Sunday, 12 May 2013

Demonising McMansions

Let me declare myself unambiguously: I do not hate McMansions, just because they are easy to hate.

For quite a few years now, anybody who gets to write  about them, has consistently demonised these oversized single family homes as not just individually ugly, ill designed and unsustainable, but as also adding up to suburbs where life must by definition, be isolated and destructive of community.

Thus, in an otherwise admirable reminder of just how ingrained the aspiration for a freestanding house is in the Australian psyche and polity, Peter McNeil, Professor of Design History at Sydney's UTS writes in The Conversation:

"Apart from warehouse conversions and architect-designed homes, many Australian dwellings are McMansions that do not relate to the scale of the houses around them or have anything to do with their environment. It is possible that as in North America, we are retreating into our homes more and more, meeting lovers online, watching our video on home entertainment systems, cooking on industrial quality ovens and holding parties with enormous BBQs that would once have provided a catering company. Perhaps we need to think a bit more about whether we are part of communities and networks or if we are heading towards an atomized existence?"

And that is mild compared to the vitriol of Elisabeth Farrelly, Australia's only successful populist newspaper architecture critic.  Farrelly masks her unalloyed condemnation of their design with a long, consistent, but remarkably axiomatic stance against their over-consumption of land and resources.  See her 2004 "The houses that are eating our future" and google anything she has written on the subject since.

If there is noneed for even a pretense of objectivity, the condemnation can be brutal.  On the Things Bogans Like web site, '#76 McMansions' concludes :
"In order to put a 43 square house within reach of the financially impulsive bogan, builders take phenomenal amounts of shortcuts on the shoddily fitted out McMansion. Once the flashy silver oven breaks, and the paper thin feature wall cracks, it becomes clear that the housing estate is 10 years away from being a generic and unserviced bogan ghetto. It’s the great Australian dream come true."
I am not going to try to mount an opposing case here, but I do want to look at the issues, perhaps over several future posts . What all this MacMansion bashing has in common, is a set of assumptions that are ill founded.  If you care to look more carefully, striking anomalies present themselves all the time.

The first is the convenient lie that MacMansions are the opposite of architect crafted paragons of good design.  This is easiest dealt with by visiting somewhere like Kellyville, the amazing display village west of Sydney.  Talk to the sales people, and the names of some of our better known mid-career architects are volunteered as the designers of a surprising number of models.  You can see it, too.  The story from the sales people is always the same: the “plans are not quite as the architect did them, we had to clean them up a bit to be buildable”.  It’s remarkable how everyone feels they have to play the game.

The second is that a surprising proportion of available models are bloody good design.  They make the most of small sites, with great connections between informal living areas and well sheltered outdoor ‘patios’.  They have around 20% glazing ratios yet look light and airy, where architect designed houses have typically double that proportion of glass, or more.  They often have exemplary internal zoning for parents and growing kids. They have admirably rational construction, in materials no different to those employed for much more expensive houses.  True, some don’t have any of these worthy attributes, and all of them are too big.

The third?  Well, Prof. Patrick Troy, foundation member of the long gone and much lamented ANU Urban Studies Unit , and still gathering huge amounts of data on the sustainability indicators of suburbia, points out that free standing suburban houses are the lowest energy consumers per occupant of the major housing types, they actually consume less water per occupant than contemporary flats, and a couple of other embarrassingly inconvenient comparisons.  That is data.  Troy also suggests such 'sprawl' may be actually more resilient as a form of urbanisation if climate change ever forces us back to a higher degree of local food production, than the concrete jungles of urban consolidation.  That is speculative, but a potent challenge to stereotype.

Hey, in the end, I come down on the side of the argument that suggests we have MacMansions because they are a symbol of success, not because we actually need them.  And the bad MacMansions do spoil it for me, in spite of my admiration for the good ones.  But to be clear: I don’t hate them just because I am supposed to.


Qing Li said...

When I did the research about McMansion , an interesting explanation of McMansion just came out of the screen " The expression McMansion is derived from the name McDonald's, the fast food restaurant known for mass producing huge quantities of Big Mac hamburgers. So a McMansion is a big Mac version of architecture: mass produced, quickly built, generic, bland, and unnecessarily large." The quote actually highlights the ugly facts about McMansions, it could spring up anywhere at any time and builders rarely consider factors such as local architectural traditions when contracted to build a house like this. But how has a dwelling form which cuts off all the good principles of environmentally sustainability come to dominate the growth suburbs of Australian cities?

McMansions are usually built without the guidance of an architect, or sometimes the builder has to change an architect's intended design a bit to be "buildable". A house without an architect's design seems like a desolation land does not have its soul. I know it's unfair to label the people who live in McMansion as inferior, but it is ludicrous to say their houses are healthy sign of wealth. Although McMansion are designed to impress and send a signal of aspiration, sometimes those people purchase the house are not actual affluent.

The McMansion is not like the traditional detached house which was built in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s; during that period the house contains large gardens for children and locations for tool sheds and growing vegetables. Most the McMansion do not have this capacity. The dwellings are squeezed onto a much smaller allotments and they are more about the lifestyle lived in the house (around home theatre, the play station and social network). The McMansion represent the break point of our past instead of extending the traditional lifestyles.

The problems of McMansion also bring us the thoughts of environmental sustainability: they are air conditioning-dependent, high energy consumers, without gardens the water run-off is high, and they are vehicles for consumerism, with all those rooms having to be furnished. Sometimes builders may not orient a McMansion to take advantage of the sun's natural arc, for example. It may also be difficult to use the open space in a typical McMansion for any real purpose, such as creating additional bedrooms or a home office.

The definition of a good house for me is a comfortable place which designs in a aesthetically way, performs environmentally sustainable.

James P said...

I find the apparent 'lure' of the McMansion and estate living very compelling. Why do people crave to live in such over-sized, bland, energy-consuming houses situated within a sea of other over-sized and bland dwellings? There's just no real character in these houses and I agree with a lot of Elizabeth Farrelly’s points about the ugliness of the modern family mansion.

My primary thought is that this is simply a western cultural phenomenon, which seems to sit well with the views expressed in 'Thingboganslike'. The big house becomes a symbol of wealth and success. People seem to feel like they've made it when they finally move in to their brand new mansion with its sparkling white floors and over-sized bedrooms. And I bet they simply don't care how it looks, as long as it looks like what everybody else has. And they don't care if it's sustainable or efficient, quite simply:

"The more space the better. The consumer today is quite different, as consumption is linked to the idea of self-fashioning; we are what we spend."

The shift in Australian living seems to stem from our cultural history. From terrace living, which was once not nearly as desirable as it is now, to apartment living, which, according to Florence Taylor was: "The enemy of home life". We are now at a stage where building your own big home with plenty of space for a family to grow is very achievable, and people naturally want to live in a house which they've dream about for years. An article published by Economics Correspondent Peter Martin states that Australia now has the largest average home size in the world at 215 square meters.

In the end, unless planning laws are introduced to govern the size of houses and lots, we, as designers and planners need to accept that the a large amount of home buyers simply don’t care how their house looks or if it’s suits it’s context, as long as it has large amounts of space. We therefore need to strategise how we can make this housing model more sustainable and ecologically friendly, which, as you’ve pointed out Steve is very possible. Until the focus from developers and governments shifts from profit to sustainability, the rise of the mcmansions will continue to sour. Until then, all we can do is try to mediate the problem as much as we can.

Siobhan H said...

There is still hope for project homes.

If we believe the stance of Elisabeth Farrelly, all those who buy McMansions are consumer driven beings devoid of taste who compete with their neighbours for the biggest entertainment set. They do not care about their home's exterior and accept a lifetime of ridiculously high energy bills to feel a sense of belonging to the Australian culture. Then we believe that the McMansion’s popularity is a chain effect. My neighbour bought one, therefore I will.

Therefore, if we could change the project home my neighbour bought, we would change my future purchase also.

This is where the niche market of designer pre-fabricated project homes steps in. They have a competitive price-range and prioritise energy efficiency, low water consumption and site driven designs.

They are smart McMansions.

This market realises that McMansions are in high demand. They provide Australia’s sprawling cities with large, family driven homes at low prices. Also, if enough people make the choice to have smart McMansions then hopefully they will replace the other inefficient project homes altogether.

To Farrelly’s typical McMansion buyer, they are offering an alternative to the ridiculously high power bills. To everyone else, prefabricated project home companies like Archiblox present themselves as a necessary change.

‘We were tired of seeing all those soulless, mass manufactured volume homes with generic designs and little consideration for the environment or the way people live. We wanted to offer an alternative solution. We do.’

As a potential buyer, companies such as Archiblox, ARKit and Modscape look competitive compared to McMansions. They offer delivered homes in 12-28 weeks Australia wide. Each home has the ability of achieving an 8 star energy rating, though the websites are quick to point out this depends on the site and the particular house series chosen. You can even choose what type of family home you want to own, Archiblox’s website for example offers a Beach House, a Rural House, an Urban House, an Eco Resort or a Multi-purpose Backyard Room Model! Though I think Farrelly’s typical McMansion buyer would throw in the towel here at the thought of having to make a decision as an individual. You are also able to search the project plans available depending on your estimated budget, number of bedrooms and nature of the building, whether an extension or brand new home.

The catch that comes with any architect designed project home is the on-site consultation. This is where the chosen design is ‘tweaked’ based on the solar and wind patterns and individuality of the site so that scheme becomes more energy

efficient. It makes me point out, if the buyer is so concerned with keeping costs down and just making sure the house looks but not necessarily performs like its neighbours, that this extra expense that is likely to be cut short.

Everything to do with home building must be researched properly by the clients to avoid disappointment though. There will always be designer prefabricated homes that cut corners and you end up paying far too much for fees that you weren’t warned about early on, normal risks of any building job. Sun Joo Kim of Smartplanet reports an incidence where a couple living in Catskills, USA, ended up paying an extra $100,000 when the company charged secret assembly fees on prefabricated home. The client always has the choice of who builds their home and a company’s reputation check is a necessity.

McMansions are meeting a need in sprawling Australian cities. There is hope for the future of this market with competitively priced sustainable prefabricated homes. As this market continues to grow buyers must be wary of new companies and must check their reputation. We can only do our best to influence trends and make these smart McMansions seem more desirable that their boring soulless alternative!


Remy Crick said...

A McMansion is a derogatory word for that of an oversized, newly developed house that is judged to be incongruous with that of its built surrounds. This housing typology became apparent within the 1980’s and has earned its bad reputation from the indistinguishable design characteristics, and mass-produced fabrication – much like that of the back-of-house workings and menu of a MacDonald’s fast food chain.

The introverted nature of these McMansions is a direct reflection of the psychological thinking’s of today’s society. There’s a large emphasis on the self, with not much respect to what is happening around us. This idea is emphasised by the fact that all the elements needed to create this ideal living situation are already conveniently included in one package. A lap pool, entertainment room complete with individual leather recliners, ensuites adjoining to every bedroom, and industrial strength air-conditioners are just the expected norm. One must consider though that these dwelling types – being positioned one after another for kilometres on end – can be somewhat visually obtrusive, and have no sense of decorum whatsoever to it’s natural surrounds. However, this confined lot design is also evidently the most financially viable solution when developing a site in the eyes of the developer, so it’s possible to consider that the concept of the McMansion is a positive one after all, as it is a win-win situation.

In saying this, although fundamentally all the elements are there to provide one with a holistic living experience, it is safe to say that this ironically detriments the quality of life of the occupants residing within the home. In order to fit the seemingly never-ending list of indulgences into this one ‘affordable package’, the architect succumbs to the pressures of the building developers and must design a house that will meet the most basic of living requirements. Confined living spaces, desolate and impractical rear access lanes, and strategically placed window openings that have absolutely no aesthetic whatsoever are some of the few design features that are implemented in order to meet the such regulations - it is easy to see why these ‘McMansions’ are frowned upon by the majority of architects within the industry today.

Despite being positioned on tightly confined blocks within these ‘display village’ developments, the community itself resonates a strong sense of isolation. To raise the point again, the idea of the McMansion is extremely introverted, and this is a direct response to the egocentric mindset of today’s population. We are obsessed with our digital presence, with hardly any regard for that of the physical. We like to present a skewed image of ourselves, one that is positive and can hardly be faulted by others – this notion is carried out through the perfectly manicured lawns and the European designed street furniture that can be found within any ‘Lego-land’ development. Residents are reliant on Place Makers to create a sense of community, as the highly fabricated and highly regimented design of the municipal does not allow for this.

With Australia facing the problem of an aging population, is clear that these dwelling types are being designed for the long-term. They are merely a short-term solution, for short-term gain (in both the occupants and developers eyes). We have to keep in mind that in today’s society one-parent families and families consisting of up to three generations are becoming apparent, and that the 25m lap pool that takes up the entire backyard and 4 bedroom housing typologies comprising of multiple storeys that are extremely common, may not be the best solution for everyone.

The McMansion is just another form of urban consolidation, and is a necessary reaction to creating a solution for the increasing population size. The idea that every individual can afford to own their own plot of land with a luxurious home to accommodate for their every need may seem just too good to be true. Or is it?


Nicholas Bolianitis said...

The rise of the McMansions, have become a symbol of hate within the construction industry. These mass built homes are by some opinions oversized, don’t cater for the individual needs of a family and don’t possess any originality. Whilst it is easy to take these pot shots at McMansions, recently the McMansions or “volume built homes” as they now liked to be called, have reinvented themselves for a number of reasons.

A greater number of architects are now involved with volume housing projects. Some volume builders have even gone to the extent of creating and marketing their homes done in house by a design team and have made that evident as the focal point in their marketing material, putting in ads in weekend home magazine and advertised it in newspapers. As the volume builders have come to the realisation that they require architectural input into the design of their homes in order to achieve the design brief. Although architects won’t tell you that they are directly involved with volume building or project homes so they aren’t stuck with that stigma of being a project home architect.

Take for example a fairly new building company in Melbourne called INFORM who engage architects to design their homes. This company in particular has distinguished themselves from the rest in offering something different and aesthetically pleasing than the majority of other builders out there, yet competing with them on a volume building level. There are more and more of these companies emerging engaging architects or forming affiliations to mass produce. Other examples of companies are prebuilt, intermode, modscape all of which offer a standard range of architect designed modular homes. The specialisation of the volume home market signifies that the broader market, or at least some of the market understands the need to create a functional development which complements our surrounds, lifestyle and culture rather than erect homes which have been put together without any thought and staying true to the materiality in the way they look.

Most project home builders will look at their competitors and recreate a best seller and tweak the design to suit them without really looking at coming together with something unique. Therefore in most cases mainly with the smaller builders out there you have this merry go round effect where every product looks the same and then branded as it being architecturally designed with a contemporary feel.

Land developers have moved away from sub dividing land as bigger parcels but trying to get best possible yield in creating smaller lots with most setting in place design guidelines to control what these estates look like from an architectural aspect.

There is a place in today’s society for these so-called McMansions, the volume built home will only improve its reputation if we can persuade the critics that the presence of architecture is becoming evident in volume building.

Anonymous said...

For the opponents of McMansion, I believe it is vital to understand why McMansions appeal. Everything happens for a reason. Same to McMansions. It is also quite interesting to think about the existing situation that whilst Aussie family size shrinking but demand for McMansion growing.

Firstly, it is easy for us to understand why a big family choose to live in McMansions instead of living in city. Compared to the expensive land price in City, especially in Sydney, people can get a much bigger and more flexible space in urban fringe. On this side, I cannot totally take the point that McMansions is a sign of country's wealth but I'd rather believe they cannot afford a better one with good taste. On this stage, Critics always point out low cost land price comes at expensive environmental cost. However, 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."

Secondly, a number of McMansions are been used into home-based business, especially in Sydney, where contains huge amount of overseas students. It is essential to have adequate individual and common space for people who are not familiar with each other to live together. People can use space to manage relationships. In addition, on a per person basis, singles living in inner city apartments always cost more than sharing with other people. This can also on some extent, help with explaining the problem I mentioned in first paragraph, why Aussie family size shrinking but Mcmansion growing. Amount of singles or overseas would like to sharing to reduce their cost.

McMansions do provide some convenience nowadays. Or you can say “it's the age”.

However, As an architect, we all hate aesthetic ugliness buildings, but achieving beauty on an urban scale do need time and cultural change. Fortunately, we realised the problems it brings to us. McMansions are aesthetic ugliness, destructive of community and environmental unfriendly...etc. For example, as McMansion do not provide enough large gardens or playground for kids, life styles are likely to be changed. And the impacts of these problems will actually last longer and more serious than individual cost. Finally, it comes down to the choice of individual cost and future consideration.

I have to accept the situation with growing amount of Mcmansion, but hopefully we can go through this age with a better solution.