MEDIA | Reincarnated McMansion

Posted on 19/06/2009

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At various times over the last few years, my partner, John, and I have spoken about how to renovate (adapt, retrofit) our home as well as our lives. We know full well that surbuban life does not have a flattering profile in sustainability termsas well as health and social terms. We’ve done what we can as we can afford it to change the way we live and green it up. Ours is a modest post-war weatherboard house. It’s small with two bedrooms and mostly original kitchen. I’ve been undecided about redoing the kitchen. I quite enjoy the 1940s timber cupboards and recently have strated to consider restoring it. By most accounts our little house is kind of sweet even if a little unkempt. In general, we think the design is fine – perhaps a little boxy or ‘enclosed’ – with various heating and cooling issues, plus proximity to a highway makes for too much noise to comfortably open up the house.

So we’ve often had conversations about what we could or should do with the house. One of the ideas we discussed at one point was to see if it was possible to reap a better environmental and social outcome from the house if we could ‘unbuild’ it, redesign and rebuild using the same materials (perhaps supplemented with additional recycled materials if necessary). We didn’t want to just demolish the house because it is, fundamentally, still a usable structure built with usable materials. We also felt this would make for a worthy narrative – a blog, documentary and social networking experience – it could be a story worth sharing. Of course, for us, it was a flight of fancy that had the potential of resulting in an object lesson and transformation. At the time, I was reading about suburban unsustainability, which is a research interest of mine, and stumbled on a PBS project in the USA telling the story of a house made entirely of recycled materials.

Today I read, via a link shared on Twitter, about a project that is doing just that except the project team is reincarnating a McMansion and this will be the subject of a documentary series on the ABC. The aims of the project are to demonstrate alternatives to unsustainable housing models and draw attention to issues of sustainability in existing housing. The interdisciplinary project team includes an artist, architects and environmental consultants. The idea is developed by Mathieu Gallois, an architect and visual artist. Reincarnated McMansion is entreating a McMansion owner to volunteer their home for this project. A single McMansion will be selected, audited, dismantled and rebuilt; reincarnating an unsustainable McMansion into two best practice, zero emissions green homes using existing McMansion building materials. In the project description, published online, there is a deeper enquiry underway where the home is seen as a metaphor for the self: “Reincarnated home: reincarnated self. To be reborn as a better version of oneself – the project encapsulates a powerful symbolic metaphor. The project thus seeks to transcend it’s quantitative, aesthetic and social goals; emphasising a spiritual reading of the processes as an architectural, environmental and cultural cleansing.”

Dr Naomi Stead, one of the project partners, has also contributed some insightful comments about the nature of suburban development. For her, “the McMansion is a fascinating social and anthropological and political document”. She writes of this phenomenon, not in the pejorative ways many have come to consider this housing form, but in quite sympathetic and appreciative ways. However, as she points out, for all its cultural import, it does demonstrate “the failure of the planning profession and governing authorities to control the excesses of self-interested land planning practices”.

The project also establishes its environmental credentials and the project rationale is compelling. For example, “in 2008, a single recycled brick is valued at 10% less than a new brick, whereas its reuse represents a 86% reduction of green house emissions. In 5 or 10 years time, the new brick will not only be manufactured and transported using energy that is potentially 4 times as expensive (crude oil recently predicted by the CSIRO to reach $8 / litre by 2020), but it is also highly likely that fuel will also be taxed under a carbon tax scheme. The recycled brick on the other hand, will earn its user carbon credits, increasing its value.”

Where governments are fumbling in their response to sustainability, projects like this are demonstrating a possibility for an alternative future and other ways of life. The process requires both cultural change (achieved through cultural method) and a new design and development ethos.

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