McMansions in the bush capital

The Canberra Times (11 Jan 08) reported data showing that Canberrans are building bigger houses than ever before, despite shrinking block sizes and fewer people in each household.

Figures compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the average size of new houses has increased from 174sqm in 1996 to 254sqm in 2006. Australia-wide, the average new house grew from to 203sqm to 247sqm over the same period.

At the same time, the average number of occupants in a Canberra house has decreased from 2.8 to 2.6 people. Yet residential blocks had been getting smaller during the past 20 years. Canberra was developed as a garden city, but new suburbs are now crowed with McMansions. In developer-designed suburbs, green spaces like parks are reducing. The builders say that now one will buy a one-bathroom house today. To improve inaffordability, the ACT Government recently introduced small house blocks of up to 250sqm blocks for compact houses, many with two bedrooms.

The old Australian way of life was a modest house with a big backyard. The suburban home in which my parents and their three children lived was quite small, but there was room in the garden and we children spent much time outdoors.

The ANU School of Environment and Society’s Professor Patrick Troy said the environmental implications of bigger houses on smaller blocks were clear.

Housing is a major driver of environmental stress because we are consuming more energy both in the construction and the running of larger houses. New suburbs are pretty barren places because there is just not enough space for trees and shrubs that provide shade, people don’t have the capacity to grow their own food and there is also less capacity around dwellings for children to be able to explore nature.

These options are likely to be attractive to young singles and couples who do not wish to buy into a multi-unit complex or look after large backyards. [They] could also be attractive to the empty nesters that may be looking to downsize from their larger houses.

I much prefer our compact apartment in an inner suburb, with wide tree lined streets. Much more enjoyable than a McMansion in a barren, cramped. outer suburban wilderness. As well as greener.