Sunday 15 September 2019

Home Truths: Changes to bring rack and ruin for 'McMansions'

"His mansion’s a ruin..": The once opulent 1830s built Duckett's Grove in Carlow is now a majestic shell

In his poem 'The Small Towns of Ireland', John Betjeman wrote:

But where is his lordship who once in a phaeton, drove out twixt his lodges and into the town? Oh his tragic misfortune I will not dilate on; His mansion's a ruin, his woods are cut down. His impoverished descendant is dwelling in Ealing, His daughters must type for their bread and their board. O'er the graves of his forbears the nettle is stealing. And few will remember the sad Irish Lord.

Once vast symbols of power and wealth in the Irish rural landscape, the mansions of the Anglo-Irish aristocrats relied on the old colonial order to keep them alive.

That economy revolved around big agri earnings, sucked into one enormous house; from hinterlands of thousands of acres and in tandem with cheap labour from a subjugated people. When that economy died, the big houses perished in numbers.

Consider that a 10,000 sq ft house with 10-plus bedrooms, had 20 to 40 fireplaces in situ to heat the house and stave off damp. For that house to remain healthy, each of those would have to be lit every other day. That's at least 10 fireplaces to be cleaned out daily, their fires reset, lit and fuelled all through the day and evening. That's an overtime shift for one person right there. Without the fires, the damp, mould and rot set in. Then the vast roof areas to be found on a 10,000 sq ft mansion presented an eternal job requiring constant attention, in much the same way a church roof does.

Without cheap labour and tenancy incomes, the fires went unlit and the tiles slipped without recourse. Damp, rot and water ingress followed; then resale and abandonment and finally, fires set by vandals. Most are now shells.

The survivors are with us today because they changed function: converted into schools, monasteries and hotels. And where the original families are still in situ, they have turned their homes and grounds to events, hospitality and paid public access to raise the cash necessary to keep their cash-hungry monsters in rude good health.

Big statement rural abodes made a comeback for a time in the Tiger years. In no small way inspired by the big houses of old, they were built on the tops of hills and to the front of roads. Vast mock Georgians of breeze block and slapdash arose architect free, with banks of white uPVC windows, columned porches and fanciful double garage-mahals (some also with pillars).

Six bedrooms plus, eight bathrooms; Jacuzzis, home cinemas, ballroom-sized uPVC conservatories and a set of garden centre eagles perched atop lofty entrance piers of block and render. Christened "McMansions" after an American derogatory term for the cheaply-built outsized homes which became popular Stateside in the 80s, the outsized one-offs sprang up all over Ireland between 1995 and 2007.

The McMansion fulfilled the same role as the Big House before it - it was a great big built shouty statement. The McMansion yelled: "Over here! Look at us! We've arrived!"

Our soap box Palladians were built at a time when construction work tended to be somewhat roughshod. As a result, they were often badly finished and today many are exhibiting damp problems and cracking, which could prove costly to fix.

Oil was also historically cheap at their inception. In 1998, oil prices had descended to what were (relatively) their lowest levels in more than 50 years.

By 2004 oil was still hanging below $50 a barrel. To someone building a large home in this period, oil had been so cheap for so long that it must have seemed like it would always be the case. But by 2008, crude hit $147 a barrel, an all time record high. Since then the barrel has only once fallen below $50. But that prolonged oil price holiday meant that few McMansion builders gave much, if any thought, to insulation during construction.

On the BER scale they tend to lurk around the 'C' regions and below. And a C-rated home which spans circa 4,000-plus sq ft plus, is a damned expensive proposition to heat in 2019.

Already their foundations are shaky.

By their monetarily exuberant nature, many McMansion builders tended to be the first to go belly up in the recession. So a good many of these highly personalised and outsized dwellings were bank taken and sold on again, mostly for buttons, from 2009 to 2015.

Now societal, economic and political changes in the pipeline threaten to make the Tiger McMansion extinct. The local elections, with Green party success, have sent our erstwhile true blue Fine Gael Government scrambling to find some new green clothes. Most recently it outlined plans to outlaw oil and gas boilers by 2022 and 2025 respectively. City and country dwellers who own more modestly-sized homes will likely get stuck into retro fitting them (even despite the recent debacle which saw owners left without promised grants). Despite the painful hitch, more incentives will be required going forward if Fine Gael truly intends making good on its new planet-saving credentials.

Assured by their location values, owners of big period properties in cities will likely bite the bullet and persevere with expensive retrofitting.

But in remoter rural parts, the owner of a six-bedroom home with a peanuts market value will find it difficult to justify the necessary spend. This is particularly true if the 20-year-old uPVC windows are warped and the house is already experiencing other problems. As increasing carbon taxes hit home, McMansion owners who persist in patching up their aging and oil guzzling boilers, could end up retreating to live in smaller, more manageable portions of their giant properties (as the landlords of old did). They will eventually give up and downsize.

In an age when A-rated homes are becoming more widespread, and McMansions become increasingly difficult to sell to an energy conscious population, the outsized abodes will be abandoned one at a time for better designed and insulated homes. As ivy steals over their cattle filled shells, they might warrant the odd tour bus stop: the guide to relate the folly of a reckless and temporarily wealthy class of the past, left high and dry by the winds of change.

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