Australian houses are very big. Since overtaking the US in the 1990s, Australian house sizes have consistently outpaced those of every other country: in 2009, one average Australian house (214m2) could fit almost three average UK houses (76m2) inside of it. Whilst we may have been recently overtaken by the US, and now have only the second-largest houses in the world, over-sized houses – rather than large lot-sizes – have become characteristic of Australian suburbia. The rise of the big, multi-roomed house in Australia – or the ‘McMansion’ to use the American term – has changed the landscape of our suburbs, and the quality of suburban family life.
McMansions are not just maligned for their size, as US sociologist Brian Miller notes in reviewing McMansion descriptions in the popular US media. Miller finds that since the term became popularised in the 1990s, it has been commonly used to imply three additional criticisms beyond simply large dimensions. First, the relative size of the house matters. Replacing a ‘teardown’ with a house disproportionately bigger than those around it “appears to dwarf its land footprint,” and can ruin an existing community’s character, devalue older homes, and simply look wrong “like steroid-stoked biceps on a skinny teen.” Second, McMansions are characterised as aesthetically ugly. On the one hand they are criticised for too little diversity when they are churned out as standardised mass-produced housing: “Instead of stimulating your imagination, the typical McMansion simply deadens your senses.” On the other, they are criticised for too much diversity when the architectural styles on a given street, or even on a single house, are haphazard, incoherent, and jumbled: “Because of its architectural pastiche, the McMansion can be seen as not being “authentic” or is viewed as a caricature.” Third, they are seen as a symbol for more complex issues, including urban sprawl, status-seeking, and excessive consumption. When linked to the proliferation of mega shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, and big cars, their excessiveness has been equated to fast-food: “These stores offer the gastronomic equivalent of McMansions, and show our kids that wasting food (and blowing cash) is all part of family fun.”
This last quality in particular raises the issue of how McMansions change the social landscape: as one of Miller’s paper’s quips: “The McMansion is both pretentious and isolated, an island in a sea of strangers and cars.” Is the rise of such big houses reflecting a desire for private space in an increasingly paranoid suburbia? As captured in the recent ABC documentary ‘Streets of your Town’, voluminous houses now serve as place for our kids to play ‘safely’ inside rather than on the street. Decks and pizza ovens are replacing grassy backyards, traditionally oriented to gardening and child play, and are increasingly used for entertaining select friends privately at home (rather than having to meet our neighbours publicly in the street). And an increasing number of people, particularly retirees, live in gated communities. Jacek Tittenbrun notes that gated communities now comprise 1/3 of all housing construction in the US, and house 1/6 of the US population.
The pursuit of bigger, more private houses has almost certainly impacted on what is arguably the biggest social issue for mainstream middle-class Australia today – housing affordability. With house prices sky rocketing in Australia, and housing debt steadily rising, a report by Jean-Frances Kelly of the Grattan Institute shows that younger people are less likely to own a home than at any time in the last twenty years. At the same time, the proportion of renters in Australia is rising, though legal protections for Australian renters are amongst the most basic of any OECD countries.
It seems a large gap is opening up between the older owners of the large McMansions on the city fringes, and the younger renters clustered in the inner city, working to save an increasingly unrealistic deposit for the most basic of houses. The Grattan Institute report identifies that house size IS a factor in unaffordability in advocating (amongst a host of other changes) for the replacement of stamp duty with land tax. They argue that the former policy encourages people to buy big and then never downsize, while the latter encourages people to use the space they have, or else move without penalty.
Maybe its time for big ideas about thinking small?