditional suburban family homes that have been built over the last 20 years.”

It sounds like similar trends are taking place in New Zealand.

Several years ago, I had read a number of books comparing housing in the United States to European countries. While there are often clear differences there, it would be interesting to see recent research or books comparing the US housing market to that of Australia and New Zealand where bigger houses had also become the norm in recent decades. Will all three countries end up following a similar path toward smaller homes?

Chinese purchase “monster homes” in New Zealand

McMansion type homes are not just restricted to the United States. This article describes what Chinese buyers are moving into in New Zealand:

When veteran architect Ron Sang drives around the outer fringes of Auckland near Albany or Botany, he can always spot a house built for a Chinese buyer.

“Generally it has a high portico on the outside – a big, high, ostentatious-looking porch, usually double height,” he says.

“Generally above the door you have a window and through the window you can see chandeliers. Inside the door you’ll see a big, ostentatiously curved stairway. They like to show wealth.”

These grand mansions on small suburban sections – what sociologist Paul Spoonley, adopting a Canadian term, calls “monster houses” – have become the stereotypical Chinese footprints in our cityscape.

While the homes described here are called “monster homes,” this sounds very similar to what Americans would call McMansions with the traits of a big entryway, garish appointments, the goal of impressing a buyer or visitor, and large homes on relatively small lots in suburban neighborhoods.

There is an interesting discussion later in the article about Chinese immigration to and residential patterns of Chinese residents in New Zealand.