Sunday, September 23, 2012

McMansions a sign of our country's wealth, not a lack of taste

Is there any more snobbish word in the Australian vocabulary than ''McMansion''?  This nasty term describes the big, new houses out in suburbs with names like Caroline Springs and Kellyville.  McMansions, their nickname suggests, are the McDonald's of housing — they're super-sized, American and mass produced.

Australians build the largest new houses in the world.  The average size of a new freestanding home is 243 square metres.  That's 10 per cent larger than the average new American home.  Naturally our big houses have critics.  Sustainability advocates say McMansions are bad for the environment.  Yet there's more going on here.  Because even the most high-brow academic critiques of McMansions seem to focus less on the houses and more on the people who live in them.

Terry Burke, a professor of urban studies at Swinburne University, wrote in The Conversation last year that McMansions breach the ''good principles'' of environmental sustainability.  Fair enough.  But Burke doubled down:  McMansions are very ugly, and their occupants, who also apparently own four-wheel-drives and send their children to private schools, are giving ''an 'up yours' message to the world''.

That sort of sneering contempt is not uncommon.  The word ''McMansion'' is usually deployed not to appraise a type of house, but an entire way of life.  It is all about culture — the inner city world trying to understand their strange, alien suburban cousins.

Suburban living in general is more environmentally friendly than inner-city living.  A study by the Australian Conservation Foundation (no fan of consumer capitalism) concluded that, even taking into account car use, ''inner-city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption''.

Someone who lives in a big home can still train to work, conserve energy or water, and, if they choose, live a fashionably carbon-neutral life.

Why do we build our houses so big?  Well, Australia has a lot of space.  But more importantly:  we can.  Australia is probably the richest country in the world.  We have the fastest growing income in the world.  We have the highest median wealth.  Our only real competition in the rich stakes comes from city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong or oil plutocracies such as Qatar.  And many Australians have decided to spend their riches on new homes.

Even if you don't put much stock in income statistics, the size of our houses is — by itself — evidence that Australia is well off.  Prosperity is about more than GDP data.  Money isn't everything.  Anybody who has lived crammed into too few rooms knows living standards and adequate space are closely related.  In rich Australia it's understandable that many people desire extra living and storage space.

The people who best understand the relationship between housing size and living standards aren't architectural academics or urban planners.  They're archaeologists.

Historians of the ancient world don't have tables of wealth and income data.  To estimate how rich societies were, they look at proxies.  House are among the best and most accessible.

For instance, excavated homes are one way we know ancient Greece was far richer than other civilisations in the Mediterranean.  According to the historian Ian Morris, between 800BC and 300BC the median Greek house size ballooned from 80 square metres to 360 square metres.  And this wealth was shared among the free population, not concentrated among the ruling elite.  Just as it is in 21st-century Australia.  Large homes are now within the reach of moderate-income families.  This is something worth celebrating, not deriding.

Antiquity had its share of sceptics about prosperity, too.  Aristotle believed there was such a thing as too much wealth.  The philosopher had determined what the ''good life'' was, and he argued any excess property was unnatural.

It's easy to imagine Aristotle tut-tutting about the big houses built by fellow Athenians.  But it's just as easy to imagine those Athenians ignoring his snobbery and enjoying the prosperity Greek society could afford.

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