Are McMansions about class warfare?

It's big, but who would dream of calling it a McMansion? It's Beached House, a winner in this year's Victorian architecture awards

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.

13 Comments on “Are McMansions about class warfare?”

  1. Oz says:

    McMansion estates will never be walkable communities. Whether living in walkable communities are worthy aspirations depends on a person’s values and definitions.

    • Daniel says:

      I grew up in Mount Waverley, a middle ring suburb. I would argue that a new estate (even iff full of McMansions) could be more walkable than a middle ring suburb, as the development is at a much higher density, in some new estates, the density is more than double the 60’s estates.

  2. Paul says:

    The concept of the McMansion is alive and well – but they are definately for the 2nd or 3rd home buyer – the cost of construction sitting at $1500/m2 ensures that.
    Their existance is a factor of minimum densities on outer suburbs moving upo to 12/ha and the fact that land cant be depreciated in an investment but the structure can – so build as much on as smaller space as possible
    Unfortunately it all comes down to profit and a rectalinear design that is repeated 1000 times is the cheapest way to go about it – particularly if you only use one paint color – very little wastage!
    Their size is very large compared to global standards with only the US – with its largely illegal construction site workforce – haveing anything that can match – go to Norway if you want a shock – average size there is <100m2
    The only minor advantage of the McaMansion is that it keeps densities up which allows for the better provision of public transport – although this clearly does not apply to NSW!

  3. Chloe says:

    I personally dislike the “McMansion” stereotype, but I agree with all the points you make from an objective point of view. On principle, I don’t see why there’s anything wrong with big houses far from the CBD. I wouldn’t chose to live there, but far be it for me to say that my lifestyle is any better than anybody elses. Certainly, many families would not want to live is a small two bedroom house in a central area. They would value space. Space, for me, just equals more to clean. All I ask if that those who buy houses in these new estates please stop complaining about the lack of amenities, infrastructure and public transportation. It would be like me buying a 5 bedroom 4 bathroom house and then complaining about having to clean it all myself. How come the government won’t clean my house for me?

  4. Kieran says:

    On your 7th point, houses may be much more thermally efficient now than in the past, but larger houses that require a larger volume of materials have much higher embodied energy – and the embodied energy in buildings is usually equal to several decades of operational energy use.

  5. […] elites often show distaste for the sort of conspicuous consumption exemplified by McMansions, but it seems almost everyone likes to show off, even […]

  6. Helen says:

    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.

    No, I didn’t. I pointed out, straight off the bat, that the whole thing of urban elites sneering at “bogan” mcmansions was a furphy as they’re more likely to be young professionals anyway. Then I stated my intention to argue the case AS IF that basic premise still held. In short, I was saying “This argument is wrong in its basic premise, but even if you proceed as if that premise was true, it’s still logically wrong.”

    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.

    See above.

    (Also – why should life be about displaying one’s success? Sounds like a miserable existence to me. Pick up a guitar or a book, people, walk the dog. Forget about what the neighbours think.)

    • Alan Davies says:

      Come on Helen, your set-up was that some people reckon that to attack McMansions is to attack the working class. Your thing was to show that’s wrong (as indeed it is), but that’s still the point of your post. I call that as a straw man because virtually no one actually runs that line.

      And showing off, getting recognition, etc is the human condition. People of different classes and types just do it in different ways.

      • Helen says:

        Virtually no one actually runs that line? – That’s incorrect, and you’ll recall it was in response to someone actually doing that very thing the post was written.
        The point of my post was: Although it’s incorrect that McMansions are inhabited by the classic “working class” (and you could write a whole book, indeed people do, on what the hell the working class *is* in this hugely changed world), it’s my genuine opinion that they are badly designed, sited, conceptualised and (with some exceptions) badly built, therefore, to address this by building different kinds of houses would increase the happiness and wellbeing of people with less money to spend.

  7. […] have nice things. It’s because I would like them to have something so much better! Update: The Melbourne Urbanist, Don Arthur on Club […]

  8. Russell Pollard says:

    Sure, McMansions may mean sprawling, fast build, multilevel housing in the US, but in Australia we all know they mean those fast build, prefab, flashy things that all have a way too similar look about them. And where I come from, in my street, the McMansions are those recently stealth built behemoths that look like they’ve been assembled from massive pre-moulded slabs, on what immediately become overdeveloped, crowded blocks, shoved together in a few months before anyone had time to notice their windows peer across the rooftops of the house next door, over the 8 foot fence, to look unabashedly into your children’s bedrooms.

    Because they represent value for invested money I fear we will just have to get used to living with them . . . unless we can find ways to encourage alternative building practices. For big families, for people who need to lose weight and don’t mind running up and down stairs to do it, for people who don’t mind cleaning or buggerising around with zoned lighting and heating, wearing jumpers to keep warm and basically having the biggest houses in the street, large two story McMansions are possibly great – not ideal but great nonetheless.

    Some of the people who live in them truly enjoy them. For the increasing numbers of families where the children stay at home well into early adulthood they can also provide at least some possibility of finding a space of your own that’s not up with the TV satellite dish – on the roof. It generally won’t pay however, to try to find outdoor space in these places because they usually have front yards that can hold little more than a McMansion-style letterbox, a couple of spotlights and some river pebbles, and backyards that get crowded when the council starts dolling out too many purpose specific wheelie bins.

    Of course, for people who have a romantic attachment to Australia’s amazing weatherboard and brick veneer suburbia, cobbled together in the face of drastic shortages of building materials after the Second World War, McMansions can come as a bit of a shock. There was something quite remarkable about the suburbia of my childhood and it is a pity that so much of it is being pulled down to be replaced by “look at me” investment housing.

    But to enter your argument about just who chooses to build these places, and why they are becoming so “widespread” [I’d have used the word “popular” but that really would be stretching it] you have to also ask . . . What choices do people realistically have?

    From the people I know who live in such places they are as likely to be occupied by doctors and undertakers as they are to be owned by people who run fish and chip shops or work as air stewards. And they usually represent a major investment for whoever buys one to live in. They most likely don’t make that investment because they just haven’t noticed the bad rap that such houses get. They make the investment in spite of it.

    You would be from another planet not to have noticed at least some of the vitriol that is focussed on these look-alike buildings that seem to stand out so very boldly wherever they arise. They practically assault our senses. Perhaps if they were built behind the tall hedges of the leafy suburbs we wouldn’t notice them so much, but in general, they aren’t. In the places where they do spring up, often looking like prefabricated offices for local law firms, accountants and dentists, or boutique Quest apartments for people wanting a home away from home, they might actually be simply the best of what is on offer. If you need to build a house they’re what the building firms will sell you.

    A lot of what else passes for new housing looks even less satisfactory – unless you’re prepared to live in a fancy granny flat. It might just be that people build these things because of the paucity of options on offer from Australia’s architects and building firms.

    I don’t know how many average home buyers, and I mean home buyers, not house buyers, can afford an architect or designer to help them build, and to help them project manage such an over-regulated undertaking, or indeed how many would even think of consulting one. But perhaps we need to rethink how we support first home buyers. Perhaps we need to have an additional category – lets call it first home builders – or even possibly a home builders category for anyone who intends to make any house they build their primary residence – and we could tailor these grants to make it entirely possible for people to actually afford to engage an architect to design their houses to more pleasingly fit their locations rather than contributing to the increasing oceans of single story McMansions being assembled across our city, where already in some areas, they are beginning to like the housing commission estates of a former equally unthinking era.

    Remember, the houses we build become a part of the lives of future generations. Why aren’t we, as a community, helping people create something just a bit more imaginative, environmentally responsive, and flexible in terms of the built environment we share? What we are putting in place for ourselves, is one way or another, also for our children and their children’s children?

  9. […] The drive for status is a powerful force that shouldn’t be ignored by urban policy-makers, not least those with an interest in cities. It explains much about the way people behave in urban areas, like why they might live in a McMansion or drive a Prius (I’ve written about status a number of times before – e.g. here, here, here and here). […]

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