Who exactly designs “zany McMansions”?

Are architects capable of designing McMansions?

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Pro tip: One of the more fun ways to hunt for real estate is to go to your favorite site and search the keyword “architect.” You’ll end up with a lot of zany McMansions, but among the chaff are some well-pedigreed gems.

While this sounds like an interesting exercise, it brings up an important question. Who exactly is designing the McMansions that critics revile?

One of the biggest critiques of McMansions is that they are poorly designed and their architectural quality is suspect. This might come in the form of odd proportions or a mish-mash of styles or a blending of features. Instead of a pleasing aesthetic, the McMansion presents a mass produced version of something that tries to nod to established homes but only succeeds in aping such residences.

Typically left unsaid in these critiques is who exactly put together these unpleasing designs. Often the designs for homes come from builders or developers. What they have in mind when designing a home may not be the same as architects.

I would guess that architects would prefer that more single-family homes are designed by architects. Not only would this supply more work, it would have likely lead to more architecturally coherent homes. The emphasis might be less on providing space, an impressive front, and the most bang-for-your-buck, and instead focus on beauty plus functionality. Of course, some homes could l look great in the eyes of some and not be very desirable (see some modernist structures).

Perhaps more of the focus should come back to builders and developers: what could they do to provide the features American buyers want while also designing more architecturally pleasing homes? The same McMansions might not be so bad for many if they had a better design or fit the neighborhood better. Some would still object to the size of the home – is it really necessary to have 3,000-10,000 square feet? – but at least it would not be in danger of easy attacks. The architectural coherence could affect the price point but might also help the long-term reputation of the neighborhood and builder.

Chicago architects as political lobbyists

The tension between the art and business sides of architecture is evident in a new report from the Chicago Tribune:

A virtual who’s who of Chicago architects has given tens of thousands of dollars to City Council members who hold near-total power to determine whether their projects get built, a Tribune investigation has found. Architects even have hosted fundraisers for aldermen…

The bulk of the money flows to City Council members in Chicago’s fast-growing wards. The architects and their developer clients have reason to stay on good terms with aldermen, who hold the power to advance a project, send it back to the drawing board or kill it.

From the start of the current building boom in 2010 through mid-November of this year, those with an occupation listed as “architect” have given more than $180,000 to aldermen, their ward organizations, and other city politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois campaign finance records show.

The architects’ firms have donated even more, bringing the total haul for politicians to well over $350,000.

One sociological study of the field of architecture, Larson’s 1994 book Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America, discusses how architects found themselves in the postwar era needing business, therefore designing a lot of buildings with little aesthetic beauty or input, yet wanting to privilege the artistic and aesthetic side of the discipline.

This also echoes research on urban growth machines which tend to emphasize the role of business leaders and politicians in stimulating and carrying out urban development for the sake of profits. This report suggests architects are part of this game too; by donating money and hosting events, they can help ensure they see profit from new development projects (as opposed to other firms participating or projects not getting off the ground.

Does the knowledge that architects are part of the power games that help determine the physical and social structures of a city sully their work? Or, does it shed light on how cities actually come to pass where even those supposedly devoted to beauty and the experience of a structure participate in lobbying?

Production housing in the suburbs and what Americans want out of homes

An architect describes how production housing helps build the American suburbs:

Its scale is enormous. During the building boom before 2008, production housing—the name for builder-constructed residential developments—accounted for the vast majority of single-family homes. During that time, 1.8 million homes were started in a single month nationwide. Recent figures for January 2018, though down from prerecession highs, indicate 886,000 new starts. By some accounts, architects are responsible for designing no more than 2 percent of those homes. As the architect Duo Dickinson has observed, this means that the profession has largely ceded the best opportunity to be relevant and useful to ordinary people.

Not only does production housing dominate the market; consumers also like its products. The major appeal is affordability, with the housing industry producing a range of prices from modest to high-end. A family of four with a moderate middle-class income can put down $8,120, plus closing costs, to buy a home for $232,000 with three to four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage, and a piece of ground for a front and backyard. At the high end, buyers spending over $1 million—who could afford an architect if they wanted one—instead often choose big, builder-designed homes they see as bargains preferable to custom designs.

A second attraction is the quality of housing stock. People sometimes think of production homes as “builder-grade,” made carelessly and on the cheap. But American housing is better built now than ever before, a result of market competition, stricter building codes, and better materials. Basic construction is more solid, but the housing industry also is constantly upgrading the technology and sustainability of its products. As soon as the industry could see that producing energy-efficient homes had marketing advantages, green building started becoming increasingly widespread. These homes are not the ultimate in energy efficiency, but they are continuously improving. And because of the wide reach of production homes, those improvements impact many people.

A third appeal is that the housing industry answers consumers’ needs. Through its trade organizations, research institutes, and publications, it conducts constant research between buyer and seller. The feedback loop includes marketing, professional magazines, and trade shows. For instance, canvasing of consumers indicated that a living room adjacent to the front door, a holdover of the Victorian parlor, was far less important than having more space in a great room. Without reconfiguring the outline of the building—changing slab designs is costly—the front parlor was transformed into a smaller office or guest bedroom. This design makes sense, as the front door is typically not used for entry these days, but as a marker of domesticity. With marketing information at hand, builders can make immediate adjustments to their offerings. The expansion of walk-in closets, great spaces, and open kitchens correlate directly with consumers’ desires.

This list of positives sounds impressive: large-scale production of suburban housing means many homes can be built in many parts of the country at reasonable costs, at decent quality levels, and all while providing what buyers want. Relying on architects and others to design and build homes might push costs up, create more variability, and take more time. If efficiency and predictably for the homeowner is what Americans want, production building seems to be the way to go.

The rest of the article then goes on to discuss various critiques that could be leveled at suburban housing and development. Of course, efficiency and predictability have downsides both for individual homeowners and communities. And more broadly, we could ask about cultural values surrounding houses in the United States: what ends should they serve?

  1. Broadly accessible to the majority of Americans in settings that have broad appeal. This is what production building offers.
  2. Customized to the needs of individual owners and families rather than the limited number of models in #1.
  3. The design and size of homes should be subservient to community goals for land use and social life.
  4. Houses should provide significant return on investment.

Number three may just be the hardest sell as it places a house within a larger context and suggests it (and its owners) need to be part of what others are doing. Number two has the advantage of appealing to the individuality many Americans desire but this likely comes at some cost. Holding the goal of making suburban housing as available to as many people as possible (and you can make a good argument that this has been an American policy goal for roughly 100 years with ongoing socialized mortgages) leads to number one.

Number four is perhaps the most recent idea as it developed in recent decades with rising housing values amid financial uncertainties. This might fit best with number one: if Americans can get a good deal on a home, they can then expect more in return when they sell.

Transforming McMansions might offend architects?

The creators of The Offset House discuss possible reactions to their plans to renovate McMansions:

It’s easy to imagine NIMBY night-terrors if a neighbor suggested building this, but architects might not appreciate you treating McMansions so reverently, either. Who did you want to offend more?

Neustein: We wanted to offend Australian architects’ sensibilities. We don’t want to offend any actual [inhabitants]. We’re trying to appreciate what’s great about suburban life, because someone needs to if many people live there. A lot of architects are out of touch with ordinary aspirations for living and want to impose things from the top down.

Has this idea of outdoor verandas in housing appeared in Australian architectural history before?

Neustein: It’s important to recognize that we’re not necessarily talking about bringing this type of suburban environment forward; we might be talking about bringing it backward.

It is suggested in the first question that any neutral or positive use of a McMansion might be abhorrent to architects. Is this really the case? McMansions are not typically paragons of architectural design: they can have poor proportions, present a mish-mash of styles, and are often mass produced. Additionally, their setting in the suburbs may represent to many all that is wrong with modern society. Yet, if bad products can be made better, why wouldn’t architects support this? Perhaps this first question is intentionally overstated to present two opposites. At the same time, it is rare to find prominent designers or architects who are willing to work with “ordinary aspirations for living.”

Do architects want to work at the architectural arm of Toll Brothers?

The large single-family homes of Toll Brothers (often called McMansions) are designed by architects who work at Toll Architecture:

Toll Architecture is a national award winning Architecture and Engineering firm that includes land planning and graphic design groups.  We are a subsidiary of Toll Brothers, Inc., a Fortune 1000 company.  Our current projects range from luxury large single family homes and recreational facilities in golf course communities to urban luxury high rise condominiums.

In the rise of McMansions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Toll Brothers came to illustrate the oversized homes that many critiqued. According to those critics, one of the major downsides of McMansions is their poor architectural design or layout, whether due to a mishmash of styles or poor proportions or overly large spaces.

Yet, someone has to design these houses. Perhaps this would be analogous to responses psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists would receive from their academic guild if they openly admitted to working for the military. Yes, academics often need to search far and wide for jobs but working for the military may be a bridge too far. Would the same hold true for architects working for a major luxury home builder who privileges profits over aesthetics?

Architects on how they save money when building their own homes

Here are three money-saving tips architects use when constructing their own homes:

1. Prioritize—Duh.

“We worked really hard to get to the essence of what was important to us,” Jeff Stern, from Portland-based firm In Situ Architecture, tells WSJ, “rather than starting the process wanting it all and having to compromise.” For Stern, splurging on super energy-efficient triple-glazed windows meant incorporating a mix of budget-friendly solutions like concrete floors, fir cabinetry, and plastic laminate countertops.

Thomas Gluck of NYC-based firm Gluck + Architecture gave the exterior of his Tower House a tinted-glass treatment usually only used for commercial projects. “Even though the glass itself is inexpensive, the technique of applying the tint can be costly,” WSJ’s Nancy Keates writes. Still, this was a calculated risk that’s central to the design of the home; the dark glass exterior allows the structure to blend in with its woodsy surroundings. Inside the home, he kept the design and finishings simple…

2. Find off-price steals—it’s like bargain-hunting at T.J.Maxx but for building supplies.

According to David Wagner of Minneapolis-based firm Sala Architects, considerable savings can come from purchasing materials that are discounted for negligible imperfections. For example, the white-oak flooring he used for an 1,000-square-foot addition to his house was a few grades lower than what most clients demand, but he knew that “the flaws were just some ‘character knots’ in the wood.”

3. Think ahead—anticipate how design decisions will affect labor cost.

For his ultra-modern T-shaped home, architect Marc Manack from Silo AR+D in Fayetteville, Arkansas “made the infrastructure as easy as possible for contractors” by grouping utility hookups and connections together in an easily-accessible location. And because Manack did not plan for any “ornate millwork” or “high-end finishes” in his design, he was also able to reduce labor costs by hiring rough-in carpenters instead of more expensive, highly-skilled carpenters.

This helps get at two questions I’ve had about architects, builders, designers, and others that help people build and design homes:

1. Do they give their clients all the options like the cheaper ones they might use themselves? Or, do they look at the money available and present fewer options at each design decision point? Presumably, some clients only want the nicer/perfect items or labor but others might not. I suppose this might be something to negotiate or know in the beginning. Plus, we probably have different expectations: a builder, especially one who constructs large numbers of housing might have lower levels of quality compared to an architect.

2. Do the professional’s tastes actually align with what they design or recommend for clients? On one hand, authenticity is a big deal in the creative arts. On the other hand, the professional needs to have some flexibility in designing things that aren’t exactly what they would choose themselves. Again, this might be clear in the hiring and design process in the beginning.

Noted architects often have uninspiring graves

A new book suggests while noted architects may have designed important buildings, their gravesites don’t often reflect their skills:

I was inspired to visit Graceland, located at 4001 N. Clark St. and home to the graves of many other notable Chicagoans, by the new book, “Their Final Place: A Guide to the Graves of Notable American Architects.” This slim, self-published volume is no masterwork, but it raises an intriguing question: How, if at all, do architects, who spend their working lives creating monuments for clients, choose to memorialize themselves?…

What Kuehn discovered is surprising: The aforementioned memorials at Graceland, which distill the essence of their subjects’ architectural style and achievements, are the exception, not the rule. Many architects are buried beneath simple headstones. Some look as if they were ordered from a catalog.

“It seems strange that these great architects, who created landmark structures during their lives, put so little thought into how they themselves would be memorialized for time eternal,” Kuehn writes. “Apparently most of these architectural giants, like most of us ordinary people, either did not feel like dealing with death or felt that a lasting memorial for them was not important.”…

Yet he notes a countertrend: Many architects have had their ashes scattered on bodies of water, on landscapes or in buildings that have special meaning. There’s no memorial to Chicago architect Harry Weese at Graceland; Weese, a sailor, wanted his ashes scattered on Lake Michigan. In another interesting tidbit, Kuehn reports that the ashes of Paul Rudolph, a former dean of Yale’s architecture school, were distributed in several places, including the ventilating system of the Rudolph-designed Yale Art and Architecture Building (now called Rudolph Hall).

Perhaps these architects put all they have into “living” buildings or the scale of a memorial is simply too small? The flipside of an analysis like this would be to then look at the people who do make elaborate plans for their graves and death. If they aren’t architects, are there patterns to those who do prepare?

I do wonder how more elaborate memorials might be received. I’ve seen a few articles over the years criticizing larger gravestones or mausoleums, tying the excessive size and cost to McMansions. The key here might be to create tasteful, innovative, and relatively small graves.

Imagining tacky uses for buildings designed by starchitects

What if buildings designed by noted architects were turned into Walmarts or casinos or gas stations? Check out the images here.

While the proposed changes are unique, I’m more interested in what counts for potentially ruining these buildings. Walmart is a good store to pick as it stands for mass consumerism, big box designs, suburbs, and cheap goods. Imagine it another way: would any renowned architect agree to design a Walmart? Gas stations are a common part of the landscape but are rarely known for any great design as they hope to fit in as many cars as possible as quickly as possible. Casinos might be glitzy but they can have a seedy image, no matter how much glass and how many shiny objects are used. I’m a little surprised we don’t see more brands in these designs, perhaps a McDonald’s or a Home Depot or some other mass market company, as this would highlight the differences between well-known brands and their common lack of much architectural style.

Another thought: are there any big brands right now that are known for good or notable architecture? I’m not talking just about interior features but rather a company-wide ethos that would define numerous locations.

Big builders making custom houses

This might just be a trend: the Wall Street Journal reports on big builders offering custom big homes:

A number of big home builders are now getting into the custom-home game — an area that was once almost entirely the province of boutique builders. Companies such as John Laing Homes, Toll Brothers Inc. and K. Hovnanian Homes are all venturing into a field that takes more time, patience and hand-holding than production building.

The reason is simple: Custom-home building is more profitable for builders. And — in this tough market — it also carries less risk: Builders avoid the carrying costs of land, taxes and other monthly expenses that can come with speculative building. Because custom building caters to the upper end of the market, it’s doing better than production building right now, says Steve Melman, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders. Although home building of all types is stagnating, he says that the custom share of the market tends to go up during down times, while production building peaks during boom times. In 2007, the custom share of the market was 24%. In 2005, during the peak of the boom, the custom share was 19%.

The big attraction for home buyers is the price: Consumers usually pay less when they buy a home from a big builder than they do from a small one. Big builders benefit from economies of scale in buying materials and have developed efficient systems for negotiating with and scheduling contractors. So even though they charge more per square foot for a custom home than they do for a mass-produced one, big builders can usually undercut the price of their smaller competitors.

Custom homes come in two forms, though both are built on an owner’s lot rather than a builder’s. True custom homes are built to an owner’s specifications; so-called “semicustom” homes evolve from a builder’s predrawn plans. Though big builders have long built “semi-custom” homes on their own lots, most only recently began to seek out customers who want to build on lots they already own.

Three thoughts:

1. While these may be custom homes, can’t these run into the issue of still being viewed as mass-produced? Where is the line between economies of scale and something truly custom?

2. Money is a big factor here: the homeowner can get a cheaper custom house and the builder can make more money with less risk. What is there to lose (except perhaps #1)?

3. I bet architects would want in on this. Architects don’t design most new houses in the United States, but they might argue builders even at the custom level still can’t quite create interesting homes (meaning truly custom) or ones that are truly built around the interests of the homeowners.

McMansion owners want “a front and rear entrance, a dining room, and a recreation room”

According to this description of McMansions, they offer suburban homeowners the basics:

When Sandy and Chris Ross were in Portland, Ore., they lived in a house built for those who buy large suburban dwellings.

“Our house was a McMansion, designed for most people who want a front and rear entrance, a dining room, and a recreation room,” says Chris Ross, a software engineer.

But the Rosses are not most people.

When they moved to Bryn Mawr, they wanted a house built to accommodate their family’s special needs, limited finances, and environmental awareness.

The main contrast developed here is between a McMansion and a custom-built home designed by an architect. McMansions provide the basics of a suburban home: a front and back door, some basic rooms, and plenty of space for living. In contrast, the home designed by an architect allowed the couple to have a kitchen that met their needs, a house that highlighted a notable Japanese maple in the front yard, and a good insulation and design that helps keep utility costs low.

Perhaps the bigger issue here is that most suburban homes are not built by architects nor are they really customized for their buyers. The article seems to suggest the custom home is desirable but a majority of homebuyers choose not to go this route. This particular story does not say how much this custom home cost. Additionally, a custom design might take longer and many homeowners may not feel equipped to help put together or desire a more customized home. Yet, a custom-designed home could allow more homeowners to really say their home reflects them.