Summing up the environmental issues McMansions present

Australian architect and artist Mathieu Gallois working with several groups described the negative environmental consequences of McMansions:

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The project organisers made the following conclusions about McMansions: “the brick veneer construction’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for Australia’s hot climatic conditions; the foundations are laid on a large concert slab that possess high levels of embodied energy; the terracotta tiled roof’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for the Australian climate; the aluminium window frames have a high level of embodied energy and their thermal performance is poor; the window glazing is of a poor level, as is its thermal performance; the PVC plumbing has a high embodied energy; the steel lintels have a high embodied energy and represent lazy design solutions”.

On this basis they argued that “Australian brick veneer homes are the biggest and most poorly designed built homes in the developed world; too big, not built to be recycled, not responsive to climatic conditions, not built for future adaptability, with poor cross ventilation. Moreover, such houses are designed to face the street rather than being orientated to maximise the site’s positive climatic engagement; their multi-faceted roofs do not optimise or facilitate the provision of PV panels or solar HWS; their roofs do not harvest rainwater; the stairwells are not sealable; and the rooms and living spaces are generic, unresponsive to different seasonal climatic conditions”.

That is a negative assessment, particularly compared to how homes might be constructed in a greener manner.

Just thinking about these negative environmental consequences, I wonder if it is possible to create a greener McMansion that roughly keeps the size, architecture, and price that a decent number of Americans and Australians are willing to buy. Could strategic choices be made to make a significantly greener home without too many alterations? This would provide a different product and help address concerns some might have about McMansions.

Midwestern ice fishing and McMansions

An analysis of words in Midwestern Airbnb listings includes a connection between McMansions and fishing:

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Anyone can catch a walleye with a few bucks’ worth of basic gear, some practice and a little luck, Roach said, though that doesn’t stop some Midwesterners from dropping the equivalent of several years’ salary on boats, McMansion-grade ice-fishing trailers and sophisticated electronics designed to better target the finicky fish.

Follow the link for the trailers and you can see large ice-fishing trailers. I assume that is the primary use of McMansion here: these trailers are large. They offer a lot of interior space. Maybe they are mass-produced or architecturally dubious but the size of these trailers is bigger than just a little ice fishing hut.

At the same time, the use of the term suggests that the ice-fishing trailers are over the top or unnecessary or undesirable thing. McMansion is an evocative term that is usually linked to negative judgments.

The lingering question here: is the large McMansion trailer a worse choice than a more modest ice-fishing dwelling?

(This is not the first time McMansions have been linked to transportation. See earlier posts here and here about McMansions and SUVs. Those ice fishing trailer need a sizable vehicle to tow them into place.)

McMansions as part of or outside of a changing suburbia?

This description of the changing American suburbs includes McMansions:

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The demand for something like urban living is real. Even at the outer edges of growing metro areas, mixed-use walkable developments pop up alongside familiar subdivisions and McMansions. “Mixed-use centers—often in suburban locations—continue to be built from the ground up in many communities across the US,” wrote the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2019.

As more immigrants and millennials become suburbanites, and as Covid and remote work give the suburbs another growth spurt, they are evolving into something different. Between 2019 and 2020, the share of millennials who live in suburbs increased by 4 percentage points; and in 2014, more than 60 percent of immigrants lived in suburbs, up from just over half in 2000.

Many communities that were once white, exclusionary, and car-dependent are today diverse and evolving places, still distinct from the big city but just as distinct from their own “first draft” more than a half-century ago…

If a “second draft” of the suburbs is now being written — at least in some of America’s growing and expensive metro areas — what might it actually look like?

This is part of the complex suburbia we have today. Where do McMansions fit into this? The selection above suggests “mixed-use walkable developments” are near McMansions. But, what happens to the McMansions in the long run? Here are a few options:

  1. The McMansions continue in their neighborhoods for those that want them. Even amid proclamations that McMansions are dead, there are some homebuyers and suburbanites that want such homes.
  2. McMansions themselves are altered in ways to fit the new landscape. Perhaps they are subdivided into multiple units for more affordable housing. They could be added to. Their properties could host accessory dwelling units.
  3. McMansions are demolished and replaced with something else. This could be because the quality of the homes does not stand the test of time or the land is more valuable used another way (some of the teardowns become teardowns).
  4. Some McMansions live on through historic preservation marking a particular era of housing and American life.

For some, McMansions represent the peak of an undesirable suburban sprawl and excess. For others, they are homes that provide a lot for a decent price. Their long-term fate is to be determined both by those who like them and those who detest them as the suburbs continue to change.

Kanye West does not like McMansions

I missed this information from two years ago; here is what Kanye West thinks about McMansions.

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The “YZY SHLRS” are not West’s first try at real estate development. Together with his wife Kim Kardashian West, the rapper transformed a McMansion in suburban Los Angeles into a cavernous, eclectic abode that has since unfolded on the covers of several esteemed magazines.

Earlier this year, Architectural Digest described the Wests’ residence as “one of the most fascinating, otherworldly, and, yes, strange pieces of domestic architecture on the planet.”

Characterized by clear, geometrical lines and white open spaces, filled with equally futuristic furniture, the home resembles a modern-day spin on a Belgian monastery, as West told AD.

The standout nature of the home, a reflection of West’s highly individualistic style, is not a surprise given the rapper’s annoyance with luxury properties that, despite their own embellishments, more often than not come off as the products of the same mold.

“The relationships that I have with architects, my understanding of sacred proportions, this new vibe, this new energy,” is what is driving West, the real estate developer. “I am tired of McMansions,” he told Charlamagne tha God. “That is wack. Everybody’s house is wack.”

His critique of McMansions and large homes is a common one: they are produced with similar features and styles. West hints that this is even the case at the level of home above McMansions where more resources does not necessarily translate into unique or quality homes. You can purchase a very expensive property and it may not be interesting or suit the particular needs of the residents.

At the same time, with his wealth and connections, West operates at a level beyond the typical McMansion owner. He has the resources to transform a large home based on a new vision. Mansion as monastery, as it were. He can pursue a particular plan and mold the home in ways that many McMansion owners cannot.

Now, if someone with fame and resources could help find a way to transform McMansions or relatively large houses (think 3,000-6,000 square feet) in the ways that West wants, this could help change the image of such homes. I imagine many McMansions owners would be interested in the idea of “sacred proportions” in their homes or differentiating their residences in significant ways from neighbors.

McMansions as the fad of 2001

If we had to pick a year when McMansions were the key fad, would 2001 be it?

2001: McMansions

McMansions, shorthand for the oversized homes developed en-masse in the suburbs, were seen as status symbols by some and architectural abominations by others. By 2008, the crash of the housing market left many of these multi-bedroom behemoths empty or foreclosed upon.

The list of fads has McMansions in the right era. From the article I published in 2012 on defining a McMansion, the term and kind of home arose in the early 1990s and the term was more widely known and used by the early 2000s. By my count of mentions of McMansion in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News, the use of the term roughly peaked in 2005 and 2006.

So why 2001 – a very specific year – on this list of fads by years? It could be that surrounding years had more time-limited fads listed. Right before McMansions come Furbys, Latin pop, and Heelys and right after come beyblades, flash mobs, and wristbands for a cause. McMansions had to fit somewhere in a roughly ten year stretch and perhaps 2001 had the biggest opening.

Or, McMansions represented a different era in 2001 before September 11th of that year. A growing suburbia, SUVs and big homes, entering a new millennium. Enough homeowners had money to spend on big homes with a lot of square feet and a facade to impress the neighbors. The housing bubble crash came a few years later but perhaps McMansions had already peaked years before.

Looking at the full list of fads, the McMansion is the biggest item in the list in terms of price and size. When history is written (and rewritten), it will be interesting to see where McMansions fit into the late 1990s and early 2000s narratives as well as the broader sweep of housing.

Can a McMansion dweller have the last laugh?

A controversial TikTok video suggests a housewife could get the last laugh in her McMansion:

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Finally, Drummond, who also considers herself a content creator, took issue with women who criticize other women who marry their bosses: “Women will bully the woman who’s the secretary who married the doctor, but who has the last laugh?” she asked on camera. “Her in her McMansion with her husband and her baby.”

This last line quoted above is not what is driving the conversation about the video but it does highlight the divisive nature of McMansions. One person could live there and love the house, the space it offers, and the success it symbolizes. Another person might say they would never live in a McMansion and they are an abomination on the housing landscape.

These two opposing views come into conflict in different ways. Those opposed to McMansions are unlikely to move into a neighborhood full of them. A teardown McMansion might create conflict between a possible new McMansion owner and neighbors with other kinds of homes. Proposed McMansions can invite comments and action by people inside or outside a community. The conversation cited above is a more abstract scenario involving life in a McMansion.

Adding opinions about McMansions to another hot conversation is unlikely to lead to resolution on McMansions. However, it does provide a reminder that real people live in McMansions and many like living in McMansions or would want to live in one. This also reminds me of an earlier set of posts about gendered life in McMansions

If you replace a suburban colonial with “a very modern house” rather than a McMansion, is this a win?

A profile a recent teardown in Bethesda, Maryland highlights that the new structure is not a McMansion:

Teardowns can often raise concerns in established neighborhoods when a McMansion suddenly arises in a collection of bungalows. The design team didn’t want that to happen. “We didn’t want it to look like a UFO just landed in their yard,” Bloomberg says. “We looked at scale, proportion and massing.”

This quote above highlights what the new home is: it is has better scale, proportion, and massing compared to McMansions which tend to get these wrong. It was designed by an architectural firm rather than builders.

The best text description of the new home is this paragraph:

“Everything feels very scaled,” Bloomberg says. “It has a warmth to it even though it’s a very modern house – there [is] lots of wood, which helps make it very warm and welcoming.”

The pictures of the interior reinforce this description: it is a more modern structure.

But, one picture early on in the article hints at a contrast between the new home and the neighbor:

The teardown does not appear to be that much different in size than the neighbor but it certainly presents a different style of home compared to the brick and shuttered Colonial. Teardown McMansions are often criticized not fitting in with the existing style of homes.

I have asked before: would Americans prefer to live next to a McMansion or a modernist home? The article says “there has been no neighborhood backlash” to this new teardown. Now, what happens if a teardown McMansion goes up next to this modern home…

Prefabricated McMansions

A debate in Rhode Island about what counts as an affordable housing unit included this suggestion about prefabricated McMansions:

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But although the state’s definition of manufactured home could include a prefabricated McMansion, House spokesman Larry Berman said the bill requires units to qualify under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of manufactured homes, which is much narrower.

I wonder (a) how many prefabricated homes might qualify as McMansions and (b) how a prefabricated home fits with the critiques of the poor construction and/or architectural quality of McMansions.

On the first point, I imagine most prefabricated homeowners are not intending to create a McMansion. It is possible, but I do not imagine there are many prefabricated McMansions. If they do exist in sizable numbers, I would be interested to see them.

On the second issue, would a prefabricated home be a better construction choice compared to concerns some have with mass production builders? Or, could prefabricated homes successfully address the architectural issues of McMansions such as too many gables, poor proportions, and a mishmash of styles? I do not know how more expensive prefabricated homes rate in terms of quality and I suppose prefabricated homes could look like anything.

If the number of prefabricated homes in the United States increases, some might be McMansions or some might be the new McMansions in what could be a fluid term.

Separating McMansions from luxury homes

What is the difference between a McMansion and a luxury home? Here is one viewpoint:

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So, what exactly is a luxury home, Michael, you ask? Some people classify it by the style of the house, or perhaps by its finishes, or by the product brands in the home. So, how do we define a luxury home from a price standpoint? I know different brokerages and different real estate firms define luxury real estate differently. Many define a “luxury home” as a property that is priced at $1,000,000 or higher.  For the purposes of this article, we’re going to define a luxury home as a home that is listed for sale at at least three times the average sales price for that market. (There are four primary price points in most markets: starter-/entry-level, average, high-end and luxury pricing. I define high-end homes as homes that are two times the average sales price for that given area.)

Luxury is relative to that specific market. Most markets have luxury homes based on our definition; it’s all relative, however, because when people think of luxury, they often think of McMansions or estate homes, and that’s not always the case. To take action, you need to develop graphs and other visuals that can articulate the data for luxury and high-end real estate for/in your marketplace: Are you in a buyer’s market or a seller’s market? High-end and luxury homes start at what price point for your market?

I am interested in the ways the dimensions of a luxury home are different than those of McMansions. This is based on my four traits of McMansions.

  1. The absolute square feet of the home is not mentioned above. Presumably, both McMansions and luxury homes are large.
  2. The relative square footage is also not mentioned above. Perhaps luxury homes are generally larger than McMansions?
  3. The architecture and design is mentioned as luxury homes may have particular features and/or finishes. While McMansions are often criticized for mass produced features and/or poor architectural choices, luxury homes stand apart from this.
  4. The luxury home is more expensive, whether over $1,000,000 in price or some multiplier above the market or in a tier above others. McMansions are more expensive than small homes or starter homes but they are not as pricey as luxury homes. The luxury home is then a true luxury good available only to a few while McMansions are meant to appeal to a broader audience.

If the description above is correct, luxury homes are mostly different because of their price at the top end of the market. McMansions are not that; they may aspire to be luxury homes but they are for a different price point and have different features that have less to do with square feet and more to do with design elements or features.

(The next step might then be to provide advice for real estate agents and others who want to appeal to McMansion buyers and owners. How to stay away from luxury home territory and above more typical homes?)

Preserve a Brutalist courthouse in the suburbs, can McMansions be far behind?

Landmark Illinois recently released its list of the most endangered historic places and it includes several places in the suburbs of Chicago. This is the largest suburban building on the list:

This is indeed a unique structure. Suburbanites are unlikely to see many large Brutalist buildings in suburban communities as they are traditionally associated with big cities (think Boston City Hall or the FBI Building in Washington, D.C.).

I have asked before whether Americans would prefer modernist structures more broadly or McMansions. Both kinds of buildings have their detractors who critique the materials, the style, and the prevalence of such structures.

If some of the goals of preservation are to protect notable buildings and help show important architecture of the past, both such styles deserve to be recognized. Brutalism is not likely the preferred style in suburbs. McMansions are not favored by many. At the least, both kinds of buildings represent a particular era. At their best, they present a particular approach to buildings and spaces.

Even if certain kinds of structures or certain styles are not appealing to all, there is still value in preserving examples of this work. If Brutalist buildings are in, we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine protecting the subdivision McMansion of the North Shore or the teardown McMansion of Naperville to show how Americans thought about suburban housing at the turn of the twenty-first century.