Huge houses on the urban fringe are an irresponsible drain on the environment, according to this opinion piece by Dr Robert Crawford from Melbourne University. There are two charges here – one is that the average 238m2 greenfield house is too big and the other is that the occupants are too reliant on cars for transport. I discussed the transport issues related to greenfield houses recently, so this time I want to look at the allegation of excessive dwelling size.
There are all sorts of problems with the “too big” criticism, not least the obvious question: what is the “right” size for a dwelling? Even if that question could be answered satisfactorily, there’s another – what should be done about it? Should there be regulations limiting the size of houses? Or perhaps a “McMansions” tax? I think there’s actually a sensible way to approach this issue which I’ll come to in due course. But I want to start with some pertinent observations.
First, greenfield houses mostly aren’t as big as epithets like “McMansion” imply. When Melburnians think “McMansion” they usually have in mind a two storey house like Metricon’s 530 m2 ‘Monarch’, which is more than double the size of the average greenfield house. In the US however, the term McMansion is reserved for much, much bigger houses on very large lots like Tony and Carmela’s spread in New Jersey (see first picture). The average house on Melbourne’s fringe, however, is a much more modest 238 m2 according to Dr Crawford’s own evidence. That’s big compared to an inner city apartment but it’s much smaller than the ‘Monarch’ and much smaller than any reasonable definition of a McMansion. Further, more than two thirds of houses in Melbourne’s greenfield areas are single story. Nearly half (47%) are smaller than 240 m2. Almost three quarters (74%) are smaller than 280 m2.
Second, fringe houses aren’t much bigger, if at all, than typical houses in some older suburban areas. I live with my family 8 km from the city on the border of Ivanhoe and Alphington where most dwellings were built before WW2. Having two children who went to Alphington Primary School means I’ve seen inside many, many homes in the Alphington, Fairfield, Ivanhoe area. I can’t recall ever being in a house in these neighbourhoods that hasn’t been extended at least once in its lifetime. And while they probably were once, these aren’t small houses anymore. For example, the external dimensions of our place, including the garage (but excluding decks), is 240 m2 and it’s by no means large relative to other detached houses in the area – in fact I’d say it’s about average or perhaps even a bit smaller. Yet I don’t hear many complaints that inner suburban homes are “too big”.
Third, average household size falls with proximity to the city centre. Even all those (invariably renovated and extended) terrace houses in Carlton and Clifton Hill have fewer occupants, on average, than fringe houses. I’d like to see some hard data on this but I suspect the difference in space per occupant between the two areas is much smaller than is usually assumed.
Fourth, as Dr Crawford himself shows, fringe houses have dramatically improved their energy efficiency in recent years. It can be seen from the accompanying exhibit taken from this paper co-authored by Dr Crawford, that per capita operating energy required by the average new greenfield dwelling in 2008 was about a third lower than it was in 2000. In fact it was lower than it was in 1960, nearly 50 years earlier, notwithstanding that Dr Crawford says the size of the average new greenfield dwelling more than doubled over this period, from 112 m2 to 238 m2. The embodied energy of the greenfield house increased slightly between 2000 and 2008, but of course this was an investment in reducing ongoing operating energy use.
Dr Crawford says the responsible alternative is smaller dwellings. He says there’s an increasing number of people “going against the norm and opting to live in smaller houses that are designed to make the most of our natural energy resources, while still meeting the needs of residents. For these people, their choice of housing makes a statement about their concern for the environment and for our children’s future rather than using their house to advertise their personal wealth”.
Households that settle on the fringe can neither afford nor usually want to live in the inner city, even assuming they could fit into an apartment. I suspect the “increasing number of people” he’s referring to are young, well educated, one and two person households living in the inner city and in and around the CBD. They’ve chosen to live there because of its high accessibility, its lifestyle benefits and its fit with their stage in life. They’re not going against the norm – they’re doing much the same as comparable cohorts did a generation or more ago, except that many more of the current generation now live alone rather than in share households (an aside: is living alone more sustainable than sharing a bathroom and living area with two or three others?).
And the reason they’re mostly living in smaller dwellings is not because they’re making an environmental statement but primarily because they have no choice. Those with the wherewithal buy the biggest apartments they can afford, perhaps 100-120 m2 apartments in Southbank or Docklands; those without buy as much as they can afford, perhaps a 35-50 m2 studio or one bedroom apartment. Space is what economists call a “superior good” – as people get richer they buy more of it. I think it was Hugh Stretton who said Australians want to live like the Governor – as close to the centre as possible but with lots of space and privacy.
As the Australian Conservation Foundation showed, rather than living a life that’s more environmentally considerate, inner city households have, on average, a bigger per capita carbon footprint than suburban households. That’s partly because they have smaller households but in large measure it’s because they have higher incomes – they spend more on consumer goods and, in particular, they fly more. I don’t doubt there are some people for whom the environment is their key driver, but I think they’re outliers.
I think the reality is that houses are probably “too big” everywhere, mainly because external costs like emissions aren’t fully paid for by owners and renters and because preferential tax treatment favours over-investment in housing. Rather than worrying about the symptoms – like the size of greenfield houses – the focus should be on getting the price signals right so that those who prefer a big house pay for it. Initiatives like the carbon price are part of that solution and so, as an interim measure, are minimum energy efficiency standards.