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. Read the rest of this entry »

Are huge homes irresponsible?

Huge houses on the urban fringe are an irresponsible drain on the environment, according to this opinion piece by Dr Robert Crawford from Melbourne University. There are two charges here – one is that the average 238m2 greenfield house is too big and the other is that the occupants are too reliant on cars for transport. I discussed the transport issues related to greenfield houses recently, so this time I want to look at the allegation of excessive dwelling size.

There are all sorts of problems with the “too big” criticism, not least the obvious question: what is the “right” size for a dwelling? Even if that question could be answered satisfactorily, there’s another – what should be done about it? Should there be regulations limiting the size of houses? Or perhaps a “McMansions” tax? I think there’s actually a sensible way to approach this issue which I’ll come to in due course. But I want to start with some pertinent observations.

First, greenfield houses mostly aren’t as big as epithets like “McMansion” imply. When Melburnians think “McMansion” they usually have in mind a two storey house like Metricon’s 530 m2 ‘Monarch’, which is more than double the size of the average greenfield house. In the US however, the term McMansion is reserved for much, much bigger houses on very large lots like Tony and Carmela’s spread in New Jersey (see first picture). The average house on Melbourne’s fringe, however, is a much more modest 238 m2 according to Dr Crawford’s own evidence. That’s big compared to an inner city apartment but it’s much smaller than the ‘Monarch’ and much smaller than any reasonable definition of a McMansion. Further, more than two thirds of houses in Melbourne’s greenfield areas are single story. Nearly half (47%) are smaller than 240 m2. Almost three quarters (74%) are smaller than 280 m2.

Second, fringe houses aren’t much bigger, if at all, than typical houses in some older suburban areas. I live with my family 8 km from the city on the border of Ivanhoe and Alphington where most dwellings were built before WW2. Having two children who went to Alphington Primary School means I’ve seen inside many, many homes in the Alphington, Fairfield, Ivanhoe area. I can’t recall ever being in a house in these neighbourhoods that hasn’t been extended at least once in its lifetime. And while they probably were once, these aren’t small houses anymore. For example, the external dimensions of our place, including the garage (but excluding decks), is 240 m2 and it’s by no means large relative to other detached houses in the area – in fact I’d say it’s about average or perhaps even a bit smaller. Yet I don’t hear many complaints that inner suburban homes are “too big”. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Melbourne be like Watts (L.A.) in 1965?

What if the geographically most extensive countries had the biggest populations?

Journalist Kenneth Davidson is often quite sensible so I’m astonished to see him arguing that Melbourne’s planning system is creating a potentially explosive situation like the 1965 riots in Watts, Los Angeles.

In fact there are a number of contentious propositions and assumptions in his column in The Age (6/12/10), Planning must be for people not developers.

He argues that Victoria’s planning system is dominated by developers and is effectively creating two cities in Melbourne – the inner city and the fringe suburbs – with citizens divided by geography as well as class.

Now there’s no doubt there are clear geographical differences by social class across Melbourne – there’s nothing new about that – but invoking the spectre of the Watts riots of 1965 seems a bit excessive. They were a reaction by the black community to racial injustices, including severe police brutality and entrenched job and housing discrimination. More than a thousand people were injured and 34 died. The Watts riots were different by orders of magnitude to Sydney’s 2005 Macquarie Fields riots or the 2004 Redfern riots.

Mr Davidson seems intent on sheeting home almost every planning issue in Melbourne to greedy developers. I accept the argument that speculation and lack of competition are issues in the Growth Areas, but there’s much more to the “two cities” phenomenon than that. Read the rest of this entry »

Do fringe dwellers want density?

150 m2 house on 294 m2 lot at Craigieburn

The benefits of residential density are more complex than they appear. The attractions of living cheek by jowl in places like Surfers Paradise or the CBD may not apply everywhere, especially on the fringes of our major cities.

Almost everyone knows, it seems, that density has enormous benefits. It is correlated with lower levels of car ownership, fewer kilometres driven and higher public transport use. It lowers infrastructure costs and is also associated with lower consumption of energy and water. According to some, it’s even connected with higher levels of social capital and lower rates of obesity.

However most of the benefits – both private and social – do not derive from density per se but rather from location. Lots of people want to live in high amenity places like the beachfront or in proximity to the jobs, entertainment opportunities and transport infrastructure of somewhere like the city centre. These sorts of places are in short supply so demand can only be met by increasing density.

Higher density necessarily means less land per dwelling but it doesn’t inevitably mean smaller dwellings. However unless you’re filthy rich, one of the compromises you will have to make to capitalise on a sought-after location is a smaller dwelling. The 350 m2 McMansion on the fringe might at best be a 140 m2 three bedroom unit on the top of Doncaster Hill or an 80 m2 two bedroom unit in Docklands.

The point is that many of the social benefits associated with density – like higher public transport use and lower car ownership – are a function of the location, not the dwelling type. In turn, lower energy and water use is not primarily a direct function of density but rather a result of their smaller size.

This might seem self-evident or even a distinction of no more than academic interest. But as I’ve argued before, the failure to fully understand what density is, can lead to bad policy. It is also a particularly pertinent point in the context of advocating higher densities in places like fringe Growth Areas.

Read the rest of this entry »

Is the urban fringe getting bigger?

The proportion of new dwelling commencements planned for the outer suburban growth areas increased sharply between the release of Melbourne 2030 in 2003 and the release of the revised strategy, Melbourne @ 5 Million, in October 2008.

Melbourne 2030 envisaged 31% of dwelling starts would be located in the growth areas over the period to 2030 (page 30). It expected virtually all the rest would be located within the established suburbs, either clustered around major activity centres or dispersed across the suburbs.

Residential forecasts by region, Melbourne 2030 (click to enlarge)

The subsequent update, Melbourne @ 5 Million, made a dramatic change. It increased the proportion of dwellings expected to be constructed in outer suburban growth areas to 47% – half as much again as envisaged by Melbourne 2030 (page 3).

This change was consistent with the reality of what was happening in the market.

The authors of Melbourne 2030 probably felt at the time that 31% was a reasonable “stretch” target. Over the four years from 96/97 to 00/01, only 38% of new commencements were in the growth areas.

However four years is a short period to use as a basis for policy. As it happened this was a relatively quiet period compared to the boom that followed. Read the rest of this entry »