Are McMansions about class warfare?Posted: July 18, 2011
There was a very interesting trans-blog discussion over the weekend about one of my favourites topics – McMansions. It started earlier in the month when Helen at Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony decided to “call bullshit on the popular story that criticising McMansions is equivalent to sneering at the working class, and denying them the good things in life”. She goes on:
In this narrative, the people championing the McMansion are the true socialists and stand with the working man and woman in their quest for a truly equal society.
She reckons it’s nothing to do with class. Her alternative interpretation is that McMansions are objectively just plain bad. That’s partly, she says, because they’re shoddily built, partly because they’re environmentally greedy, and partly because buyers are unwittingly duped by advertisers and marketers into wanting these big status machines.
Don Arthur at Club Troppo picked up on Helen’s post in passing on Friday in his regular Friday Missing Links. He must’ve been intrigued by the debate because he returned on Sunday with a nice, measured commentary on the topic, Together alone, why McMansions appeal.
I’m not going to get into the detail of this debate because I’ve looked at it before (e.g. see here, here, here and here, or go to Housing in the Categories list in the sidepane for a larger selection). However I do want to summarise in twelve simple points what I think are the salient matters in this ongoing debate.
One, what we call a McMansion in Australia is modest compared to the way the term is used in the US where it originated. In the latter McMansions are palaces, but here in Australia, any outer suburban two story home and garage produced by a developer, whatever its size, seems to attract the pejorative, McMansion.
Two, only cookie cutter houses constructed by developers are McMansions. Large architect-designed bespoke detached houses like these aren’t described in such sneering, deprecating terms.
Three, the great majority of fringe dwellings don’t fit the popular definition of a McMansion. For example, in Melbourne, more than two thirds of all houses built in the Growth Areas are single story (however for some critics that means little – they implicitly regard all detached fringe houses as McMansions).
Four, buyers of McMansions aren’t from struggle town – they’re overwhelmingly 2nd and 3rd home buyers.
Five, fringe area McMansions aren’t appreciably bigger, if at all, than all those renovated detached homes within established suburbs. The latter have the advantage of larger sites, so there’s scope to extend further. When account is taken of relative household size, the difference in per capita space between McMansions and established homes – such as those occupied by empty nesters – is likely to be even smaller.
Six, there’s no evidence McMansions are more shoddily built than smaller fringe dwellings, or apartments for that matter. That’s just out and out prejudice.
Seven, the sustainability of the average 238 sq m fringe house in Melbourne has improved enormously over the last ten years. On average, they consume a third less energy now than they did in 2000. In fact they consume less than they did 50 years ago, despite on average being more than double the size. New fringe homes are also vastly more efficient thermally than older established suburban homes.
Eight, the claim that McMansions are unsustainable because of high car use is invalid – that’s a function of location and applies irrespective of how big the house is. In any event, the transport “sustainability penalty” associated with fringe living is commonly exaggerated – it seems to be a little known fact that the great bulk of jobs in Australia’s largest cities are now in the suburbs.
Nine, people build McMansions because the marginal cost of constructing more built space is low, especially relative to the cost of the land. The cottage building industry on the fringe is so efficient it can deliver a lot of space cheaply. People generally buy more of what they like if they can afford it – there’s no need to resort to patronising “false consciousness” propaganda that exaggerates people’s susceptibility to advertising. People like space – if they can afford it, inner city apartment buyers also tend to buy more of it e.g. penthouses.
Ten, people buy McMansions because they deliver a bundle of desired attributes, including “vulgar” ones like status. That’s what other groups do too – inner suburban elites might live in smaller dwellings, but spend more on (say) overseas travel. Some people get status from holidaying in Cannes, some from marble kitchen benches.
Eleven, McMansions deliver real and practical advantages, principally privacy, but also room for other purposes, like accommodating guests, hobbies and storage. There’s a pretty long history of space per capita increasing with living standards. The increasing proportion of unattached people living alone (e.g. in inner city apartments) rather than sharing is one expression of that trend.
Twelve, people everywhere consume too much housing because the tax system rewards over-investment and because externalities aren’t fully priced. The thing is to make sure all of us pay the real costs that our dwelling and location choices impose – it’s just a start, but hats off to mandatory energy ratings for new dwellings and cue the carbon tax.
I agree with Helen that McMansions have nothing to do with the working class, but that’s an irrelevant comparison – she’s set up a straw man to do battle with. What I think is the case, though, is that educated elites look down their patronising noses at the vulgar taste of bogans – the tasteless nouveau riche – who choose to show off their success with big, flashy houses and big, flashy cars. Educated elites have more tasteful ways of displaying their success.