The Big House Phenomenon

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Suburbia has long produced debate and satire. During the 1950s and 1960s the critics and comics included Australia’s leading public intellectuals ‘ think Barry Humphries, Robin Boyd and George Johnson. The novel phenomenon of majority home ownership provoked critiques of suburban conformism and tasteless materialism.

Probably the best known critique was produced by the architect and critic Robin Boyd, whose denunciation of suburban taste, The Australian ugliness, was recently republished for its fiftieth anniversary. But there were many others, usually more obsessed with lifestyle than design. The journalist Alan Ashbolt was typical: ‘Behold the man ‘ the Australian man of today’what does he want to sustain him, except a Holden to polish, a beer with the boys, marital sex on Saturday nights, a few furtive adulteries” (Alan Ashbolt, ‘Godzone’, Meanjin December 1966.)

The mood had mellowed somewhat by the 1990s. When I wrote The fibro frontier I capitalised on the fact that the small, simple houses of the 1950s had become artefacts of Australian identity. But since then the rise of the Mcmansion reignited the suburban critique. Big houses became conflated with big cars, big televisions and big (fat) people to create a new, decidedly unflattering suburban stereotype. The appearance of affluence on the suburban fringe created the assumption that something fundamentally new was happening there. Once the preserve of battlers, the frontier is now supposedly the home of a new social category, the aspirationals.

At least, this became a central assumption of Australian politics. Both John Howard and Mark Latham believed that the Mcmansions had fundamentally changed politics. Their successors hold similar beliefs, skewing their campaigns towards a narrow list of policies supposedly palatable to a small number of outer suburban electorates. Mark Latham:

“The hip-pocket nerve has always been sensitive in Australian politics but now, after ten years of prosperity and the ownership revolution, it’s out of control. People live in their highly-geared McMansions, on $60,000 ‘ 70,000 a year, couple of kids in a non-government school, and they say to the politicians: ‘I’m the real battler, help me”. It’s the rise of the material/me society’.I’m used to the larrikin/rebellious/matey side of suburban culture in Australia. But it’s almost dead’.”

There are other ways of looking at the big house phenomenon. One is to remember that Australia has always had plenty of big houses, albeit owned and occupied by rich people rather than suburban battlers. The trophy house has a long history in Australia. In 1911 there were 1,022 houses with more than 15 rooms in NSW. Of course these houses were different. They were large partly because they housed a lot of people. As well as the owner and family, these included their servants.

As a result of its dependence on servants, the big house was in decline for much of the twentieth century. Scarcity of servants was a major reason for the shrinkage of the urban trophy house, as working women could now find jobs in shops and factories. One consequence was smaller, more efficiently designed suburban homes. Another was the ‘luxury flat’ with shared domestic assistance to house refugees from larger homes.

From the 1960s, though, the mansion bounced back, in democratic form. There were two main reasons for this: the major banks entered the home-loan market, increasing the size of mortgages and houses. Later, the abolition of death duties and capital gains taxes on family homes had a similar effect. Simultaneously, two-income families became more common, especially among post-War migrants who quickly achieved spectacular levels of home-ownership, 20 per cent above that of the Australian-born populace. They also created spectacular homes, many of which have been politely described by architectural historians as the late 20th century immigrant nostalgia genre, and described by everyone else as the Wog Mansion or more politely as ‘Fedeterranean’. Truly a miracle of economic democracy, these structures continue to transform Sydney’s established suburbs.

Eventually, as the economic commentator George Megalogenis has pointed out, ‘the Anglos got with the program’ and the two-income, two-storey Mcmansion was born. But rather than the do-it-yourself ethic of the Greeks, Lebanese et al, they were aided by the still relatively new project home industry.

A cheap house was once a small house, but in recent decades the project home industry has perfected the production of houses which are both large and cheap: prefabrication of frames, windows and interior fit outs, brick veneer construction and concrete slab foundations are main techniques. A new house on the urban fringe remains a more affordable option than smaller houses in established areas.

Despite the increasing cost of land even on the urban fringes, the ability of the project home industry to create cheap houses has frustrated the expectation than higher-density living would eventually become less expensive and more attractive. The environmental and urban agendas expressed in urban consolidation policies are frustrated by the fact that houses on the fringe remain the cheapest form of new housing.

So in an economic sense, little has changed. Fringe housing is still the cheapest. What has changed is the ability of the project housing industry to break the nexus between affordability and modest house size. Even an entry-level single floor project home offers four bedrooms, a two-car garage, a rumpus room, a family room, a home theatre, living and dining rooms and an ensuite bathroom with the main bedroom.

Prices for houses of this type, for example Allworth Homes’ Omega Elan Accent, start at around $150,000. Total floor area is 270 square metres. Value for money’ Definitely, if size and space are the determining characteristics. As for the exterior aesthetics, these are usually interchangeable with most builders offering ‘contemporary’, ‘classic’ or ‘heritage’ variations to the street side exterior.

Despite this, many critics are obsessed by the street elevation, determined to view big suburbia as a primarily cultural phenomenon. Elizabeth Farrelly is one of several writers to point out that Mcmansions fit the popular stereotype of a house. In contrast, ‘for a large proportion of our society, architect-designed buildings look like shoeboxes or chicken coops’. They also, significantly, cost substantially more than a project home.

In this debate it is seldom mentioned that more than 60 per cent of project homes built in Sydney are replacements for older houses in established suburbs. In other words, the cultural association of project homes with new suburbs is misleading. Middle-ring suburbs like Strathfield are being thoroughly remade via the knock-down-rebuild phenomenon. Combined with similar investment in house extensions, large houses are a now a Sydney-wide phenomenon.

In many respects we have returned to the 1950s. Suburbia again appears to be an intractable problem, if for different reasons. Whether it can be ameliorated by ‘good design’ is a moot point. The Mcmansion boom has sparked renewed nostalgia for the designer project homes of the 1960s and 1970s. The project home industry began offering pre-designed homes during this period. In an austerity market the ability of architects to maximise the space and appearance of small houses was widely valued. Many architects became employees of project home builders such as Sun-Line, Civic Homes and Lend Lease. The best known of these companies, of course, was Pettit & Sevitt, founded in Sydney in 1962. Until its demise in 1977, Pettit & Sevitt built about 3,500 houses in Sydney and elsewhere on the east coast of Australia.

The architectural profession argues for smaller, more sustainable houses but the rush to size has marginalised their influence. During the past decade or two numerous architects have produced alternatives to the generic project home. The Sydney Morning Herald recently claimed that ‘architects are diversifying from wealthy clients to design prefabricated and project homes as housing affordability continues to bite into budgets’. They include Ken Woolley, who designed most of Pettit & Sevitt’s homes, and Tone Wheeler, whose project home design The Logic has achieved the unusual double of being on display at Homeworld, Kellyville as well as receiving an AIA design award.

Projects like these suggest that it is possible to recreate a success like Pettit & Sevitt which was also aimed at the more affluent end of the project home market. Although P&S only produced a few hundred houses a year, its influence on other builders was significant as would be, one suspects, a new generation of designer project homes.

However the democratisation of mansion living goes far beyond stigmatising aspirationals and Mcmansions. It asks questions of about the sustainability, in environmental and urban terms, of suburban living in general (see here). After all, few of the costs, financial and environmental, of low-density living are included in house purchase prices yet they must be borne by residents and governments. The only significant trend towards smaller dwellings comes from the apartment building boom, which also bears some relationship to the shrinking size of average families and households.

The resulting impasse is fuelling a frustration with the ‘holy grail’ of the freestanding house. Tone Wheeler:

“What happens when you squash lots of green, passive solar homes together’ They don’t work; they overshadow each other, the cars dominate the streetscape and the houses can’t breathe and cross-ventilate. But why can’t we have both’ Some combination of socially efficient higher density housing that still retains the best aspects of the freestanding home ‘ individuality, privacy, variety and access to the garden’ This is the new Holy Grail.”

Although rows of Mcmansions have become the visual signifier for contemporary urban malaise, the venerable walk-up flat may be a more telling image. Increasingly, architects and urban planners argue that low-rise apartments should become the new urban frontier, a vastly more complex frontier than that inhabited by the project home.

This is part of a provocative argument made by Witold Rybczyski and others: that attempts to make large houses sustainable are a waste of time. Small houses, existing houses and apartments will always be greener than a new, large house regardless of how many solar panels adorn its roof and how well insulated it is. From this point of view environmental building indexes such as BASIX are primarily a distraction from the essential issues of sustainability:

Architectural journals and the Sunday supplements tout newfangled houses tricked out with rainwater-collection systems, solar arrays, and bamboo flooring. Yet’it doesn’t really matter how many green features are present. A reasonably well-built and well-insulated multifamily building is inherently more sustainable than a detached house. Similarly, an old building on an urban site, adapted and reused, is greener than any new building on a newly developed site. A Thoreau-like existence in the great outdoors isn’t green. Density is green. (see here)

Are we prepared to confront this, the ultimate anti-suburban argument’ I suspect not.

Australia trumps US with Mcmansions