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.

Tax breaks and suburban and Sunbelt growth

Wells Fargo is seeking a tax break to construct a regional office in suburban Irving, Texas:

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The Irving City Council will vote Thursday on millions of dollars in economic incentives to support the huge campus that’s expected to house 4,000 workers…

The agreement with Irving calls for Wells Fargo to “occupy at least 800,000 square feet of office space in the newly constructed buildings by December 2026. The proposed new office development would serve as a regional hub for Wells Fargo.”…

Irving proposes in its economic incentive agreement to give Wells Fargo up to $19 million in tax increment finance district funds to build a 4,000-space parking garage and “to reclaim a portion of the lake between the two adjacent parcels on the south side of Promenade Parkway.”

A separate economic incentive of up to $12 million would support construction of the Wells Fargo offices.

The project will increase the city’s tax “property value by a minimum of $200,000,000,” according to the City Council filings.

I can imagine the argument from Irving and similar communities about why the tax breaks are worth it:

  1. Such a move helps entice national and international brands to your community.
  2. Such a move brings jobs to the community.
  3. The tax breaks will be outweighed by the tax and physical improvements to the property in question.

All of this helps boost the status of the suburb and the economic prospects in the community.

On the other hand, tax breaks have downsides:

  1. Lots of communities offer tax breaks. The company may be less interested in this specific community and more interested in how much money they can get from a community.
  2. Less money will come into the community than if no tax breaks were offered.
  3. At some point, the tax breaks run out and then what happens to the company and the newly developed property?

As the title of this post asks, how much development in suburban areas like Irving involves tax breaks? Would Wells Fargo locate in Irving or in the region without tax breaks?

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.)

Evaluating population loss figures for California and its cities

Since growth is good in the United States, news that California populations are decreasing is a newsworthy item. But, how bad are the numbers? Let’s start with the absolute numbers:

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Citing changes in work-life balance, opportunities for remote work and more people deciding to quit their jobs, the report found that droves of Californians are leaving for states like Texas, Virginia, Washington and Florida. California lost more than 352,000 residents between April 2020 and January 2022, according to California Department of Finance statistics.

San Francisco and Los Angeles rank first and second in the country, respectively, for outbound moves as the cost of living and housing prices continue to balloon and homeowners flee to less expensive cities, according to a report from Redfin released this month.

Angelenos, in particular, are flocking to places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Antonio and Dallas. The number of Los Angeles residents leaving the city jumped from around 33,000 in the second quarter of 2021 to nearly 41,000 in the same span of 2022, according to the report.

The American Community Survey estimates California’s population at 39,237,836 at July 1, 2021. If the state lost 352,000 residents in nearly two years, that is less than a 1% population loss. Not much.

If Los Angeles lost roughly 120,000 to 160,000 residents in a year out of a population of 3,849,297 (ACS estimates) that is a 3.1-4.2% population loss. A bit more.

Perhaps the real question is how the population growth in California compares to other places. Here are the numbers:

While California experienced a major population boom in the late 20th century — reaching 37 million people by 2000 — it’s been losing residents since, with new growth lagging behind the rest of the country, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The state’s population increased by 5.8% from 2010 to 2020, below the national growth rate of 6.8%, and resulting in the loss of a congressional seat in 2021 for the first time in the state’s history.

No population loss for the state over a decade. In fact, 5.8% growth, 1% less growth than the country as whole. Not much. The more interesting comparison might be to the state’s own population growth rate, which prior to 2020 was over 10% for every decade since it joined the United States.

In sum: the pandemic might provided several unique years for population in particular places and the state is still growing overall even as it lags slightly behind the whole country and lags more compared to its historical percentage growth. So the real problems here are (1) that there might be any population loss at all in populated parts of California and (2) the state is not experiencing a population boom like it did for much of its history. Are these truly huge causes for concern?

A positive on-screen depiction of New Jersey

In contrast to the typical depiction of New Jersey on TV and movies, one writer suggests a new show portrays a positive vision of the state:

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I don’t want this attention. Jersey’s bad reputation for being America’s garbage dump has done a great job of keeping people out and our blocks relatively affordable. For years, Jersey City was protected by a forcefield of bad representation. Jersey is by far America’s favorite punchline of a state. Futurama imagined America’s founding fathers dubbing New Jersey “our nation’s official joke state.” Movie after movie refers to Jersey as “the armpit of America.” Even in Marvel’s What If…?, Harold “Happy” Hogan laments the only escape from a zombie apocalypse: “Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, we gotta go to Jersey.” MTV’s Jersey Shore continues to do a fantastic job of finding the best cast to represent the state and all it has to offer folks on the outside. Snookie and J-Wow knew exactly how to lay out the red carpet. The Sopranos also knew exactly how to showcase Jersey’s finest hospitality. Come for the bar fights, stay for the gabagool.

I would argue few places are depicted well on television or in films where the emphasis is usually on character and plots rather than on places, neighborhoods, and communities.

At the same time, certain locations can acquire a particular character through the way they are depicted over the years. Viewers might see only a particular perspective on or a portion of a place.

What would the average American think New Jersey is like based on what they have seen on screen?

New LA bridge getting all the (wrong) attention

A bridge recently opened in Los Angeles was closed earlier this week after too much of the wrong kind of attention:

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The bridge opened to the public back on July 10, just over two weeks ago, but in that brief time, it’s been the center of attention in Los Angeles for all the wrong reasons. Street takeovers, graffiti, and crashes have plagued the bridge since its reopening. The LAPD has given out 57 citations on the bridge over the last four days, according to LAPD Chief Michel Moore.

“The 6th Street Bridge will be closed until further notice due to illegal activity and public safety concerns,” the LAPD posted on Twitter Tuesday night.

The construction of the bridge took six years and cost nearly $600 million. Ahead of its grand reopening, LA city Councilmember Kevin de León said the bridge would “rival the Hollywood Sign and Griffith Park as iconic images of our city.”

The bridge has been closed multiple times, most recently every night this past weekend for what LAPD called “questionable activity.” On Tuesday, Moore announced that speed bumps were being installed on the bridge to deter street takeovers and that a center median and fencing to discourage people from scaling the archways could also be installed soon on a temporary basis.

I imagine the city will want to channel the attention for the new bridge in positive directions. They can highlight the new infrastructure, road, and design. Here is a city getting things done and in style. How about harnessing that energy for exciting yet legal TikTok and social media videos?

With the role of Los Angeles bridges in car commercials, how long until we see this bridge all over screens?

Two charts showing the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the American suburbs

William Frey of the The Brookings Institutions analyzes 2020 Census data and shows the suburbs are increasingly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. One chart:

The percent of Asian Americans, Latinos or Hispanics, and Blacks living in the suburbs has increased every decade since the 1980s. The percent of whites living in the suburbs has stayed stable.

A second chart looks at the racial and ethnic changes across different kinds of suburbs:

While the first chart showed increasing diversity in suburbs in general, this one helps show that this racial and ethnic diversity is not evenly distributed across kinds of suburbs. Even as the percent of white residents is decreasing in all kinds of suburbs, high-density suburbs have the most racial and ethnic diversity followed by mature suburbs.

Frey sums up his analysis this way:

Among those of a certain age, the term “suburban America” conjures up the image of mostly white, middle-class, politically conservative developments, differing sharply from a more racially diverse urban America. But the 2020 census places an exclamation point on the fact that suburbs now reflect the nation’s demographics, with respect to racial make-up and most likely on related dimensions of class and politics.

The growth of America’s suburbs embodies the nation’s population growth, accompanied by greater diversity due to the in-migration of new and long-standing minorities from nearby cities, from other parts of the country, and from abroad, as well as a rising multicultural youth population as families of color—like their earlier white counterparts—find the suburbs an ideal destination for raising children and forming new communities. From this perspective, the suburbs, perhaps more than anywhere else, are symbolic of America’s rising diversity. 

Complex suburbia continues.

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.

Skyscrapers as amusement parks

More skyscrapers around the world are offering thrills to visitors:

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Base Flying is one of an increasing number of urban tourist experiences combining tall buildings and safe-but-still-scary thrills, satiating adventure-seekers like Escalante while earning their operators significant profits. It’s a growing niche in the tall-building industry as skyscrapers continue to rise in ever more parts of the world…

But just giving people a place to view the city is no longer enough. Vettier says Magnicity is putting more of its efforts into operating—and in some cases inventing—thrill-based skyscraper experiences.

In Chicago, it operates Tilt, a platform on the 94th floor of the former John Hancock Center tower that tilts 30 degrees outward from the building, offering its eight occupants the experience of being suspended, face down, 1,030 feet over the streets of Chicago. Vettier says roughly 1.6 million people have experienced Tilt since it was added to the building in 2014, 45 years after its original construction…

New towers rising all around the world are creating more spaces for observation decks, and more opportunities to thrill. In Bangkok, the glass-floored observation deck of the MahaNakhon Tower sits 1,030 feet above the ground. In Dubai, the Sky Views Dubai tower features a glass slide attached to the outside of the building, starting more than 700 feet up. In Shanghai, the Jin Mao Tower features a rail-less exterior walkway around its 88th floor. Skyscraper thrills abound, and more are likely to develop.

A few thoughts that emerge in reading about what skyscrapers can offer:

  1. How far are we from a skyscraper just devoted to thrills? I could imagine it billed as an amusement park right in the middle of a major city.
  2. I would be interested in hearing more about how the extra money from thrills interacts with the more common stream of money for these tall buildings that comes through commercial and residential space. Are the thrill options extra money or are they replacing residential and commercial space?
  3. When exactly did the views from skyscrapers and aerial perspectives become blase? And what is the next perspective that thrills people, at least for a while? An x-ray view? A view that allows for also seeing the underground portion of structures? A view with interesting data and facts overlaid on the image?

Modern cities and deep time

Those suffering negative consequences after earthquakes in Mexico City highlight the tensions between modern cities and deep time:

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If we consider the city a geophysical entity, we can think about being tocado as a uniquely historical form of relating with the Earth. Rather than Elena’s affliction being induced by a traumatic experience and a fear of future earthquake events, she and others fear the processes that were initiated by the earthquake: the grietas, the slumps, the leans, the fissures, the buildings collapsing years later…

This is a form of seismic time that is not only knowable through a seismic event. It’s a time that begins with an earthquake but continues through ongoing geophysical and political processes. Rather than a pathological individual condition or a culture-bound form of expression, we might see being tocado as an emergent form through which bodies, histories, legislations and earths come into relation. Deep time, in Mexico City, is resolutely present if you are compelled to notice.

Deep time might be a useful frame for contemporary analysis, a temporal literacy that places the long-term ramifications of the present moment into a deeper history. Conversely, such scales also risk subsuming deep time into the present.

Mexico City points toward something more physical, a sense of time that neither collapses the human and the geological nor holds them as irrevocably distinct. In their embodied apprehension of earthly processes, people who are tocado reveal that deep time is not only an analytic problem of scale, but a stranger temporal geometry, where homes are at once sites of security and indifferent geophysical entities. Deep time portals open in the city’s many cracks, slumps and fissures, revealing an inconceivable horizon forever rushing forward.

The modern city is often designed to avoid deep time or a deep understanding of the past. The modern city of the last two centuries often took existing land and communities and created a city on a new scale with new materials with new possibilities.

In this article, the primary point of departure from modern time are earthquakes that remind residents on what the city is constructed. Other features of cities that might do this could be other natural disasters, areas designed and established far before the advent of cars, ancient landmarks, and excavations that reveal the past.

But, I imagine many residents of such cities have limited interactions with a deep past. Take Chicago: what there would remind people of a deep past, let alone even a few hundred years before? And if residents and leaders did more regularly interact with the deep past, would they act differently in the cities that are now so important to modern life?