At #76 on the Things Bogans Like list, McMansions are a symbol of the culture of overconsumption and a triumph of marketing over common sense. Built on the urban fringe, kilometers away from services and public transport, McMansion owners are doomed to spend hours in their cars. And with all that open plan space, these supersized houses are costly to heat and cool. Critics deride McMansion buyers as greedy, environmentally irresponsible and lacking in taste.
At Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony, Helen argues that McMansion buyers are being duped into buying substandard housing by developers and their slick, manipulative marketing campaigns. She argues that, if developers and their advertisers wanted to, they’d have no trouble convincing buyers that "they’d be happier and more comfortable (and richer!) in a smaller but better constructed and environmentally intelligent house." But is it really that simple?
When land prices as high as they are in Sydney, the urban fringe has little to offer battlers and first home buyers. Increasingly it is the domain of second and third home buyers stepping up to something better. As Peter McManus writes:
Consumers are not necessarily moving to the Western Sydney Fringe to build McMansions, but this is where the land is the cheapest in addition with building costs low in comparison to the price of land. People can now afford to build the large extravagant home they have always wanted, with all the added extras – at no sacrifice.
Like the extra 50 cents for a supersized meal at McDonalds, the extra cost of additional space seems a small price to pay. As McMansion critic Terry Burke points out: "as a purchase (but not necessarily in terms of ongoing costs) they are incredibly good value."
Builders can provide extra floor space far more cheaply in detached houses in greenfields sites on the fringe than they can in apartment blocks or urban infill developments. So for the price of pokey terrace house in walking distance of a train station near the city, buyers can get a brick veneer palace on the fringe. It might not be hip or high status, but at least the guests won’t be tripping over bicycles, clothes drying racks and the kids’ toys as they stumble through hallway and across the living room. In a McMansion, there’s always somewhere to hide the clutter.
Critics point out that cheap space comes at an environmental cost. Helen complains about the lack of eaves, insulation and proper orientation. In NSW the Carr government tried to deal with this problem. Since 2004 new houses have been required to comply with a Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) designed to ensure that they "are designed to use less potable water and be responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions by setting energy and water reduction targets for house and units."
BASIX may not make any significant visual difference to the standard overstuffed McMansion-burb. It’d be nice to think that the McManufacturers might respond to BASIX with a little ancient wisdom – slab huts with a full set of verandahs, eaves and tanks. But they don’t have to.
They can simply insulate and re-orient the existing McMansion and keep the look, if that’s what the market wants.
It’s hard to be energy efficient in a house with three bathrooms and hundreds of downlights, but as a couple of Helen’s commenters point out, older houses aren’t always a lot more energy efficient or better built than today’s McMansions. For example, this $725,000 three bedroom house in Turner ACT has an Energy Efficiency Rating of 0.0 while this brand new $625,000+ six bedroom, two story home in Bonner has a rating of 5.0. Many 1950s houses were hastily built during a period of materials shortage and are badly designed and shoddily constructed. Canberra’s monocrete houses of the 1940s and 50s, for example, are hot in summer, freezing in winter and almost impossible to insulate properly.
Of course new McMansions would be more energy efficient if they were smaller and designed to take better advantage of the sun and breeze. And their location on the fringe means that almost all trips will be by car. But on its own, access to public transport and nearby services doesn’t automatically mean lower emissions. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation: "despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption."
According to the ACF one of the biggest drivers of high emissions is the trend towards small and single person households. Living alone is almost always less efficient than sharing with other people. So on a per person basis, empty nesters living in older family sized homes and affluent singles living in inner city apartments may be as real a threat to the environment as families in outer suburban McMansions.
The desire for space and privacy contributes both to the growth of McMansions and to the increase in small households. In the past elderly parents often shared a house with their adult children. Children shared bedrooms with each other and everyone shared the same bathroom and toilet. But as Australians grew richer, one of the first things they did was spread themselves further apart. Older people increasingly decided to live alone and families with children moved into bigger houses with extra bedrooms, extra bathrooms and rumpus rooms so that everyone could enjoy more time apart. Population ageing has intensified the trend by increasing the numbers of older one an two person households.
In a presentation on McMansions, the University of Western Sydney’s Emma Power quotes a research subject’s idea of her ideal home: "enough space for us to lose ourselves and there’s enough room for us to come together as a family basically.” It seems that people are using space to manage relationships. This craving for personal space also affects transport decisions. Many people prefer driving to public transport because their car allows them to travel alone in an environment they can control.
So perhaps the rise of the McMansion isn’t about people who are too stupid to resist a slick advertising brochure. If hell is other people (when you’re not in the mood), then the McMansion promises bliss.
Are huge homes irresponsible? Alan Davies, The Melbourne Urbanist
Are apartments the answer to ‘McMansions’? Alan Davies, The Melbourne Urbanist