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.

Builders turning from McMansions to smaller housing units?

Alongside recent news of reduced price premium for McMansions, data from the second quarter suggests builders are constructing more townhouses and smaller units:

Reversing years of ballooning home sizes aimed at upper-bracket buyers, builders have begun refocusing their efforts on entry-level and more modest-sized homes. According to new data from the National Association of Home Builders, the median floor area in new-home starts dropped during the second quarter of this year by about 3 percent.

Meanwhile, townhouse construction has been increasing fast — up 25 percent over the past year as of the second quarter. New townhouses, which typically are smaller and cost less than detached single-family homes, now account for 13 percent of all single-family starts, the highest it’s been since 2008.

NAHB chief economist Rob Dietz told me the quarterly decline is no fluke and the trend is likely to persist. “What you’re seeing is the beginning of builders trying to expand the market” and pull in first-time and other buyers who are frustrated by the lack of affordable alternatives in the resale arena, he said. Many shoppers, especially those with or planning on children, now find growing opportunities in townhouse and entry-level detached-home communities in the suburbs and exurbs compared with closer-in, higher-cost homes.

Critics of McMansions as well as advocates for affordable housing have been asking for years why builders have been focusing so much of their efforts on larger homes. The short answer: such homes can generate a lot of profit while building smaller homes lead to less profit per unit. Yet, this article also suggests that demand has increased for smaller homes as entry-level buyers haven’t been able to find much thus far.

One point to note: even as builders and buyers are looking for smaller spaces, I suspect builders will do what they can to raise the values/prices of these units. Smaller doesn’t necessarily mean that much cheaper once numerous features are added and locations are considered. This doesn’t necessarily mean that builders are going to be constructing bare bones, cheap units – unless they are significantly farther away from city centers and job centers.

Can townhouses look like McMansions?

One resident claims units in a proposed townhouse development “look like a bit like the stereotypical “McMansions. Here is a description of the proposed units as well as an artistic rendering:

“The idea is to capture the transient market of people coming from urban areas to work at the colleges,” Buhl said.  “They would ultimately buy a house, but don’t know where to locate.  We’re looking for young, two-worker families.  It’s an in-between type of rental of higher-end people that we’re looking for.”

Cayuga Farms has gone through several changes over the past recent years.  Originally it was conceived as a 144 unit townhouse condominium community.  Today it is being packaged as a 102 rental two and three bedroom townhouses with one or two-car garages in a total of 21 buildings.  Buhl characterized it as a high-end development targeted at young families who may have moved to town to work here, renting for a while before purchasing a house.  He said rents will range between about $1,800 and 2,200 per month…

cayugafarms elevation
An artist’s elevation of the proposed design for the townhouse buildings

These do seem to be aimed at a wealthier renter. So, could these be McMansions? These townhouses do appear to have some of the features tied to McMansions. A multi-gabled roof. Big emphasis on garages. A mish-mash of styles on the facade. Possibly two-story entryways (the windows right above the door do suggest this). Odd dormers on the third story. Windows of all sorts of sizes. Porticos at the front door. Height and width that seems to dwarf the green space between the driveways.

Yet, I think not being single-family homes is a big barrier as McMansions are viewed by critics as cartoonish versions of the single-family house. The design of townhouses seems not to be as much of an issue. Perhaps this is because there are fewer design options for townhouses or because they tend to be located within their own developments (avoids teardown situations) or density is a bigger issue for opponents compared to design.

My verdict: these look like McMansions but can’t quite be labeled McMansions.

Bad options: “grand McMansion” vs. “cookie cutter townhouse”

This description of a Season 87 House Hunters episode suggests the homebuyers have two less than stellar options:

Ryan and Stacey have $300,000 to buy their first home outside Baltimore, but they want very different things. He dreams of a grand McMansion, but she wants a cookie cutter townhouse with a uniform look. And since they’re both a bit stubborn, neither one is willing to give an inch. Can they find a place that they can agree on, or will this house hunt become a Battle in Baltimore?

This sounds like a typical House Hunters episode: the couple have different visions on what they want and perhaps they will compromise on a third option that gives them each a little of what they want. But, the choices set up here are interesting. McMansions are disliked by numerous critics. Does Ryan himself say he wants a McMansion or is this description using this as shorthand to describe a large suburban home? Then, is a “cookie cutter townhouse” a superior alternative? Critics of McMansions might note that at least townhouses are denser developments and tend to not be as large. Yet, townhouses aren’t usually known for their fine architecture and a uniform look doesn’t help anyone distinguish themselves. Both McMansion owners and critics tend to buy into the idea that a home is supposed to express yourself – though they disagree on what should be expressed and how – and a townhouse with this sort of description wouldn’t fit the bill.

Seniors don’t want McMansions; they want ranchers and ADA friendly townhouses

A Maryland real estate agent looks at recent figures about the number of aging Americans and what is being built and asks if there is enough of certain kinds of housing:

After I read these facts I thought to myself, why aren’t more builders building what the greatest generation wants – the rancher home or townhouse that is “senior ADA friendly and energy efficient” ?

This is an interesting set of options:

1. The rancher. The legacy of this home dates back to the early to mid-1900s when Americans sought easier to build homes amidst housing shortages and quick-growing suburbs as well as relatively clean and straightforward design. The advantage for older residents is a lack of stairs and all of the house on one level. Of course, there are ways to make ranches more unique – features like vaulted ceilings or wings with master suites or basements – but they are relatively simple homes.

2. Townhouses provide several advantages including newer construction and homeowner’s associations which take care of exterior maintenance as well as yard work. However, townhouses are not necessarily cheap (particularly if they are all ADA friendly and energy efficient) monthly homeowner’s fees might make it less of an option for lots of people.

The aging population will present a unique challenge to the housing industry: who will purchase all of the homes owned by aging Americans and what will the housing options be for their later years?

Designing a McMansion that actually contains four townhouses

Check out a Fairfax County, Virginia McMansion that was intentionally built to contain four townhomes:

This is the Great House, a four-unit townhouse designed to look like a large, single-family home. Like DC and Montgomery County, Fairfax requires developers to build affordable units in new developments, but they often stick out like a sore thumb. When Carrington was being built in 2001, the county worked with builder Edgemoore Homes to help subsidized, $120,000 townhomes blend in with homes several times as expensive.

Each Great House is comparable in size to its neighbors and uses the same materials. But instead of one, 5,000 square-foot house, you have four, 1,200-square foot townhouses. Only one of the doors faces the street. A driveway runs around the back, where each townhouse has a two-car garage…

The Great House could be a particularly useful housing type as the region grows. A recent study from George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis estimates that the DC area will need 548,000 new homes over the next 20 years. About half of those units will need to go in the District, Montgomery, and Fairfax counties. And 60% of them will need to be townhouses or apartments…

Those things don’t really matter to neighbors who spend lots of time and effort to “maintain the integrity” of their single-family neighborhoods. But seeding their neighborhood with a few Great Houses that provide housing diversity while blending in could be a compelling alternative to building traditional apartments or townhouses there instead. Of course, they aren’t possible under most zoning laws, which only allow single-family homes in “single-family neighborhoods.”

This sounds like a fascinating compromise: help provide cheaper housing in a region that needs it while at the same time keeping the single-family home character of these neighborhoods. I wonder just how many “Great Houses” a typical suburban neighborhood could handle without social life changing or the McMansion owners complaining a lot.

I also suspect that some would argue building townhouses that look like this only perpetuates some of the problems of McMansions, including bad architecture and emphasis on sprawl and auto dependence. At the same time, a key factor in helping affordable housing succeed is that it needs to look like normal ousing so it doesn’t stand out and draw the attention of nearby residents.

American housing reacts to changes in family and household structures

After looking at some data about how much American families and households have changed in recent decades, Kaid Benfield asks an interesting question about how American housing might change to meet these realities:

So, as many of us connect with families in one way or another on Thanksgiving, I can’t help but observe that there really is no “typical” American family living under the same roof these days, if there ever was.  Rather, we have a diverse and changing array of household types and circumstances that smart planners and businesses will seek to accommodate.  The census data show that the growing parts of the housing market are nonfamily households, smaller households including people living alone, unmarried couples, single-parent households with kids, and older households.  The declining parts of the market are larger families, married couples, two-parent households, and couples with only one breadwinner, though each of these categories clings to a significant share of the total.

Interesting stuff, and mostly good for those of us who would like to see less sprawl and more walkable neighborhoods.  But also a bit complex.

The typical answer I’ve seen online to this question is to point to indicators that suggest younger (see here and here) and older adults (see here) will be seeking out denser housing. This may be true. I think we could also argue that American housing has already shifted to these realities in recent decades through several new options.

1. The rise of townhouses, particularly in the suburbs. These have the advantages of allowing for single-family home ownership, the ability to pay an association to maintain the housing as well as help protect property values, and denser housing which frees up more open space.

2. The rise of condos in both suburbs in cities. In suburbs, this has similar benefits to townhouses. In cities, this has been a boon for redevelopment and the movement of people with money into urban cores.

3. New housing products for older Americans beyond group homes including developments like the Del Webb communities and retirement complexes that include owned units (whether more like condos or detached single-family units).

4. More interest in tiny houses and tiny apartments (see this latest example from San Francisco).

5. Some New Urbanist communities and neighborhoods that allow for denser housing.

Perhaps the argument here about housing is about a matter of degrees; there have been changes in American housing in recent decades but it hasn’t necessarily been mostly anti-sprawl.

Note: I’ve been following some of these trends about changing family and household composition. For example, check out these posts (here and here) about more Americans living in single-person households.