This whopping life

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday 8 March 2003
Author: Stephen Lacey
Bigger is better in this aspirational country of ours and the boundaries just keep moving. Why do we want so much, asks Stephen Lacey.
I have this acquaintance, call him Jason, who was at me for weeks to accompany him out to Kellyville, in Sydney's outer west, to have a look at some display homes. Jason, a retail manager from Ryde, was keen to look at one of the new AV Jennings project homes, particularly one called the Maplecove 405. “It's the largest one they make," he said.

But what about the design? “It's not bad. You get a lot of bricks for your bucks.”

That catchcry certainly rings true when you see the Maplecove 405. Even in a street of other enormous boxes, the Maplecove, all 400 square metres of it, stands out, oozing the kind of ostentation an earlier Australia would have regarded as vulgar. Not any more.

Jason was impressed with the Maplecove 405. As soon as he wandered past the bubbling fountain and through the columned portico, he was sold. The home's cavernous interior only confirmed his resolve. This house would become Jason's way of telling the world he'd made it.

It mattered nought that there wasn't so much as a tree in the yard, nor lawn to speak of, only pavers. What did matter to Jason was that the house was big the kind of big where you need a map and a compass to find your way around the four bedrooms, two bathrooms, powder room, study, formal lounge/dining room, family room, games room and integrated double garage.

Jason only needed a house for two himself and his wife. What he wanted was the Maplecove 405. And yet, in Kellyville it would be considered an average-sized house. Not small fry, but nothing terribly special either. One of Clarendon Homes' most popular models, the Kirribilli, is 446 square metres. Now that's a lot of bricks for your bucks.

This trend towards bigness is evident not only in the houses we build, but also the things we fill them with (lounges, stereos, TVs, fridges, showers), the cars we drive and the food we eat.

Leading architect Glenn Murcutt is scathing when it comes to some Australians and their penchant for big houses. “I showed some visiting Danish architects what's being built along the roads to Castle Hill and Windsor, and they've never seen anything like it," he says. “It's so depressing these bloated, over-sized, terrible houses, built on the tiniest blocks in the traditional subdivision pattern. It's a total waste of land, not to mention resources.

“We think we live in the best housing in the world because we own our own house. It's appalling housing, it's appalling spatially. They are monstrous in their planning and their scale. It's not architecture, it's merchandise.

“No longer is project housing of the quality that it was in the past. The main reason is that there's been a cultural shift in society people want to impress; they want the biggest for the least. The families are getting smaller and the houses are getting bigger. There's something ethically suspect about this."

Murcutt is spot-on in his assertion about the inverse relationship between family and house size. Simon Tennent, chief economist with the Housing Industry Association (HIA), confirms that the average home in NSW grew by 57 per cent between 1985 and 2000. During the same period, family sizes dwindled to below 2.6 not even enough to replace the existing population.

It's about greed, says the Herald's architecture critic, Elizabeth Farrelly. “People want what they can have, and if they can get it they'll get it. Self-discipline isn't something our society stresses greatly. We all eat too much and have too much stuff I think it's quite simple. I don't think it's about people's needs, it's about people's wants. We're all taught to want as much as we can possibly get. I think it's an incredibly greedy, materialistic society that we live in."

And the future? “We'll see bigger and bigger bedrooms, more rumpus rooms, studios and studies and Christ knows what it will go on as long as people can have it. Architecture is not something most people care about, or know enough about. Given the choice between an extra bedroom and a beautiful space, most people will choose the former."

She lays part of the blame on society's trendsetters, the movers and shakers and our so-called moral leaders, who live in some of the biggest houses in Australia. “Everywhere you look, everything supports that, so what do you expect people to do? It's not like there are many people out there saying anything different. Most people are just following the trend."

Farrelly doesn't think architects hold the answer, however. They have no franchise on good taste, she says. “There's only about 3 per cent of architects who have got any talent at all. Most of them are bad. It's like any other profession."

Tim Redway, the national marketing manager for AV Jennings, and Farrelly seem to agree on one thing: if Australians can afford larger homes they will buy larger homes. It's as simple as that, Redway says.

As for why anybody would need a house as large as the Maplecove 405, Redway, who lives in a small apartment in Surry Hills, says: “If I had a wife and two children, the Maplecove would be about the space I needed." But, when pressed, he concedes: “It's all about perceived needs. The [market] segment AV Jennings caters to try, perhaps, to do better than their baby-boomer parents. It's an aspirational need of Australian people.

“These homes are what Australians want to live in. I suppose, in suburban areas, there's a competition to have larger homes. Sydney homes are the largest in Australia in terms of floor area. Sydney people actually prefer a more basic kind of home in terms of specifications and facade, but they want the space."

Redway is right about the size of Sydney's homes. According to the HIA, they average 283 square metres. This compares with Adelaide (211), Melbourne (244), Brisbane (254), Perth (245) and Hobart (a modest 174). At the same time, the average Sydney housing block has shrunk to about 500 square metres, half what it was in the 1950s, when houses were much smaller.

Graham Jahn, president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, puts our obsession with bigness down to the messages we receive through the media. In the 1950s, the media's message was that you should be proud of making do; you should be proud of your small, even humble, home. This message was backed up by a government push towards austerity that saw legislation limit house sizes to 92 square metres between 1948 and 1952.

“Now, 40 years later, what is being amplified is the idea that you need a lot of house because it makes you look good. As opposed to saying we'll create a house with a better design, or of higher quality, we're being sold the idea that big is better."

Environmental architect David Leifer goes even further, labelling Kellyville's McMansions as ludicrous conspicuous consumption. “I visited one of these homes recently. The two people who lived there had a formal dining room that was never used and a lounge area they hardly ever went into. They actually lived around a little space near the kitchen. I went into their bathroom and they had two wash basins. How daft is that? It's just totally unnecessary."

A glaring architectural feature of most of these project homes is an imposing double or triple garage at the front. The reason for this focus on dominant garages is that many Australians love big, dominant cars. The growing popularity of large four-wheel drives has been well documented. And our family favourites the Holden Commodore, Ford Falcon, Mitsubishi Magna and Toyota Camry are getting bigger every year.

The new Holden Commodore VY is just under 4.8 metres long and 1.8 metres wide. It's the largest family sedan Holden has made. The new Falcon XT is even bigger. By comparison, the original 1948 Holden was half a metre shorter, and slightly narrower.

“We do tend to like big cars and Australians buy the biggest car they can afford. By global standards, the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon are the most metal for your money anywhere in the world," says Joshua Dowling, the Herald's Drive editor.

While Jed Bullmer, editor of Wheels magazine, admits a small car would make more sense, he adds: “The ethos of big cars is firmly established in the Australian consumer's mind-set. I think that will change over time as fossil fuels are exhausted and alternative energy sources are adapted. When issues of economy are driving the agenda, we'll see the size of vehicles respond accordingly. Until then, most people are going to have the biggest thing they can have."

Michael Simcoe, Holden's director of design, says it's all about perceived need. “If you can afford more and you think that more will suit you better, it's what you'll choose. Not many people have a rational view of what they do in life.

“There's no need for a larger car, other than the number of people you want to fit in the car comfortably. And, ultimately, need is perception. The reality is we don't need to be driving cars as much as we do, we don't necessarily need the size or type of car that we drive in this country at volume. However, as a public, we perceive the need to have a car this size."

There is also an element of myth at work, he says the dream that one day we'll all pile into the family sedan and go cruising in the outback. “It's the dream of the wide, open country. We still believe that we travel huge distances and need to be comfortable."

The trend is not confined to the family sedan. Cars have grown bigger in every market segment. As Toyota's smallest car, the Corolla, crept up in size, another model was installed beneath it the Starlet, followed by the Echo. The same thing happened with the Honda Civic, until it grew so large it was undercut by the Jazz.

But the big four-wheel drives have attracted the most media attention and criticism. Simcoe believes they are yet another example of perceived need. “There are some people who genuinely use them, but the majority don't. Mum drives the kids in a LandCruiser to school because she or her husband believe it's safe to drive. It's certainly not safe to drive for the surrounding public."

This is an issue that has raised the ire of Harold Scruby, president of the Pedestrian Council of Australia. Scruby has been campaigning for years to have big four-wheel drives banned from urban and suburban streets. “You just have to look at the people in Mosman and Double Bay buying these Toyota LandCruisers and Nissan Patrols and ask yourself why. I think it comes from the idea of putting yourself above others.

“These people don't know the difference between a need and a want. The cars are just a status symbol. It's all about how people feel about themselves. If you're a little person, why not have something around you that makes you feel big?"

Maybe we need these big cars to accommodate our growing waistlines, which have been plumped by the trend towards bigger meals. According to nutritionist and dietitian Rosemary Stanton, this was clearly demonstrated in the past two National Dietary Surveys (in 1983 and 1995), which showed an increased calorie intake across the board, but especially among children. The number of overweight children doubled and the number who are classified as obese tripled.

The food data is quite clear, says Stanton. We are eating bigger meals and more American-style fast foods.

One of the culprits is the modern fast-food burger, which is bigger, weighs more and has about twice the fat content of the milk-bar burgers of the 1970s. “I think we're going for quantity instead of quality, unfortunately, especially in fast-food places and shopping malls. Fast foods are big and poor quality but they're cheap, they're very cheap. And if you buy cheap food, what you get is fat," she says.

“On the other hand, the level of obesity in Europe is a fraction of what it is here. Their food is better quality and their portion sizes are actually quite modest."

Bricks for your bucks, metal for your money and calories for your cash. Stanton sees a cycle linking them. “The interesting thing about those big houses is that the blocks are getting smaller. There's no backyard for the children to play in. Everything is paved and if there's a swimming pool, it's probably too small to actually swim in.

“At the same time, the inside of the houses are bigger, which means each person has more room to lounge while they're watching their tele. These big houses are actually geared towards making people fat."

Added to this is a push by the fast-food industry to “upsize" meals. This is also a major contributor to the national waistline, a recent study by Deakin University's School of Health Sciences shows. The study, published last October in the Medical Journal of Australia, looked at the four major fast-food chains: McDonald's, KFC, Red Rooster and Hungry Jack's. “The result wasn't so much that bigger is better," says one of the authors, Timothy Crowe. “But that bigger is better value."

The report demonstrated that bigger portions provide disproportionate increases in energy content, relative to the price. The most powerful example of this was the fillet burger combo from KFC, with a 50 per cent increase in energy for a 16 per cent increase in cost.

“It's better value for money. But it's adding to exploding levels of obesity," says Crowe.

He adds that meal portions in the home are also getting bigger, as a result of our experiences at fast-food outlets and cinema candy bars.

“The average amount of soft drink poured into a glass at home has grown by 50 per cent over the past 20 years. It's because we're used to drinking out of those enormous buckets they serve at cinemas and fast-food venues. Our perception of what we consider an adequate portion is being distorted by what we see outside the home."

Social commentator and futurist Richard Neville sums up the trend to excess: “How else can a lot of people demonstrate their success than with symbols of that success? Some people don't have an interior life. Their only life is an external life. If you buy into a consumer society, then your success in that society has to be demonstrated with baubles and space and grandeur. That probably goes right back to the cave the strongest most successful caveperson got the biggest cave."

Perhaps it comes down to this: Australians are a living, breathing example of the surfeit the human race aspires to, when faced with almost limitless choice and opportunity. Combine that with a corporate-driven media that constantly tells them to consume and you have the perfect recipe for gluttony. “Greed is good" may have been the mantra for the '80s. Today, greed is god.

In short, we do what we do because we can. But it's nothing unique to our national psyche. It's probably what most people would do in the same situation. As Elizabeth Farrelly says: “What else do you expect from the human race?"