Fight McMansions to slow down the sixth mass extinction

A letter to the editor in the Eugene Weekly links McMansions and broad environmental concerns:

We’re living through the sixth mass extinction. We see this firsthand in Lane County. Oak savannah is the most endangered habitat in the United States…

In this context, a group of neighbors and I are fighting a multi-million dollar “McMansion” development project in our area. “The Vineyards at Gimpl Hill” describes itself as a selection of “gracious estates” for “secure, sophisticated country living … the premier development in Lane County for discerning people.”

This project will destroy or impact 80 acres of prime wildlife habitat home to deer, elk, bears, cougars, wild turkeys, bobcats and a wide variety of other species.

Destroying large areas of habitat and impacting the area with higher traffic and additional access roads is a course of action I cannot support. These ostentatious houses will cost millions, and the developer (Roy Carver) stands to make millions more.

On one hand, 80 acres of land is a drop in the bucket of land in urban areas in the United States. On the other hand, this argument involving McMansions is a common one: McMansions represent the senseless sprawl that is gobbling up land, threatening wildlife, and contributing to our destruction of the environment.

I also suspect that because these homes are larger and more expensive (as well as more profitable, as this letter notes), they tend to get more attention in the same way that McDonald’s and Walmart receive attention for their environmental impact in their own sectors (fast food restaurants and retail stores, respectively). Sprawl over the past century or so in the United States involves a broad range of homes and other buildings, not just the big homes for the wealthy.

It also helps in this case to have a pejorative term for these large homes. They are not just “luxury homes” or places where wealthier people live; they are mass-produced, inferior quality homes that do not deserve the space they are taking up.

Finally, I wonder what the more compelling environmental appeal is to other locals: is it better to refer to (1) massive-scale change like the sixth mass extinction, (2) the loss of local nature (land and animals), or (3) the unnecessary use of land and resources for these larger homes? I suspect each of these could appeal to different people.

“10 anti-McMansion design commandments”

Looking to avoid constructing or buying a McMansion? Here are four of “10 anti-McMansion design commandments”:

1. Thou shalt not build a house with turrets, as it is unlikely to be attacked by hostiles or provide shelter for a damsel in distress…

3. Thou shalt not build a house with a three-car garage as the dominant street-facing feature…

7. Thou shalt not build a house with seven gables when two would be more than enough.

8. Thou shalt not build a big, big house on a small, small lot.

There are two related themes in each of these commandments that goes beyond just avoiding features that are now associated with McMansions. Many of these commandments address two key issues: (1) proportionality and (2) unnecessary features. Regarding the first, specific features – windows, gables, garages – should not appear oversized compared to other features. (I supposed you could have a house where everything is outsized but then it could be criticized as cartoonish compared to normal-sized homes.) Additionally, certain features are not required such as turrets, tall columns, and expansive foyers.

The proposed solution to these McMansion sins is this: “good housing design really means keeping it simple, be the house big or small.” If this is followed to the letter, the simple counter to McMansions would be modernist houses or ranch homes. From the outside, these are simply boxes with limited ornamentation. But, for many, these homes may be too simple. They do not invoke traditional styles. Or, these simpler designs may be viewed as lacking character. They were built in large numbers during the postwar era and came to be associated with suburban sprawl. While McMansions are derided for their construction in more traditional neighborhoods, imagine a typical ranch plopped down in a neighborhood of Victorian homes or a modernist home within the typical suburban subdivision. Even with more reasonable sizes compared to McMansions, I would guess the neighbors would still have concerns.

McMansion ad campaign aimed at McDonald’s

Burger King has a new advertising campaign that shows off one particular feature of the purported McMansion backyards of McDonald’s executives:

Each of the company’s newest print ads, designed by an agency called DAVID Miami, claims to show what was once the lavish backyard of a real McDonald’s executive, the kicker being that each yard also appears to contain a grill.

“Flame grilling is hard to resist,” read the words printed over each grilling apparatus, the suggestion being that McDonald’s executives themselves preferred a flame-grilled patty…

AdAge reports that some of the photos were taken from real estate listings, meaning these particular grills may not have necessarily belonged to the “retired McDonald’s director” or “retired McDonald’s president” who may have used those backyards.

The primary emphasis is on the grill, a staple of many an American backyard. American homes and summer has long been associated with a male homeowner taking raw meat to the backyard and cooking it on the grill as the family plays and gathers around.

Of course, these are not just any grills or any homes. The news story includes three ad images. The grills look rather long – so they likely have more than four burners – and they have a stainless steel exterior. (In one image, there appears to be a Green Egg next to the stainless steel grill.) Given that these are grills supposedly owned by executives plus they are located at large homes, these are likely expensive grills.

Beyond tying McDonald’s executives to expensive grills, this also connects them to undesirable homes: McMansions. While the purpose of the ads is the grills, these grills are in front of expensive and large homes. But, they are not just mansions – they are McMansions. I’m not sure if there is a larger message here or not: should McDonald’s feel shame about having derided homes named after their restaurants (the Mc- prefix)? (Compared to the fast food of Burger King, this seems like a better pitch for places like Five Guys or Smashburger that would claim to have a more premium burger.) Does this suggest their executives have bad taste? Does this mean Burger King executives have nicer homes?

 

Where is the evidence? McMansion owners “favor” Cadillac Escalades

The connections between SUVs and McMansions continue: this article features a list of traits of Cadillac Escalade owners and their favored kind of housing.

The Escalade has long dominated the Navigator both in sales and cultural currency. Check out this list of Ten Seriously Dope Cadillac-Inspired Hip Hop Tracks. Indeed, the Escalade has long been a favored ride of the hip-hop crowd, pro athletes, Wall Streeters, business owners, drug kingpins and “McMansion” owners…

Who’s buying these hulking SUVs, according to the data? Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for KBB.com, says it’s more than just the bling and business tycoon sets. “The Escalade and Navigator shoppers on kbb.com are very similar, leaning heavily toward a domestic, family-oriented mindset. But the Escalade buyer tends toward techie side, so if the new Navigator is stacking up well against Escalade on the telematics interface, Cadillac could have its hands full.”…

The market for large luxury SUVs is as well established as cigars, expensive brandy and coal furnaces. Even these harsh words from Consumer Reports can’t dampen the enthusiasm for these vehicles among the rich and brash. “This hulking SUV can comfortably accommodate seven, effortlessly tow more than 4 tons, and practically cast the shadow of the Queen Mary II. While the Navigator pampers you with power everything and a rich interior ambience, a few details detract from the idea of embracing this almost $90,000 behemoth.”

That people of different class statuses purchase different brands and models is well-established, going back to the General Motors brand for every buyer as well as more academic studies showing different tastes among different social classes. What I would want to see in this case involves something more: where is the data that shows McMansion owners favor Escalades over Navigators? Or, that people who own Escalades are more likely to live in McMansions than other kinds of homes?

This is not the first time McMansions have been connected to Escalades. For example, take the New York Times. From a July 2001 story:

There are those who are drawn to the Escalade simply because it is so far over the top. You see them pulling up to McMansions in the suburbs and to hip-hop clubs downtown, making a statement before the truck comes to a halt. On the flip side, it is not hard to find people who are appalled, sometimes with fanatical fervor, by what the Escalade represents. Glaring from subcompacts or crosswalks, they seem to hold this hulk of metal responsible for global warming and dolphins in tuna nets.

Or an October 2005 review of a Lincoln SUV subtitled “A McTruck for the McMansion“:

The Mark LT is priced thousands below its prime competitor, the Cadillac Escalade EXT, but the equipment list shows why. The Caddy has 45 more horsepower and comes only with full-time four-wheel drive. (Lincoln’s system is part time, and costs extra.) Lincoln doesn’t offer a navigation system, air-conditioned seats, traction assist, stability control or power folding mirrors. Its power seats have manual recliners.

Or a January 2014 story titled “In Housing, Big is Back”:

Affluent buyers are drawn to new homes in part because the market for existing homes is so competitive, said Stephen Kim, a Barclays analyst. Inventories of existing homes for sale remain low, and buyers are less interested in large homes in far-flung developments — the McMansions of the exurbs that were emblematic of the boom and bust…

In April 2012, they selected a model costing about $850,000 from a luxury builder and chose a number of standard options for an additional $650,000. Ms. Sleep, who was in the process of selling the software firm she founded nearly two decades earlier, added a wall of windows to the basement and furnished it with a pool table, a media room, a wet bar, a home office and a suite for their youngest daughter to use when she was home from college.

They added a second master bedroom suite, on the ground level, for use when they are older and stairs become tougher to climb. They upgraded floors, carpeting and molding, added a sunroom and a large deck and supersized the garage door to fit Ms. Sleep’s Cadillac Escalade. The home’s lighting and temperature, as well as media on any of 14 televisions and the sound system, can be controlled remotely.

I get that it takes a certain amount of wealth to own either an Escalade or McMansion – and linking McMansions to wealthy people is common – but I have yet to see more evidence that McMansion owners prefer Escalades.

Trading Spaces avoided McMansions

Washington Post review of the new Trading Spaces emphasizes the smaller spaces the show worked with:

Though it was technically impossible to indict the cable channels — especially HGTV — for their role in the quick-mortgage fantasia, the connections were plain to see: the schedule was (and still is) littered with shows that spur house envy, encouraging viewers to live in a constant state of renovation, makeover and upgrade. Homeownership became the highest expression of citizenship, while decor became the chief signifier of class. “Trading Spaces,” which premiered in 2000, helped ignite that craze, making it safe to waste entire Saturday afternoons watching home-improvement shows. Yet it hardly deserves all (or any) of the blame.

The show returns Saturday (with a long reunion special preceding it), essentially unchanged and contagiously giddy, full of its usual surprises and reveals. Looking at the first of eight new episodes, one is reminded of “Trading Space’s” conceptual purity: It never goaded anyone into ditching their old house for an open-floor-plan, granite-countertop McMansion beyond their means. Its core principles were to work with what you have, on a restrained budget. It preached a DIY ethic, asking couples to swap houses and redo a room, aided (some would say strong-armed) by a crafty professional designer and carpenter.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. The scale of renovation on Trading Spaces is much more doable for the average American homeowner compared to the whole house makeovers on many other shows. How many people have the budget to do multiple rooms, particularly creating all new kitchens or master bathrooms? Or, who has the time to hand over their house for weeks as opposed to doing renovations over a weekend?
  2. The rooms on Trading Spaces tend to be much more varied than the typical home shows that often emphasize an expansive kitchen and open concept first floor. The HGTV shows encourage a homogenous style, moving from stainless steel appliances and granite countertops to shiplap, white cabinets, and open shelving.  American homes tend to be unique inside, particularly in certain rooms where people to have eclectic styles and uses.
  3. While the review above does not blame Trading Spaces for the larger shows to come, once you on television continue (1) glorifying the single-family home as the expression of individual tastes (a long-standing American tradition) plus (2) suggesting that people should be renovating their homes (part of the shift from living in homes to seeing homes as investments), is it a slippery slope to large-scale renovations in big houses?

On the whole, there is a lot that could be said from the move from Bob Villa to Trading Spaces to House Hunters and Property Brothers alongside shifts in American housing. Of course, it is hard to make causal arguments about how watching these shows directly changes behaviors.

McMansion as a symbol of wealth in America

A Washington Post review of a new book on social class suggests McMansions help illustrate class differences:

Its influence begins before birth and holds sway beyond the grave. It can determine who goes to prison and who goes to the Ivy League, who drinks bottled prestige water and who swigs from a foul tap, who rents rooms and who rattles around in a McMansion…

Fraser uses iconic events, documents and images from American history as his raw material for six essays on why class matters. The reality of class — not just patterns of consumption and markers of wealth and privilege, but raw power — had largely been expunged from our national vocabulary by political elites pushing the American Dream, he argues. But the dirty secret of class emerged a decade or so ago in the unequal wreckage of the global financial meltdown, he contends.

Throughout the use of the word McMansion from the late 1990s to today, it has often been used in this way: to symbolize the wealthy in America who can purchase and live in large new homes. At the same time, it is a little less clear what strata of Americans can live in McMansions. Is this the top 20%? The 1%? The “Dream Hoarders“? This depends somewhat on the metropolitan region as McMansions can differ significantly in size and price but I would guess McMansions are for those in the top 10-30% of American earners. Those who earn less cannot live in such a home while those above that level would not not want to be associated with McMansions and/or have enough resources to access even better housing.

At a broader level, where one can live is an excellent marker of social class: it hints at the wealth the homeowner has (it takes a certain level of wealth to purchase any home), the neighborhood or community in which the home is in hints at relative status, and the size and features of the housing is often taken to say much about the resident. A McMansion owner has a certain lifestyle and status.

Invasion of McMansions in Kirkwood, Missouri

Teardown McMansions have infiltrated an older neighborhood in a well-off St. Louis suburb:

Residents said not only are smaller historic homes getting wiped out in the process, but the large houses are causing problems for some of their next-door neighbors…

The one next door to her on Cleveland Avenue was erected last year and is nearly twice the size of the original home. It’s a four-bedroom home on the market for more than $800,000.

She said it’s created a real problem for her. The new home’s rain runoff has turned her driveway into a lake…

The city says the builders have followed all the community’s guidelines:

“…The new house on this site sits closer to the neighbor’s driveway, which may explain the confusion. Yes, the new home was built per permit specifications. The City requires the contractor to have the top of the foundation surveyed prior to beginning framing. The floor system is then verified to determine that the finished floor height is as allowed.

A follow-up story from several days later says the new McMansions are affecting more houses:

Since the homes were built around 2015, Reed said her mother’s basement has constantly been flooded and her backyard has turned into a swamp…

The ITeam recently discovered a Kirkwood ordinance that said new developments cannot cause water run-off problems for surrounding properties.

But attorney Paul G. Henry said getting the city to enforce it could be difficult…

We repeatedly asked Kirkwood officials about why they don’t appear to be enforcing their own ordinance but they declined to answer. Instead, they recommended that we file an information request.

Such issues could put a suburb in a sticky situation: should it protect the properties of elderly citizens who have lived in the community for a long time or allow new property owners to construct homes to their liking? Whose property rights prevail? There is probably some middle ground here where the teardowns can be regulated in such a way to provide a little protection to neighbors (whether this involves water issues or residents are concerned about the changing character of their neighborhoods) but these regulations could take some time to discuss and enact.