McMansions are the peculiar artifact of a specific economic model of developer-driven land subdivision and speculative housing. They tell us about the failure of the planning profession and governing authorities to control the excesses of such self-interested land planning practices. They tell us about the failure of the architectural profession to increase public knowledge and expectations about what buildings can actually do, and to make good design accessible to everyone. 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 McMansion, 2008

In 2008 Mathieu Gallois, architect and artist, invented an art project called ‘The Reincarnated McMansion’ with a disarmingly simple idea: what if you could recycle a ‘McMansion’, a preposterously large project home, into multiple homes, with much better social and environmental outcomes.

Gallois wanted to highlight the environmental issues in contemporary houses by demolishing an existing and ageing house from the last 25 or so years, saving all the materials on site and then reusing them to construct two or three multi-family homes. The materials wouldn’t go to the tip or a waste ‘down-cycler’ but would be reused on a site that already has water, electricity, sewer and stormwater.

The new homes would provide for an increased number of residents, increasing the density and efficiency of the suburb. A delicious idea, that he worked on for 5 years, sadly without getting an owner to agree to the project. This is the story.

In 1998, prior to Reincarnated McMansion Gallois made an artwork called Frontier, a full-scale house in polystyrene, constructed in the Blair Athol near Campbelltown in NSW. Frontier spoke to a present without a past, about the phenomenon of whole neighbourhoods being created in a year and communities that do not have a communal history or past. Frontier and Reincarnated McMansion became bookends to Gallois’ ideas, concerns and creative processes as an artist and graduate architect.

In late 2007 Gallois conceived the idea for the Reincarnated McMansion project while staying in a McMansion on a family holiday in Lorne. He was struck by how the house design contradicted everything he had learned about sustainable building practices at architecture school. The project quickly garnered support from some art and architecture industries and the mass media.

In 2009, the project received an AUD$30,000 Australia Council for the Arts grant, and Gallois gathered a number of organisations to assist in the project, including architects (Smith and Tzannes and environa studio), engineers (Arup), and the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.

The project had several social aims to: (i) enhance public awareness of unsustainable suburban architecture; (ii) enhance building practices effecting Australia’s ‘suburban sprawl;’ and (iii) ‘show case’ the best sustainable solutions for building and architecture.

The environmental aims were developed from an analysis undertaken in 2009 of the embodied energy on a ‘standard McMansion’ located at Glen Alpine, revealing:

  • The total embodied energy of the base dwelling totalled 562 GJ.
  • For every GJ of embodied energy of construction materials 0.098t of CO2 are emitted.
  • 562GJ represents 55tonnes of CO2 (not including construction administration, fittings and finishes such as robes, kitchen etc).
  • 55% of the embodied energy of a McMansion is in the concrete slab, brick walls and roof tiles.
  • 13% of the embodied energy of a McMansion is in the aluminium frames and glazing.

The project organisers made the following conclusions about McMansions: “the brick veneer construction’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for Australia’s hot climatic conditions; the foundations are laid on a large concert slab that possess high levels of embodied energy; the terracotta tiled roof’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for the Australian climate; the aluminium window frames have a high level of embodied energy and their thermal performance is poor; the window glazing is of a poor level, as is its thermal performance; the PVC plumbing has a high embodied energy; the steel lintels have a high embodied energy and represent lazy design solutions”.

On this basis they argued that “Australian brick veneer homes are the biggest and most poorly designed built homes in the developed world; too big, not built to be recycled, not responsive to climatic conditions, not built for future adaptability, with poor cross ventilation. Moreover, such houses are designed to face the street rather than being orientated to maximise the site’s positive climatic engagement; their multi-faceted roofs do not optimise or facilitate the provision of PV panels or solar HWS; their roofs do not harvest rainwater; the stairwells are not sealable; and the rooms and living spaces are generic, unresponsive to different seasonal climatic conditions”.

Several generic designs showcasing the outcomes were developed. The project’s aims to produce energy positive homes for a carbon neutral life by recycling the McMansion’s materials and adopting building and architectural procedures that maximise a site had obvious benefits, but no owner could be found to financially commit, even though 35 interested homeowners did approach the organisers. Gallois continued to try to get the project up, making further designs, but felt he was defeated by suspicions about costs and approvals.

Reflecting on the key lessons of the project in 2012, Gallois stated:

“One of the strengths of any activist project, whether it is realised or not, is the stress it can potentially place on all those who have to seriously consider its implementation within their power structures. Change, or proposed change, is revelatory […] The Reincarnated McMansion project has enjoyed community support consistent with polls that reveal that Australians do indeed support a sustainable low carbon future. Amongst powerful groups and individuals – those with either the cultural, political or financial means to aid this project’s realisation – the Reincarnated McMansion project has also encountered considerable resistance. 

Councillors and politicians have told us that they are reluctant to support us for fear of losing votes in critical western Sydney ‘swing’ seats. Newspaper editors have said that 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. The emails, letters, contracts and petitions of the Reincarnated McMansion project, consisting of hundreds of documents have been carefully recorded and preserved.”

You can read more about Mathieu Gallois; and more about the reincarnated McMansion project in Runway Journal, in Curating Cities – a database of eco public art, in Real Estate Conversation, and listen to a discussion of the project on By Design on the ABC.

This is the last in a series of articles on project homes that have covered project homes ideas, a history of project homes through A.V. Jennings, the project home problems with brick veneer, the typologies of today’s project homes, and future hybrid project homes.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]