Ensuites at bottom of discontent

18:45, Jan 18 2013
Martin van Beynen
Martin van Beynen

I believe I can trace the origins of the collapse of the Western economic system to one devastatingly simple trend: this - and historians will thank me in years to come for pointing it out - is the irresistible desire among Western home owners for the ensuite bathroom.

The walk to the family bathroom down the hall or through the sunroom got too much for most Westerners about 15 years ago and since then the pressing need to shorten the route to the bathroom has become implacable.

The trend coincided with other damaging ones in the home- owning arena.

The ensuite bathroom turned out to be just the start. Suddenly each person in the house needed their own palatial bedroom complete with - yes - the ensuite.

Guests had to be catered for with a special guest room and dining had to be separated into formal and informal areas.

Kitchens with a sink, a stove, a fridge, some lino on the floor and few shelves for cooking utensils were, at the same time, regarded as Third World.


Despite the significant decrease in people cooking their own meals, everyone suddenly wanted a professional kitchen with a breakfast nook, polished floors, marble bench tops and, just to hand, a scullery.

Overnight, it seemed no property was complete without an outdoor living area fitted out with a pizza oven, outdoor fireplace, gas barbecue and special outdoor furniture.

In a short space of time the basic functions of a house - cooking, sleeping, washing, recreating - became celebridised, a new word I have coined to describe how ordinary things are elevated into celebrity land.

The trend can be seen in the way cooking has been primped into some sort of holy activity presided over by the new priests of our culture: the celebrity chefs.

On the home front, the consequences for society have been dire. Banks, which have always used the homeowner as a guaranteed cash cow, were happy to fund the extra home trappings, and over time, countries, where wages and production were unable to keep pace, built up a mountain of unmanageable debt.

Hopefully the upshot will be a radical change in what we expect from our homes and lead to much more affordable housing.

As this newspaper pointed out this week, the three-bedroom, one- bathroom bungalow is now a rare thing indeed.

This is a great shame because home ownership is one of the keys to a civilised society and governments should be judged on how affordable they can make it.

It gives people a stake in a community and helps provide a stable base for families.

Homeowners put down roots and look at life differently from those renting.

It engenders good citizenship because people have a long-term interest in holding down jobs and protecting property rights.

Interest rates don't mean much until you have the bank as your master. It makes people better neighbours because they know they will be around for some time.

Human beings need to nest and find this difficult if the landlord can chuck them out at a moment's notice. Property maintenance, gardening, new projects, improvement and beautification are rewarding and productive pursuits which, for many people, give life more meaning and purpose.

Our homes, however, can be millstones around our necks, especially if we are too heavily mortgaged. The financial crisis of 2007/08 saw many people walk away from their homes, especially in the United States, because the value of the property dropped to below the amount of the mortgage.

When jobs were lost and people could not meet their repayments, it was cheaper to post the keys to the bank than stay around to sell.

Rates, insurance and maintenance costs can easily amount to $100 a week on top of mortgage repayments.

However, on balance, home ownership is more than worth the costs. Understandably it figures in most people's aspirations.

The current housing shortage and the high cost of building is soluble. Simplify homes, moderate expectations, work out how to reduce the cost of building materials, cut down everyone's margin and get more people trained in building skills.

Ownership should be the cornerstone of public housing.

A key will be getting people to forget about the ensuite and other non-essentials.

I was brought up in a very modest home where four bedrooms had to cater for six children and two parents. We had a shower (no bath) and one toilet.

Two bedrooms were straight off the kitchen and the other two off the lounge area.

Soundproofing was achieved by closing the door.

Things improved over time but the one bathroom and one toilet were never augmented.

Miraculously, it never seemed to be much of a problem although looking back it must have been a tight squeeze and pretty basic.

Now the average family is less than four people. Surely one bathroom will do.

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