SOC208 2019 Tut 6 Fri 1230 – The McMansion – the small idea with the big cost

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. And with these private houses comes an upsurge in private security guards that in some instances – in deals with local governments and businesses – serve as private armies patrolling public as well as private spaces, and targeting not just criminals, but homeless and creative people with aggressive action.

The pursuit of bigger, more private houses in Australia has almost certainly impacted on housing affordability. With still extremely high despite recent declines in prices, and housing debt at extreme levels, 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 taxThey 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?

S208UOW19 #Tut6 #Fri1230

Posted in SOC208 - Cities, Communities and Families, UOW.

2 Comments on SOC208 2019 Tut 6 Fri 1230 – The McMansion – the small idea with the big cost

Braden Clark (@Braden67683942) said : Guest Report 2 weeks ago

The Mcmansion is a notable form of housing structure that, as Roger has mentioned, has become a characteristic of Australian suburbia. I agree in that it changes the quality of suburban life, less focus on a big open back yard removes the space that previously would encourage the children of the family to spend more time outdoors and lead healthier lifestyles. And following this has been the dawn of a new technological era in which children spend more time behind screens and less time outdoors. Another trend that has aligned with the rise of Mcmansions is the family SUV, a fuel burning, expensive way to display wealth in the suburbs. Miller's paper describes the Mcmansion expansion well and critiques the movement quite accurately as we have seen in Australia, a similar movement has followed.

Kathy Miller said : Guest Report 4 weeks ago

Miller 2012, investigated Mcmansions and how the term became descriptive with a negative connotation attached to the unsightly homes built excessively oversized. I think it’s important to reflect on the history of home ownership and the great Australian dream to truly grasp how this desire to continuously enlarge our homes began. A great desire rose in the early 19th century to segregate the rich to escape the poor by moving to more spacious properties that had private land that enabled a fresher, cleaner environment. The attainment of this home on the ¼ acre block was seen as “sign of good luck” or fortune and therefore appealed as a status symbol for the elite (Beilharz, 2012). However, we know that the working class and X convicts soon followed as it became possible for them to also achieve this dream. This trend has influenced the wealthy to once again further their stance as a greater achiever by creating larger and grander homes as a symbolic representation of their status. Miller described the Mcmansion with 4 main characteristics that placed them in a class of their own and not in a good way. Firstly, a large home, a monster home, expensive and luxurious. It is relatively large in comparison to others in its surrounds devaluing smaller older dwellings. It lacks good architecture style and design, it is bland with no personality and with haphazard attempts to be unique. Lastly it is a symbol, a lust for consumerism, a blatant display of wealth and social status. These descriptors suggest the idea that this importance to demonstrate your success in the appearance of your home has simply just got out of hand and the end result is the assembly line appearance aligning the streets in our suburbs. One can only imagine what this will mean now for these supersized homes now that the attraction is slowly moving away from these grand homes to smaller more compact apartments that share communal spaces rather than segregate from our neighbor in the suburbs.

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