CHANGESCAPING | Thought | Reincarnated McMansion

Posted on 04/03/2011


Reincarnated McMansion boldly proposed to audit, dismantle and rebuild a single McMansion dwelling. The building materials used in the unsustainable large home will be reused to build two or three best practice, zero emission smaller green homes. The project team is comprised of Mathieu Gallois, Peter Smith, Dr Naomi Stead, Jason Veale, Tone Wheeler, Jane O’Connor and Environa Studio. Gallois initiated and drives the project, which has received significant media profile that has resulted in discussion about the prevailing cultural preferences for suburban development.

Click on image for enlargement. Image: Courtesy Reincarnated McMansion

This speculative collaborative ‘activist’ proposition emphasises the McMansion in terms of design, environmental impact, market forces and cultural values. As the project’s resident theorist, Dr Naomi Stead, writes, “McMansions are the peculiar artefact of a specific economic model of developer-driven land subdivision and speculative housing.” Like Andrew Maynard Architect’s CV08 suburb eating robot, this project proposes other ways of thinking about suburban settlement and resource use. In particular, it draws attention to the impact of low density suburban development given the conditions climate change and peak oil. The project is driven by the changing suburban and cultural narrative – such as, broader acceptance of its impacts on health and social capital – to begin the task of rethinking and, eventually, rebuilding.

Ultimately, the project offers a critique of the housing market and the paucity of housing diversity in Australian settlements. With Reincarnated McMansion, Gallois offers a business case, even an investment opportunity, on the understanding that the project will realise a profit. In this sense, the project can be seen as an argument for a more affordable kind of housing provision in a country that has been plagued by a housing affordability crisis and expedient planning decisions. The project has also involved an R&D component to develop understanding of how to demolish (or ‘unbuild’) the pejoratively labelled McMansion. Stead also points to the McMansion as professional failure: the failure of planners to exert influence in controlling unsustainable development and the failure of architects in raising awareness of and demand for good design. There is, consequently, a redemptive element in this project: to redeem professional relevance given the legacy of ‘bad’ practices and products.

Gallois has met with media representatives who have expressed interest in producing a documentary about the project. However, this remains subject to further negotiations. Ultimately, a documentary will catalyse a larger conversation about suburbia: a documentary is not just a television series, but possibly a social network, a website, a speaking tour and a publication. The project has already generated significant media profile and presentations, and this engagement is raising awareness of the issue presented by unmodulated suburban development. A conversation implies, at the very least, a two-way exchange and perhaps projects like Reincarnated McMansion can catalyse grassroots YIMBY (yes in my backyard) activism. Suburban environments are generally regarded as homogenous and featureless with a tendency to stubbornly cling to the status quo. However, emerging YIMBY groups are advocating for sustainable development and cultural change by supporting proposals for public transit, renewable energy, social and affordable housing, walkability, housing diversity and the like.

There is a ‘real world’ quality in Reincarnated McMansion that simply points out smarter alternatives are plausible and within reach; however, a suitable house has not yet been sourced. It demonstrates a deep sense of care for the environment and for community by offering design strategies to facilitate a more efficient use of resources for liveable possibilities. Gallois embarks on a new conversation, grounded in practical effort to change the way we build and buy housing. What are we buying into when we buy these kinds of houses? With global networks such as the Small House Movement, there is also a growing understanding of small living which is also resulting in small lot subdivision. The story of the suburbs is also taking a tragic turn and studies like Griffith University Urban Research Program’s VAMPIRE (Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenses) Index are indicating that energy and mortgage stresses are coalescing in outer suburbs. In the suburban populations of ‘aspirationals’, families may well be in over their heads. Gallois slips out of the berating narratives of suburban sprawl into one attentive to ideas of dwelling, framed in part as care for place and people, community and environment.

Reincarnated McMansion
Mathieu Gallois
CV08: the suburb eating robot, Andrew Maynard Architects
Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe, Unsettling Suburbia: The New Landscape of Oil and Mortgage Vulnerability in Australian Cities, Urban Research Program, Griffith University, 2008
Small House Movement