Monday, 11 March 2013

Homebuilders cutting corners to save?

Image: James hardie Scyon™ Matrix cladding
Architecture and Design reports a lower profit projection by one of Australia's major building products manufacturers, with a back story that blames it on home builders cutting their costs to preserve their margins.  As that theme is developed in the article "Homebuilders cutting corners to save, says James Hardie", the underlying cause is defined as the dramatic increase in land prices for individual dwellings, squeezing the amount of money the aspiring owner has left over for building.

The quoted list of material substitutions, and lowering of construction quality sounds superficially plausible, but is actually constrained by building regulations.  Thus for instance, the systematic deletion of eaves on closely spaced two-storey houses is either a product of the smaller land parcels, or of historic cost cutting measures with their origins at least 20 years ago, rather than more recently.  But you can't argue with sources close to the supply chain, if they are indeed seeing the stripping out of higher value materials in the speculative home offerings.

What interests me more is that there is the barest mention of any move towards reducing the sizes of individual homes. It is as if the value management exercise was predicated on building the grotesquely large individual dwellings, on which I have reported before.  I do not want to rehearse again my distaste at the idea that Australians build the largest homes in the world. In fact, it is ironic that I was just thinking of writing a blog post defending the design quality of Australian McMansions.  I have long been bothered by the way that the architectural establishment and some of the design press have long conflated the poor sustainability outcomes of oversized houses, with an assumption that they are also badly designed, or of poor build quality.  But now I don't think I will bother.

Read the full article here.

But for sake of completeness, I should also mention that I wasn't entirely happy with the uncritical way that the title of 'biggest homes in the world' was conferred on Australia.  So I did a little bit of background research into the McMansion phenomenon.  

One of the more interesting snippets I found was an undated article by Christopher Solomon in MSN Real Estate, titled "The swelling McMansion backlash".  Interestingly, the American perspective highlights 'knock down and rebuild' in established affluent suburbs, rather than new estates on the urban fringe.  But it also talks about houses in the 400-1000m² size range, making the less than 300m² Sydney McMansions almost look small.  Why the discrepancy?  As usual, the first culprit is the use of statistics.  While the average Australian 'new build' may be the largest in the world, the Americans, as usual, hold a monopoly on the extremes.  But Solomon's piece offers much more of interest, and I may have to write a whole new post to do it justice.  Meanwhile, read the article here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the main issue that struck a chord with me in this post was your mention Steve, that do value management practices through the stripping down of construction phases in such gargantuan builds even make sense? Why not address the overall size of the structure and reduce costs through intelligent design.

Peter McNeil’s article titled ‘Me and my McMansion: Australians and their homes’, I found quite refreshing in terms of placing the McMansion phenomenon in a broader Australian historical context. Effectively tracing the evolution of the overtly large dwelling, McNeil poses questions regarding their prevalence and amenity. Additionally asking what particular brand of lifestyle that such a house would foster for those in it.

Fundamentally issues of housing or the notion of the dwelling relate not only to the physical need for human shelter. Our homes today more than ever exist as symbols of culture, wealth and status, which perhaps belie the McMansion obsession that is at play here. The modern Australian psyche seems to be the more the merrier.

Chris Berg in his opinion piece for ‘The Age’ explains the manse craze as a direct result of the wealth inherent in this country. He establishes “ Australia is probably the richest country in the world. We have the fastest growing income in the world. We have the highest median wealth.” Additionally ofcourse, we have the space to do it.

As a society the crucial factor to recognize here is exactly this, shall we continue down this path simply because we can? Because we have the financial ability to and physical area, or rather shall we engage with our built environment more intelligently and ensure appropriate models for residential design in todays context as well as for the future.