Half a McMansion

Australian one-family houses have been getting a whole lot bigger. The average size of a new house increased by 40% between 1980 and 2010, rising from 160 to 260m2 and we now have the largest average house size in the world. Over that same thirty-year period, there has been significant growth in one and two-person households in Australia, a trend that will continue with the baby boomer ‘bulge’ entering retirement and their golden years. We are currently averaging 2.6 persons per household. Should these 60+ year-old mums and dads choose to remain in the family home, we will continue by far to have the largest residential (and most energy inefficient) space per person in the world.

Counter to this trend, the current lack of affordable housing means children are staying at home longer, and this will result in a temporary rise in the persons per household ratio until the market adjusts.

Gigantic new houses above 300m2 have been termed ‘McMansions’; an apt name for a quickly delivered, mass produced whopper of a dwelling served up on smaller blocks and with more calories than you need. Or think you need; maybe it’s just collusion between the banks and developers persuading homeowners it’s a better investment to maximise site potential and re-sale value ‘why build three bedrooms and one bath, when you can fit in four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a media room etc’. I live in a 140m2 three bedroom one bath house, where the previous owner brought up four kids.

We know that housing affordability in Australia is the worst in the world with the cost of a median house in some capital cities some 7 or 8 times the average salary. And the renting crisis is deteriorating, with vacancy levels below 1% in Perth for instance yet the Australian population is increasing. New housing starts are projected to fall 12.4% in this financial year, following on from a 5.6% fall last year (Housing Industry Association: Quarterly Outlook for Residential Building). Supply just cannot seem to meet demand.

Governments around the country are looking at the provision of affordable housing with the NRAS, joint equity and similar schemes, and how to increase urban density with planning rule changes. Re-zoning to higher densities (dual densities to protect ‘amenity’) and encouraging housing infill all help to make better use of existing infrastructure, particularly public transport, rather than meeting the burden of extending that infrastructure – an impost on new housing that adds to the lack of affordability and stretches local authority finances.

We should also look at the better use of the existing housing stock and, in particular, the much-derided McMansions. The useful life of a new house is reckoned to be around 40 to 50 years and the usual scenario is mum and dad living there for, say, 20 years, then kids leaving home and starting their own families. The ageing parents, (often asset rich but income poor as they outlive their superannuation), are faced with mounting energy bills or having to sell to fund a residential care bond for one of them (often somewhere between $250k. and a million?) Often there are no smaller dwellings in their locality to downsize to, and they are forced to move away.

But what if the son plus partner, or daughter plus partner, unable to buy or rent in a desirable suburb and not wishing to move too far away from friends, relatives and places of work consider the option of renting or buying half of the parents’ McMansion? The young couple get a place to live in a decent suburb near friends and family, and parents get a boost to their super or weekly income without one or both of them moving away to a smaller house, a retirement village or into nursing care. Many young people today view paying 30% of income to rent in a coastal or inner city suburb as preferable to paying 50% of income buying a house in a far flung outer suburb.

And what about a succession plan based on several generations living in a purpose-built large house, saving many times over the cost of buying, selling and moving house. Australia has one of the most mobile residential populations in the world. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 2007/2008) reported that 43% of one statistical reference group had moved within the last 5 years (8% from interstate or overseas, 45% from a different suburb/locality and 47% from the same suburb/locality).

Here is one possible scenario: parents A & B buy the house (perhaps at a cheaper price, with the upper half built in shell i.e. not fitted out). Children C & D are born and later on, persuade mum and dad to fit out the upstairs as a teenagers’ retreat (or more likely the parents’ retreat). C then marries E and the couple live in the upstairs retreat, evicting the younger sibling D who moves out. C & E then have their own kids, move downstairs into the family portion and the ageing parents A & B move upstairs. This generational succession plan can continue working for the life of the house.

So how easy is it to convert existing McMansions?  Well, at least one enterprising Perth building company has foreseen future household needs with a two storey house consisting of two identical and same sized apartments – though capable, with generous stairways and hallways, of being used effectively as a single family home. Merely altering and enclosing the staircase on this plan to make a second separate entrance will result in two totally self-contained dwellings, with the concrete floor slab even providing acoustic separation.

Many existing McMansions have the smaller upstairs designed as a parents’ retreat, – bedroom, en suite, robe and usually with a separate living space. This is ideal for use as a one or two person ‘granny flat’, just add a stair lift, a clever compact kitchenette in a cupboard with louvred doors and it becomes more-or-less self contained.

At a stroke housing density is doubled, ageing parents have a son or daughter on hand, and the oldies are available to do a greater share of child care. Grandpa can have his vegie garden, Grandma tends the roses, son or son-in-law shares the garage/workshop with Grandpa, daughter or daughter-in-law (after child rearing) can resume their careers earlier, the grandkids have a lawn to play on, and all share in the advantages of a three generation environment.

Or not, so the apartments should be designed to be separate living spaces, with the sale or rent options available to anyone, not just family. WA State Planning and Councils are exploring the option of upsizing and re-badging 60m2 maximum size ‘granny flats’ to 70m2 ‘supplementary dwellings’. Unlike granny flats you won’t have to be related to occupy the supplementary dwelling. This increases housing density as well as the range of dwelling types, allowing older people to downsize, or younger people to buy or rent, both in their preferred locality.

We already have one of the most efficient home building industries here in Western Australia who, with their designers and architects, will have no problems providing the market with large purpose-built two storey houses, planned as two separate or linked households and designed to meet sustainability principles on both levels.

But we also need State Government to tweak the residential planning codes, lending institutions to come up with more flexible mortgages and all of us to think outside of the square.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    So the solution is to convert them to McMansionettes?

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