Zillow defines McMansions but doesn’t really capture their essence

The recent Washington Post analysis on the return of the McMansions depends on Zillow’s definition of a McMansion:

(Since a “McMansion” is in the eye of the beholder, Zillow doesn’t have a targeted way of tracking them nationwide. For this article and the video above, they approximated the category by focusing on houses built after 1980 that were greater than 3,000 square feet but less than 5,000 square feet. They also looked for houses located on streets where the homes are similarly sized, on similarly sized lots, and built within six years of each other, to isolate cookie-cutter communities.)

This definition has several key aspects:

  1. A time period after 1980. The term McMansions arises in this era.
  2. A certain square footage. Once a home is too large, it is no longer a McMansion.
  3. The large homes are built as part of a development of similar homes.

This definition of a McMansion would seem to primarily capture suburban McMansions. Indeed, the analysis spends more time discussing general suburban trends than it does McMansions:

Many casual onlookers have forecast the death of the suburbs in recent years, especially as younger renters and buyers turn an eye to city centers. Skylar Olsen, a senior economist at Zillow, says that young people today have far more interest in living in urban environments. “That’s where jobs had been growing fastest over the course of this economic recovery over the past five years,” says Olsen…

Their decision is also supported by cheap energy costs, which make it affordable to commute. in mid-June, the nationwide average price of regular gasoline was $2.32 a gallon. Like the McMansion and the pickup in the housing market, it’s another source of deja vu. After remaining elevated for years, oil prices are now roughly the same as they were June 2000, when adjusted for inflation.

This definition leads to two major problems with defining what homes are McMansions:

  1. Not all suburban houses are McMansions. It may be easy to conflate the two – the majority of McMansions are likely located in the suburbs – but they are not the same.
  2. The Zillow data provides little insight into the architecture of the home. A home of that time period and square footage in a cookie-cutter neighborhood is not necessarily garish or poorly proportioned. Such homes might be more likely to be McMansions but it is not a guarantee.

Zillow may be limited in the architectural data they can access. For example, they may be able to know how large the garages are on these homes but it doesn’t really know how exactly these garages are presented. Yet, painting McMansions with a broad brush may not be very accurate and fall into the trap of painting most of suburbia as filled with McMansions.

Thoughts on “The rise of the McModern” McMansion

Kate Wagner of McMansionHell fame analyzes a subset of McMansions dubbed McModerns:

What makes the McModern a fascinating case study in residential architectural history is its two separate lineages: its foundation as a McMansion, and its origins within the greater historical context of popular modernism—that is, modernism for everyday families…

In the grand taxonomy of residential architecture, the McModern is a genus within the McMansion family. This is not to say that the “modern” part isn’t as important as the “Mc,” because the McModern as we know it derives from a source not often touched upon: the everyday modern houses not designed by famous architects, but by builders, or from pattern books…

The socioeconomic and technological development of the 21st-century McModern is strongly tied to the relentless pursuit of minimalism, beginning with industrial design: At the turn of the millennium, we entered the iPod age. Even more importantly, we fully embraced the internet age, and then subsequently the mobile age. These shifts triggered the beginning of the McModern….

Are old modernist houses definitively better than McModerns? Perhaps not—all styles have their duds, after all. However, it is the indulgent, inefficient, and architecturally botched nature of the McMansion that lies beneath the sleek surface of the McModern. In the eyes of McMansion builders, modern architecture is perceived by potential buyers as the culturally significant, high-brow form of architecture, revered by the educated and glossy magazines. To see something only for its superficial attributes or financial potential and execute it carelessly is perhaps the most “Mc” thing anyone can do.

Borrowing from earlier styles of architecture was intended to give McMansions a sense of permanence and power, even if they were mass produced starting in the 1980s. But, what is the aesthetic appeal of modernist architecture? Wagner suggests it is minimalism and a certain kind of cultural cachet but this seems tricky with how modernist architecture has often been treated in the United States. Modernist architecture may be good for skyscrapers but is more suspect for homes where many residents want an appeal to family and traditional neighborhoods (even though modernism is now roughly a century old). Additionally, it is less clear how minimalism works when the house is over 3,000 square feet – not exactly a minimalist amount of space.

I have argued previously that Americans, if given a choice, would prefer McMansions over modernist homes. See earlier posts here and here. Wagner hints at these dynamics in her piece as well; the modernist McMansions may primarily appeal to those who (1) are aware of what high-brow architecture and care to associate with it; (2) those who are choosing to locate in rapidly hip gentrifying neighborhoods; and (3) those with a tech-savvy lifestyle.

Now, we just need some data to back this all up and demonstrate some patterns.

Argument: Apple’s new HQ is anti-city

Build a massive new headquarters in the suburbs surrounded by artificial berms and you may just open yourself to charges that you are anti-city:

You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood…

Except when you have a statement building like the Spaceship, the circuit can’t complete. If Apple ever goes out of business, what would happen to the building? The same thing that happened to Union Carbide’s. That’s why nobody builds these things anymore. Successful buildings engage with their surroundings—and to be clear, Apple isn’t in some suburban arcadia. It’s in a real live city, across the street from houses and retail, near two freeway onramps….

In the early days of the project, reports suggest Apple wasn’t willing to participate in “community benefits,” financial or otherwise, and Cupertino’s city council didn’t seem too willing to push one of the city’s biggest employers and taxpayers. The mayor at the time tried to propose higher taxes on the company, but the city council didn’t support the move.

Over time, though, Apple committed to giving the city some money to help with traffic and parking. “We had to bring them into our world. They don’t do urban design. They don’t do planning. We needed to talk to each other,” Shrivastava says…

So what could Apple have built? Something taller, with mixed-use development around it? Cupertino would never have allowed it. But putting form factor aside, the best, smartest designers and architects in the world could have tried something new. Instead it produced a building roughly the shape of a navel, and then gazed into it.

This is an interesting juxtaposition to the steady stream of stories in recent years about how tech companies and other companies hip to the changing times are moving back to cities. Why would Apple construct such a structure and do so in the suburbs? I wonder if it has to do with control and secrecy. That may refer to the technology present – a building like this keeps it away from the public – but could also refer to providing employees with few reasons to go elsewhere. Facebook tried to do something like this by providing a Main Street all sorts of amenities so employees would want to stay (or wouldn’t have to leave). If you have your technology and employees wrapped up in one massive (and impressive) structure, you can exert a level of control few companies could dream of.

I also wonder if only a few companies could get away with this today. Apple is so prestigious and wealthy that it can do lots of things differently than others – such as trying to move back to the city to attract and retain younger workers – without much loss.

Finally, the article includes a quote calling structures like these “white elephants.” Imagine in ten years that Apple decides to move to a newly constructed skyscraper/megatructure in San Francisco. How could a suburban community deal with such a building? Many suburbs have a hard enough time with a vacant grocery store building, let alone a idiosyncratic large structure like this.

An award-winning redesigned McMansion entry inspired by baskets

Can you redeem a McMansion with redesigned spaces? Here is one such example from Juneau:

A Juneau McMansion’s redesigned entryway was recently celebrated at the 17th Annual Northwest Design Awards in Seattle. Juneau’s Bauer/Clifton Interiors took first place for most innovative design for their work. The entire home’s remodel was inspired by something you might not expect…

But the biggest influence for the entryway might surprise you.

“Looking at the bottom of a woven basket,” said Bauer. “It was something that the owner collected and was very fond of and we had one of them that we took as an inspirational piece that we had laying here on our island in our studio. That was the piece that we turned over and looked at, and it was when the light went off and went, ‘OK, let’s try doing this — let’s try creating a woven wood floor,’” said Bauer.

With farmhouse chic in mind, the designers found reclaimed 150-year-old American chestnut wood flooring from an old farm in West Virginia. The reuse factor is something the designers like, too.

We might imagine an odd scenario: those McMansions that critics say are so garish on the outside, such an ugly mishmash of styles, may just have beautifully designed interiors. Much of the architectural critique of McMansions emphasizes the outside and this makes some sense; they are easier to view and the exteriors are part of how the home presents itself to the world and thus influences social interactions. On the other hand, the prime private space that the McMansion has – thousands of square feet – is hidden from public view and is primarily meant for the residents. Granted, many McMansions may have problems on both the outside and inside but it is much harder to summarize their interiors.

Put differently, can McMansions be redeemed by designing them better from the inside out?

McMansions as the base for futuristic enclaves

A new futuristic book written by an architect makes use of McMansions:

But what if the McMansion could be put in the service of urbanism instead? In his new book Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction (Park Books, $49), the architect Keith Krumwiede, who teaches at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, envisions an alternative reality in which McMansions are used as building blocks to create small communities not unlike medieval villages or 19th-century communes. These “estates,” aggregated from real house plans used by big homebuilders such as Toll Brothers and Pulte, are set in Krumwiede’s fictional domain of Freedomland.

Across the Atlas’s richly colored pages, Krumwiede offers dozens of variations on the idea of the tract home as a module in a much larger dwelling. His estates have up to 200 bedrooms and 100 bathrooms each. Some are cruciform or X-shaped in plan; in others, the McMansions pinwheel around a fountain, lock together in tight Tetris-esque combinations, or link up delicately like daisy chains.

And the author discusses some of his thinking:

I think we do ourselves a disservice as architects dismissing all of these houses out of hand as aesthetically impoverished dreck, because they are really smart plans. That’s not to say that they have architectural values in a traditional sense. What I think they do effectively is they are able to deliver on the idea of every house being that individual’s palace…

I’ve had certain architects affiliated with the New Urbanist movement who’d say, “These individual estates are really great. You need to find a way to build these.” There are other friends, who see themselves more as avant-gardists, who are like, “How can you be mucking around with these shitty houses?” They see it as selling out.

These plans may make use of the physical structures known as McMansions but they certainly play with one of the object’s central features: a private space separate from neighbors. This is both a feature and a big: homeowners seem to want to get away from neighbors and society (with lots of interior space, sometimes a sizable lawn, and architectural features that impress but don’t necessarily expose the inside activity to outsiders) while critics suggest these home privilege private lives over robust community interaction (with sizable and prominent garages, plenty of interior space, and often imposing exteriors that discourage neighborly activity). Would a McMansion intentionally created as part of an enclave cease to be a McMansion?

Another idea: imagine you could move existing McMansions to create these new enclaves. It would be difficult to move large structures like these but then new McMansions don’t have to be constructed and it frees up other locations for new uses.

Hasn’t architecture always been political?

The committee that selected the most recent Pritzker Prize winners makes note of the political statement made by the architects:

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale.

It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to. Here’s part of the jury’s citation, explaining the choice to award RCR Arquitectes:

“In this day and age, there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

With this, the jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies. Consider RCR Arquitectes’ choice to run its shop in a town of 30,000 people, instead of the nearby metropolis Barcelona. It’s quaint in that way—practically mom-and-pop. Yet, the firm’s three architects work collaboratively, building open structures that anyone can enjoy, the jury says. It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.

Maybe it is noteworthy that this particular prize made a note of politics but architecture has arguably always been political. Those colossal buildings of ancient times, the Great Pyramids or the Colosseum, were intended to project power. (Some authoritarian leaders of recent centuries have pursued similar projects. See the altering of Paris in the 1800s as just one example.) Or, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains how religious buildings demonstrate and reflect power. Even the imitation of more traditional architecture in McMansions is intended to project something about the owners.

This does not mean that the average resident recognizes all of this. Indeed, some architecture might be intended to avoid connection to politics. But, we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction of edifices – critical to social life – both reflect and enact political dynamics.

(To read more of how this might play out with religious, read my co-authored piece titled “When Bricks Matter.”

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.