Tone on Tuesday 134: The McMansion Reincarnated
“The McMansions are the particular artefact of a specific, developer-driven land subdivision and speculative housing business model. They tell us about the failure of the planning profession and government authorities to control the excesses of these self-serving land-use planning practices. They tell us about the architectural profession’s failure to increase public knowledge and expectations of what buildings can actually do and to make good design accessible to all. But they also tell us about human aspirations, the desire for status and identity, the power of a constructed image of “home” in the popular imagination. The McMansion is a fascinating social, anthropological and political document.”
Dr. Naomi Stead, excerpt from Thoughts around the McMansion2008
In 2008, Mathieu Gallois, architect and artist, invented an artistic project called ‘The reincarnated McMansion‘ with a disarmingly simple idea: what if you could recycle a ‘McMansion‘, an absurdly large, multi-house project house with much better social and environmental outcomes.
Gallois wanted to highlight the environmental issues of contemporary houses by demolishing an existing and aging house of the last 25 years or so, keeping all the materials on site and then reusing them to build two or three collective dwellings. The materials would not go to landfill or a waste down-cycler, but would be reused at a site that already has water, electricity, sewer and storm water.
The new houses would accommodate an increased number of residents, increasing the density and efficiency of the suburb. A delicious idea, on which he worked for 5 years, unfortunately without an owner accepting the project. It’s history.
In 1998, before Reincarnated McMansion Gallois produced a work entitled Bordera life-size polystyrene house, built in the Blair Athol near Campbelltown in NSW. Border talked about a present without a past, the phenomenon of whole neighborhoods being created in a year and communities that have no common history or past. Border and Reincarnated McMansion have become bookends for Welsh’s ideas, concerns and creative processes as a graduate artist and architect.
At the end of 2007, Gallois conceived the idea of Reincarnated McMansion project while staying at a McMansion on a family vacation to Lorne. He was struck by how the design of the house contradicted everything he had learned about sustainable building practices in architecture school. The project quickly garnered support from certain art and architecture industries and the mass media.
In 2009, the project received 30,000 Australian dollars Australian Arts Council grant, and Gallois brought together a number of organizations to help with the project, including architects (Smith and Tzannes and environmental studio), engineers (Arup), and the Casula Powerhouse Arts Center.
The project had several social objectives to: (i) raise awareness of unsustainable suburban architecture; (ii) improve building practices affecting Australia’s “suburban sprawl”; and (iii) “show” the best sustainable solutions for construction and architecture.
The environmental objectives were developed from an analysis undertaken in 2009 of embodied energy on a ‘standard McMansion’ located at Glen Alpine, revealing:
- The total embodied energy of the basic housing was 562 GJ.
- For each GJ of embodied energy of building materials, 0.098 t of CO2 is emitted.
- 562GJ represents 55 tonnes of CO2 (not including construction administration, fixtures and fittings such as bathrobes, kitchen, etc.).
- 55% of a McMansion’s embodied energy is in the concrete slab, brick walls, and roof tiles.
- 13% of a McMansion’s embodied energy is in the aluminum frames and glazing.
The project organizers drew the following conclusions about the McMansions: “the thermal performance of the brick veneer construction is poor and unsuitable for Australia’s hot climatic conditions; the foundation is laid on a large concert slab which possesses high levels of embodied energy; the thermal performance of the clay tile roof is mediocre and unsuitable for the Australian climate; aluminum window frames have high embodied energy and poor thermal performance; the glazing of the window is of a mediocre standard, as well as its thermal performance; PVC plumbing has a high embodied energy; steel lintels have high embodied energy and represent lazy design solutions”.
Based on this, they argued that “Australian brick-veneer houses are the largest and most poorly designed built houses in the developed world; too big, not built to be recycled, not sensitive to weather conditions, not built for future adaptability, with poor cross ventilation. Additionally, these homes are designed to face the street rather than be oriented to maximize the site’s positive climate engagement; their multi-faceted roofs do not optimize or facilitate the supply of PV panels or solar AEC; their roofs do not collect rainwater; stairwells are not sealable; and the bedrooms and living areas are generic, insensitive to different seasonal climatic conditions”.
Several generic designs showcasing the results have been developed. The project’s goals of producing energy-positive homes for carbon-neutral living by recycling materials from the McMansion and adopting building and architectural procedures that maximize a site had obvious benefits, but no owner could be found. to commit financially, although 35 interested owners have approached the organizers. Welsh kept trying to move the project forward, doing other designs, but felt defeated by suspicions over costs and approvals.
Reflection on the main lessons of the project in 2012 Gallois said:
“One of the strengths of any activism project, whether realized or not, is the stress it can potentially place on all those who have to seriously think about implementing it within their power structures. The change, or proposed change, is telling […] The Reincarated McMansion project has received community support in line with polls that show Australians do indeed support a sustainable low-carbon future. Among powerful groups and individuals—those with the cultural, political, or financial wherewithal to help bring this project to fruition—the Reincarated McMansion Project has also met with considerable resistance.
Councilors and politicians told us they were reluctant to support us for fear of losing votes in critical seats in western Sydney. Newspaper publishers said they would not publish stories about the project for fear of offending suburban developers who advertise in their publications. Many third parties have been complicit in maintaining the status quo of the McMansion. Emails, letters, contracts and petitions from the Reincarnated McMansion Project, consisting of hundreds of documents, have been carefully recorded and preserved.
You can learn more about Mathieu Welsh; and more on the McMansion project reincarnated in track login Curating Cities – a database of ecological public artin Real Estate Talkand listen to a discussion about the project on Intentionally on the ABC.
This is the last in a series of articles on project houses who covered project house ideasa history of project houses through AV Jenningsthe project welcomes problems with brick veneerthe typologies of modern house projectsand future hybrid project houses.
Tone Wheeler is Principal Architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and President of the Australian Architecture Association. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not owned or endorsed by A+D, the AAA, or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by only reading and responding to comments addressed to [email protected]