One “muckraker” tries to suggest that bigger houses – such as McMansions – make it easier for people to be obese:
No, the truth is that like cars, McMansion houses, food portions and soft drink sizes, Americans are getting bigger every day–and because it is happening everywhere, few notice. Worse, the harder we try to lose poundage with low calorie foods, fitness centers and personal trainers, the bigger we are becoming. Even people in non-industrialized countries are packing on the pounds as Big Food peddles it high calorie, addictive processed food in “new markets.”
A correlation without causation argument. And you do not have to go McMansions to make the same claim: the average size of new homes has increased from roughly 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square over sixty years. But, how might we really show that having other bigger items in our lives leads to having other bigger items in our lives? Would the reverse also be true: that if we had increasingly smaller items in our lives, we would desire smallness over all? If these are all linked, perhaps we could tie this to the big American frontier or the large American ideals at the founding of the country.
Perhaps there are other arguments to be made here. Do McMansions offer more space for people to spread out? Or, could heavier people be more likely to purchase McMansions (and is this related more to their stage in life)?
A documentary involving McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard I blogged about earlier – One Big Home – has now been released. Here are some thoughts I had after reviewing the film:
- This is an engaging story. The promotional material says it was filmed over 12 years yet the time goes quickly as it puts together interviews, public meeting footage, and striking images of both natural and man-made settings from Martha’s Vineyard.
- The documentary does a nice job representing multiple points of view. While the filmmaker clearly dislikes these trophy homes – though there is a point where his public activism regarding the issue wavers after the birth of his first child – the film presents local workers, ranging from carpenters to architects to builders, and residents defending property rights and expressing concern about a community imposing regulations on construction.
- The filmmaker’s personal story also enriches the film. As he and his soon to be wife learn they are expecting a child, they see a need for more space and a more permanent home. They employ an architect and end up constructing a home around 2,500-3,000 square feet (depending on whether the lofts are used). The film displays some of his own personal quandaries regarding how much space they really need and whether it is worth it to have upgrades in the home. This leads to a basic question: when Americans do feel they need more space, how much space should they be able to acquire?
- If there are two parts of the film that could use a little expansion or more explanation, here is what I would vote for.
- At the end, the community debates a cap on the square footage for new homes. This is an important part of the entire process yet it goes by pretty quickly in the documentary. It feels like an epilogue when there is a lot of process that might be interesting to show. Ultimately, how exactly did the public conversation develop to lead to an overwhelming majority in the end? What were some of the successful and less successful steps in putting this cap in place?
- We see a lot about Chilmark but hear very little about the rest of Martha’s Vineyard. How does this small community interact with the other doings on the island? From the footage, this part of the island is more rural but there are likely some interesting comparisons to be made.
This is a well put together documentary that asks questions facing many American communities: what should be done regarding the construction of large homes? The future of many American communities and the residents affected therein will be affected by these choices.
Purchase a luxury yacht – a “floating McMansion” – or you can choose one below that level yet still expensive:
The four-bedroom, three-bathroom luxury cruiser offers three floors of light-flooded living space, sundecks galore, two full kitchens and no shortage of closet space. The bedrooms are surprisingly spacious — more-so than most New York City apartments — and a gyro built into the hull keeps the boat so level at sea it hardly feels like a boat at all, even when it tops out at 25 miles per hour, Curry said.
“They are like a house and that’s what they are for these people — vacation homes,” said Chris Broadbent, a salesman for Grande Yachts. “You can buy a vacation home in Montauk for $1.6 million or more and you’re stuck there — which there are worse places to be stuck — but you can pay almost the same price for one of these and go anywhere.”
While the Norwalk Boat Show offers impressive examples of a luxury life at sea, not every boat needs to feel like a floating McMansion and run upwards of $2 million to be realistically livable for an extended period of time.
Mike Bassett, co-owner of Louis Marine in Westbrook, said the essentials for comfortable on-board living include heat and air conditioning, hot water and a microwave. Typically these boats are 35 to 40 feet, and can run anywhere from $130,000 to nearly $500,000 depending on the level of luxury, detailing and features that are added. The larger the boat, the more maintenance required, so really, it’s all about the lifestyle one is willing to live.
I am always intrigued to see what other consumer or luxury goods are compared to McMansions. Using the term implies more than just an expensive item: it is a mass-produced, gaudy or garish item of questionable quality intended to flash the status of their owner. Does a luxury yacht fit this bill? I would say no based on three factors:
- The price of the yachts said to be “floating McMansion[s]” costs more than the average American McMansion. (The average price would include a rough estimate based on housing markets across the United States.) This puts what is truly a more unusual consumer good already (how many Americans can purchase boats after their other expenses) out of reach of many people.
- These expensive boats are not mass-produced on the same scale as McMansions. There are plenty of boats in the United States – nearly 12 million registered boats according to Statista – but how many of them are these more expensive boats?
- The architecture or design of an expensive boat receives less attention than houses. Are new expensive yachts garish or poorly designed compared to older big yachts? It is hard to know what people’s perceptions are of this if the conversation is not as public or the conversation does not exist.
I’m open to hearing arguments for why this comparison – expensive boats are like McMansions – makes sense.
An earlier article I published suggested McMansions are not viewed as negatively in Dallas compared to New York City. The list of “the hand-down 10 most beautiful homes in Dallas” from D Magazine includes two references to McMansions:
Each year of the last decade, the editors of D Home have canvassed the city to bring you a list of “10 Most Beautiful Homes” that hopefully appeal to every taste. While on the road, we’ve spilled endless Diet Cokes due to sudden stops, exposed ourselves to the occasional McMansion, and risked looking like embarrassingly low-tech private investigators snapping photos with our iPhones. We do it all for you!…
We once named Tokalon Drive the most beautiful street in Dallas, which we suppose makes this 4236-square-foot dwelling the most beautiful home on the most beautiful street in Dallas. Plus, it reminds us why turrets are actually totally cool and not just something that just gets thrown on a McMansion. All that’s missing is a moat.
Yet, the list of 10 homes includes no McMansions. While these are large and expensive homes, all were constructed prior to World War II and have an architectural coherence that many McMansions lack. However, homes on this list for previous years did include newer homes and I would guess some of these 2017 selections have had major work done to them which might also negate some of their old-image charm.
Even in Dallas, such lists may not be able to select or trumpet McMansions as beautiful homes. If you run in certain circles – particularly when your readers are educated and wealthy – McMansions are a dirty word. A magazine like this that considers itself “a member of the original generation of city magazines: New York Magazine, Washingtonian, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago” could likely not support such as crass consumer item as the McMansion.
An Australian community is moving to become a garden city even as there is a demand for teardown McMansions:
The Monash Urban Landscape and Canopy Vegetation Draft Strategy suggests increasing canopy cover in Monash from 22 to 30 per cent by 2040.
Councillor Geoff Lake, who submitted amendments to the plan, said the people of Monash felt strongly about vegetation protection overlays…
“In particular, concerns related to overdevelopment on blocks where the site is razed to build a ‘McMansion’ and vegetation is not retained or replaced,” Cr Paterson said.
She said the council acknowledged that people valued the green character of Monash.
While it sounds like the vegetation plan is partly in response to teardowns, it could lead to an interesting scenario: a community that is both green and has a number of McMansions. The two are often assumed to not be compatible. McMansions are viewed as wasteful, whether because they are part of sprawling settings or provide unnecessary amounts of private space or use mass-produced materials. Garden cities, in contrast, feature plenty of green space alongside greener housing.
I have hinted at this in earlier posts: could we reach a point where McMansions are compatible with green settings? Imagine big homes with garish architecture that are built with eco-friendly materials and in settings that limit some of the worst features of sprawl. I suspect it may be difficult to convince McMansion critics that such homes could ever be green but given the public’s interest in such homes plus the ability to brand numerous products as green, the day where we have green McMansions may indeed come.
With the number of single-family homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, could you design a McMansion that could stand up to natural disasters? Here are a few factors that might affect whether this is possible:
- One of the advantages of McMansions for builders is that they are often constructed on a mass scale. Any changes to construction could slow down the process.
- Related to #1, an increase in the materials needed or a slow down in the process would likely lead to an increased price. Compared to true mansions, McMansions are aimed at a broader segment of the housing market.
- Different disasters likely require different approaches. If the problem is tornados, say in Tornado Alley, you are trying to protect against winds whereas if the home is constructed in a flood plain or on a coast, the home could be built on stilts or piers to allow floodwaters to pass underneath.
- Many McMansions are constructed in suburban areas. No matter what you do to each house, it could be very difficult to protect against everything. For example, flooding is less an issue of each home being poorly constructed but rather a problem connected to land development on a broader scale.
Many McMansion builders or owners would not have to worry too much about major disasters. But imagine that someone develops “the Resilient McMansion.” Could this be worth pursuing in certain areas?
Here is a (fanciful) way to truly downsize and still acquire a McMansion:
Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, an overstretched man in an overstretched world, working as an occupational therapist down at Omaha Steaks and still living in the house where he was born. Paul hungers for a fresh start and finds it courtesy of the newfangled technique of “cellular miniaturisation”, which promptly shrinks the recipient to a height of five inches. This technique has apparently been pioneered by scientists out in Norway, although one might just as easily claim that Payne has been doing it for years. Films like Election, Sideways and Nebraska, for instance, spotlighted a burgeoning crisis in American masculinity, focusing on men who fear that they’re seen as small by the world. With the excellent Downsizing, Payne has simply gone that extra mile.
The benefits for Paul are clear from the outset. As a little man, he costs less and consumes less. His assets of $152,000 convert to a whopping $12m in the bonsai community of Leisureland Estates, which means that he can now afford a McMansion or a luxury bachelor pad, like one of those cash-poor Londoners who sells their Hackney flat and then buys up half of Rotherham. A flick of the switch and the process is complete. Afterwards the nurses return to theatre and lift the clients from their beds aboard small steel spatulas…
The point, of course, is that glass-domed Leisureland is merely America in microcosm, with all the same corruption and wealth-disparity, loneliness and strife. Neither does it exist in splendid isolation. If the outside world starts to burn, then Leisureland is all-but guaranteed to go down in flames too.
It sounds like the McMansion critics win in the end in this fantasy land.
Seriously though, wouldn’t many Americans want to say they had both downsized as well as acquired a sizable and well-appointed house? Here is how this could happen:
- Given the size of many new houses in recent years, people could downsize – lose 1,000+ square feet – and still have really large houses.
- Downsizing does not necessarily mean giving up amenities. What if someone gives up a large home for a smaller home but it has all the latest features or is located in the trendy neighborhood? Downsizing can be associated with trying to live a simpler life but this could be hard for many.
We’ll have to wait and see what those with the potential to downsize – largely Baby Boomers – actually do.