Making a McMansion worse with an underground garage?

One new teardown McMansion in Los Angeles is singled out for criticism for a unique feature:

The problem with one particular McMansion currently being built in Sherman Oaks is not that it towers head and shoulders above the houses to its north, the ones to its south, and all the houses across from it on the west side of the street except for one equally obese McMansion.

The problem is that its garage also reaches far lower into the ground because it is subterranean, accessed by a deeply sloping driveway. (Photo above) This is a singularly unique feature when compared to a concentric circle of the 500 nearest single family homes.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who authored the city’s porous and ineffective moratorium on McMansions, refused to personally answer direct questions about the property, but denied through a staffer any responsibility for its permit because at the time it was issued, this address was not yet covered by the moratorium. It originally only insulated some communities, including several in the San Fernando Valley…but not this one.

McMansions are often known for their large garages, whether they have oversized doors to accommodate extra-large vehicles or the big garages dominate the exterior (helping to earn some home the nickname “snout houses”). I thought the underground garage would help make a large house more palatable, particularly if some of the aboveground bulk or facade was smaller because space had been moved. Such a move echoes those of wealthy homeowners in London.

Perhaps the issue is that going underground might affect nearby properties? Presumably, it takes some significant extra work to create such a garage under a house and I was under the impression that few homes in southern California. But, I’m guessing that someone who could afford this property at a high price and the new home could also ensure that the subterranean garage is stable.

“Why we love to hate McMansions, but still buy them”

A rare article (in which I am quoted – you can find those parts yourself) that argues the McMansion is not going away. Here is the closing argument:

His clients aren’t interested in small houses or apartments, he says. “When they were immigrants, arriving, they saw these mansions, these houses, and that was the dream.”…

At Trotters Glen in Olney, Toll Brothers has sold 17 of the 58 planned homes. Stokes and her colleague, Sharon Nugent, say the development attracts affluent buyers in their 40s and 50s, with many drawn by Our Lady of Good Counsel, a nearby private school. Some add multi-generational suites or first-floor master bedrooms to accommodate elderly relatives or themselves in the future. “They’re building the dream home that they can stay in forever,” Nugent says.

Asked if they’d call the homes McMansions, Nugent and Stokes don’t bristle at the term and say their buyers probably wouldn’t either. “I don’t think they’d mind having it called a McMansion,” says Stokes.

“When you read [it in] an article, you think it’s derogatory,” Nugent says. “But in my mind, I chuckle and laugh, because we’re selling them. And they’re selling well.”

The one part that may be missing in this argument is finding more of the people outside of the coasts (California is represented by the fictional Bluth family, the Toll Brothers example comes from suburban Maryland) who like and purchase such homes. At the same time, each of these examples may even drive home the point further: even in the midst of suburban Maryland, there are people building and buying McMansions.

If the McMansion is indeed here to stay, perhaps a different question to ask is how big the American home might eventually be. Some of the rise in the median and average new home size could be blunted by a resurgent housing market where more small and medium sized homes are constructed (as opposed to the big ones that offer more profit). Or, what would change the minds of Americans so they wouldn’t desire a larger home (whether for a status symbol or to store all their stuff or to get the most bang for their buck or to have an investment for later)? Altering the emphasis on the big and comfortable single-family home is likely a long task.

Bonus: to go along with this article, see my recent series on defining the McMansion.
Trait #1: size
Trait #2: relative sizeTrait #3: architecture and design
Trait #4: a symbol

Defining a McMansion, Trait #4: A symbol

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

The fourth trait I see in the term McMansion is using the object as a symbol for a larger concept or concern. With this trait, the particular characteristics of the house – size (absolute or relative) and the architecture – matters less than what the McMansion is related to. I don’t think what the McMansion is linked to has changed all that much since I published my paper but I will highlight two areas in which I have seen the McMansion connected to in recent years.

The housing bubble that started in the United States in 2006 has had long-lasting consequences. The use of “McMansion” grew in the early 2000s as housing did well but the term was also used a lot as the housing market plunged. The McMansion became a symbol for the problems with the hot housing market: people bought bigger houses than they needed and it all fell apart. Certain locations were even more prone to McMansions with plenty of open space (exurbs) and questionable/adventurous architecture (Las Vegas). This even left half-completed McMansions and vacant neighborhoods, scary situations lending themselves to use in thrillers and horror films.

But, here is my question: just how much were McMansions responsible for the burst housing bubble? What about the construction of luxury housing in many major cities in the United States? What about the mortgage industry extending loans for all sorts of housing? McMansions are an easy target with this narrative: too many Americans bought ugly large homes that they couldn’t afford. The solution is to stop the construction and purchases of McMansions, for builders and buyers to make more rational decisions.

I’m not sure this fits the data. Housing construction is still down but as noted in the first McMansion traits post on size, more large homes are being constructed than ever. McMansions haven’t disappeared nor are they ruining the housing market now. My take is that it is that it is convenient to blame McMansions but there is a complex story of how the housing bubble built and burst that includes McMansions but not as a primary cause.

A second area in which the McMansion is used as a symbol has to do with referring to the sort of people who purchase or support McMansions. This is usually done in a negative manner. Who are these people who keep buying McMansions? They are people like Brock Turner. They are conservatives living away from cities. The culture wars may even include McMansions.

And yet, people keep building and purchasing such homes. The critique of McMansions, like that of suburbs, seems a bit elitist as the aim is not just at the houses but rather at the uneducated rubes that desire them. Some think that shaming McMansion proponents is the answer; make fun of their homes and priorities and they will change their ways. I would guess this is not a very effective strategy and other options might work better. Admittedly, some of these other options would take some time, such as educating Americans about architecture or working to enact local regulations that allows certain developments and home styles or promoting denser forms of urbanism that trade the private goods of McMansions for vibrant social contexts.

One danger of using an object as a symbol for other concepts is that the connection doesn’t always apply even if there is a grain of truth. McMansions were indeed part of the housing boom of recent decades but did they cause the economic crisis? Are all people who buy McMansions – homes that offer a lot of space as well as an eye-catching facade – conservatives with backward ideas and no interest in the common good?

Coming soon: a wrap-up to this four part series of McMansion traits.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #3: Architecture and design

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.
The size of the McMansion – whether absolute or relative – is important but not all large houses are McMansions. Another key trait is the architecture and design of the home. At the least, McMansions are considered to have a mish-mash of architectural styles, an architectural incongruence where the individual pieces don’t seem to go together. One guide to American houses described this as an eclectic style. More negatively, this may be described as garish or buffonish or unrefined. The particular design may have a purpose – to impress viewers – but the architectural purity is dubious or just plain wrong.
The recent Tumblr McMansionHell has great visuals explaining the architectural difficulties McMansions pose. I won’t repeat what is there (see a 2014 post about possibly the ugliest new build McMansion) but considering the design of McMansions leads me to several different areas of thought:
1. If McMansions are not acceptable architecture, what exactly is? American homes display a variety of styles involving historical periods as well as regional designs. (See some of these on one handy poster.) Of course, one of the oddities of McMansion designs is that they tend to colonize both older and regional designs into some new combination. Take, as one example, the ranch home of the postwar era. Are such homes beautiful or functional? Are they the result of mass production processes after World War Two? And yet, with the passage of time, some now find them worth celebrating and preserving.
2. Many Americans may not mind the architecture and design of McMansions. This could be for multiple reasons: Americans prefer other features of homes (such as their size or their location) over the architecture; Americans aren’t well educated in architecture (where exactly is this subject taught?); Americans don’t mind novelty and bricolage. As one Australian architect suggested, perhaps more residents would reject McMansions if their architectural awareness increased.
3. For good reason, including that it is easy to view from the street (whether from passing vehicles or Google Street View), the exterior (particularly the facade) of McMansions gets a lot of attention. Yet, the interior is a bit neglected. I’ve asked in earlier posts whether a home could be not bad by exterior McMansion standards but the interior is McMansion-like (see here and here).
4. I’m fairly convinced that if given a choice between modernist homes (a favorite of some architects and designers) and McMansions, more Americans would choose the McMansion. See earlier posts here and here.
5. I would guess that much of the architectural critique of McMansions is related to education levels. People with more money tend to live in nicer places regardless but think about the stereotypical image of who lives in McMansions or who you have seen or heard criticize McMansions. Additionally, if architects criticize McMansions, are they doing so partly due to self interest? A relatively small percent of American homes are designed by architects and criticizing bad designs could lead to more business.
6. Finally, I’m still waiting to find the builders and architects who would admit to designing and constructing McMansions. There are a variety of ways to get around the term (think “executive home” or “estate homes“) even if the architecture and design of the home clearly signals a McMansion.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #2: Relative size

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

While McMansions are certainly larger than normal, in certain circumstances they can appear even larger than their square footage: when constructed next to smaller homes (often teardowns, sometimes infill properties) or when squeezed onto small lots (so that the homes seem to be bursting off the property). While I know the second case does happen quite a bit, most of the McMansion coverage of this trait in recent years focuses on teardown properties. Some patterns I’ve observed:

  1. The typical case involves someone from outside the neighborhood purchasing an older home (often a postwar house), demolishing it, and constructing a significantly larger home and/or a home that has a different architectural style than nearby homes. This one picture is a great illustration. Note that the new home does not necessarily have to be over 3,000 square feet or even include the worst McMansion architecture; it just has to be different from the existing homes.
  2. Media coverage of teardown McMansions is overwhelmingly negative. This is likely the issue only comes up neighbors upset over the construction of a teardown McMansion start looking for ways to stop the construction or limit future construction. On the flip side, it is hard to know how many teardown McMansions are constructed without much furor.
  3. It is hard to know exactly what motivates neighbors to complain so vociferously about teardown McMansions. Americans seem to want the ability to buy new homes in good neighborhoods (balancing modern features with valuable locations) but don’t like what it happens to them. The complaints often fall into two camps. First, those who live directly adjacent to a teardown may have a range of new issues to confront: people able to see in their windows, a hulking property next door, losing sunlight, the older home now looking dated or different. Second, the larger issue is often couched in terms of the character of the neighborhood. People feel that when they move to a particular place, that street or neighborhood should stay similar – after all, they liked its features enough that they moved there. A teardown McMansion threatens that.
  4. The fights between neighbors can be quite contentious, a rarity in many suburban communities where middle-class decorum suggests conflict avoidance is best. Lawuits occur (example and example), and some neighbors may even pool their resources to buy a nearby home and save it from being torn down. But, if the foundation of American life is owning a home, perhaps it is not surprising that such conflict arises when owners perceive their home to be under threat. See my six steps for responding to a nearby teardown McMansion.
  5. These conflicts often involve local officials. Numerous communities across the United States have guidelines for teardowns (see the example of Austin several years ago and Los Angeles more recently). Outside of historic preservation districts, these guidelines typically limit the size of the new home (through guidelines like a Floor Area Ratio) and/or provide guidance on particular architectural features.
  6. The teardown debates tend to put local officials in a strange position. Whose rights should they defend? Property owners? If so, do they want to allow long-time residents to have a voice in shaping their own neighborhoods or do they want individual owners to be able to sell their property at a good profit? Can they openly support builders and developers? I suspect most communities want to – growth, particularly high-end houses, is an important marker of vitality – but you don’t want to always run roughshod over your constituents. Teardowns are most common in neighborhoods and communities that are already well off – see recent evidence from the Chicago region – and this tends to pit already well-off community members versus well-off outsiders.

Teardown McMansions are a subset of McMansions as a whole, often constructed in desirable neighborhoods and sometimes raising the ire of neighbors and concerned citizens. Balancing the rights of neighbors and property owners will likely continue to be a sticky issue for many local governments.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #1: Size

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

We’ll start with Trait #1: McMansions are big houses. As noted in the initial research paper, how big is up for update. I think it typically means bigger than normal though not large enough to be considered a home for truly wealthy people. In other words, it is a bigger than average house that more typical Americans (middle to upper middle class to upper class) might live in.

Interestingly, the average size of American homes has been on the rise in recent years even with a recovering housing market and increased scrutiny of larger homes. For new homes constructed in 2015 (see page 9 of the PDF file), the median size is 2,467 square feet and the average is 2,687 square feet. Both are records. There was a slight decline in new home size in 2009-2011 but since then, homes have been increasing in size.

Another way to look at this data is to examine what percent of new homes are over 3,000 square feet. Despite all the calls that McMansions are dead (or worse, making a comeback: see 2011, 2012, 2013, 2013, and 2014 posts on this), there are still new large homes in America. According to the same Census PDF with 2015 data (see page 1), we are at record percentages for the percent of new homes constructed that are 3,000-3,999 square feet (20%) and 4,000 square feet and larger (11%). So, while housing starts are still down overall compared to the early 2000s (currently less than half of some of those years), the homes that are being constructed tend to be larger. That growing tiny house movement (note my skepticism) is also not reflected in this data: with the data going back to 1999, we are at a low with only 8% of new homes having less than 1,400 square feet.

Perhaps the actual square footage of the McMansion is of less interest than the perception that it is large. (This gets into Trait #3 but is worth mentioning here.) It can be difficult from the street to estimate exactly the size of homes. However, it does seem easier to note that a ranch home has to be really large to be a McMansion while a two-story home with particular features in the front can appear larger.

One of the biggest ongoing criticisms of homes this large is that they are simply not necessary. What does one do with all that space? Doesn’t such space promote less family interaction? Doesn’t such a large home require more resources in construction as well as in maintenance? All three of these critiques could be true and yet it seems there are a good number of Americans who like having larger houses. It may be the old American adage of getting the most bang for your buck. It may be that they have a lot of stuff: having lots of stuff and having a big house go together. It may be that we like having additional rooms for specialized uses (man and woman caves, here we come). They may not use much of the house regularly but it could be comforting to have that space when you “need” it.

To conclude, McMansions are large homes though not as big as mansions. Yet, not all big homes acquire the moniker “McMansion.” The next traits highlight particular features of larger-than-average homes that increase the likelihood that they will be considered McMansions.

Asking again: who buys McMansions?

Given the negative connotations of the term McMansion, who exactly purchases such homes? The A.V. Club takes a quick shot:

It doesn’t seem likely that McMansion Hell will make these kinds of houses disappear from the landscape. Not as long as there are orthodontists and hedge-fund managers with money to burn.

This is a standard claim: the people who move into McMansions are the nouveau riche and they want the home to impress others. They are not concerned with architectural purity; they just want neighbors and people to drive by and be wowed by the grandiosity and features. But, is this actually true? We don’t know some fairly basic information, such as who lives in McMansions or what they actually think about domestic architecture.

For me, the basic question is this: if McMansions are so unquestionably bad, whether due to architecture or excessive consumption or contributing to suburban sprawl, why do people continue to move into them or live in them? There is something in the McMansion that appeals to a good number of Americans with the means to afford them (and before the housing bubble burst, more of those who maybe couldn’t afford them). And if you oppose McMansions, I’m guessing the architecture criticism simply doesn’t register with many Americans. The postwar era is littered with bad housing (I know ranch homes get some love today but they aren’t special) and aesthetics may not matter much compared to other factors (like the quest for more space or being in certain desirable locations) when purchasing a home.