Separating McMansions from luxury homes

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

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

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.

How many people want to buy the split-levels and Colonial Revivals that need rehabbing in higher-end Chicago suburbs?

A look at women seeking homeownership suggests they might not be interested in many of the homes in more expensive Chicago suburbs:

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“They are not going to sacrifice,” Spaniak said. “They don’t have the time to rehab. And they want something newer, with quality, that expresses who they are.”

That’s a tall order that often isn’t in line with the split-levels and Colonial Revival houses common in higher-end Chicago suburbs. The scarcity of polished, modern houses in established suburbs further drives up the prices of the few houses that do meet that narrow criteria, Spaniak said.

This is an issue facing many suburban communities and potential homebuyers:

  1. Many existing homes do not have the features, finishes, or architecture preferred by homebuyers now.
  2. More mature suburbs have a limited number of newer homes as new construction is limited to small developments or teardowns.
  3. The housing prices in more expensive and mature suburbs are not that low that it will attract people drawn by fixer-uppers. The people who can buy and rehab homes in the wealthier suburbs have enough capital to buy in and fix or teardown the homes for a tidy profit.

Roughly five years ago, we were in a similar position looking for a larger home. Homes within our price range often needed updating or had disagreeable and unchangeable traits. The style of homes available fit into what is described above: split-levels, raised ranches, ranches, Colonials, and a few older structures. We had time and flexibility so it all worked out but I could see how the available options and at the particular prices available would frustrate some homebuyers.

Planning for the metaverse libertarian urban paradise

The quest for a free online city continue with the help of a prominent architectural firm:

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) has revealed renderings of the “cyber-urban” Liberland metaverse, a small virtual city made of futuristic, curving buildings in the architectural style that made the late architect’s firm famous. When complete, it will offer users the ability to traverse the hub as an avatar, and feature a city hall, collaborative working spaces, shops, business incubators, and a gallery for NFT art shows. The community it hopes to foster will have a focus on self-governance as well as fewer rules and regulations.

Those ideals are based on the so-called Free Republic of Liberland, a real-life micronation founded by Czech politician Vit Jedlicka in 2015 with a goal to implement small government libertarian values. Wedged between Serbia and Croatia, the 2.7-mile territory, which is larger than the Vatican and Monaco, is a disputed land and claimed by neither country. Since its founding, no one has moved to Liberland, which lacks any infrastructure, nor has construction started in earnest. But it does have 7,000 approved residents and 700,000 applications, according to Jedlicka, who told CNN in an email. The micronation also has a national flag, anthem and currency — the cryptocurrency Liberland merit…

Though many metaverse concepts have been born out of video game aesthetics — Mark Zuckerberg’s concept for a Metaverse, for example, looks similar to Nintendo Wii’s avatar design — the digital architecture of Liberland is meant to be more grounded in reality. The buildings, while hyper-futuristic, are similar to the glossy look of typical architectural renderings. But they were made with parametric design — a method that employs algorithms to create complex forms…

But while many online forums and social media companies have had to grapple with how much to moderate their users, with sites like Reddit having to move away from their ideals of unmitigated free speech as their user base ballooned, Liberland will start out as an exclusive space and expand slowly, in order to keep its community in check. Jedlicka confirmed that Liberland citizens and residents will have first access.

This combines several ideas with their own fan bases – the metaverse, libertarianism and small government, this architectural style – and tries to put them together in once place. I wonder if this hints at a fragmented metaverse where people of different interests and community ties come together in a few settings but they do not go elsewhere.

It is also worth noting that while this is only a online place, it is not disconnected from the offline realm in multiple ways. First, the online realm tries to imitate the offline with its use of space, buildings, and architecture. Second, those who operate in the online realm still have physical bodies and interactions outside of Liberland. This will be billed as new and exciting because it is in the metaverse…but physical matter still matters in multiple ways for this new community.

You can buy the newly constructed home – without a garage door

Supply chain issues have limited the availability of garage doors for new homes:

Photo by Castorly Stock on Pexels.com

In most parts of the country, a builder can’t pass final inspection for a home that is otherwise perfectly complete — but that is missing its garage door. That means builders don’t get paid and home buyers can’t move in…

These last two years, the garage has also become the answer to all kinds of pandemic problems. It’s the remote office, the home gym, the one-room schoolhouse and the makeshift bedroom for doubled-up family. The pandemic has effectively completed the decades-long evolution of the garage from a detached carriage house to a connected car annex to a space inseparable from the home itself.

Along the way, the garage door became, for many, the real front door. And so it can be surreal to see brand-new homes with their garages sealed in plywood, or to hear homebuilders talk of installing temporary ones. Welcome to your dream home! The real garage door will be coming later…

Amid all this variety, a few problems have been acute lately. Many doors contain spray-foam insulation, which has been in short supply since the plants in Texas that manufacture its chemical components were disrupted in last year’s winter freeze. (If you make garage doors, you’re also competing for polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride with window frames, vinyl siding, caulking — and the aerospace, cruise ship and automotive industries.)

Many other garage door components are made from steel, which has also been in short supply. And even companies that manufacture the finished doors domestically typically source parts from China that have been snarled in global shipping.

Having a garage is essential in many ways (hence the need for it in a final inspection): it protects whatever is in the garage from the elements, it seals up the opening for safety, it provides for entering and leaving, and it is part of the front that home presents to the world.

Indeed, with the development of the single-family home in the United States, the garage became a key, and sometimes, leading component. With homes in the suburbs dependent on cars plus the ownership of more and more vehicles, garages became larger and featured more prominently in the front facade. As the term “snout house” implies, some houses literally lead with the garage closest to the street. In other homes, the garage might be set further back or even discreetly turned or more hidden from the front. Regardless where the garage is placed and featured, it is very important to the American single-family home.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to rethink garages and how they might work. As noted above, many garages have been used in different ways during COVID-19. Is there a way to build them where they can be more quickly converted without the need for a traditional large door? In a possible future of electric car fleets, how would a home garage work?

Making clear where HGTV shows are filmed

Some HGTV shows are very clear about where they are located. As two examples, Chip and Joanna Gaines are based in Waco and have built a local empire through Fixer Upper while House Hunters shows multiple shots of the local community and region.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

But, other shows say less about their filming location. One such show is Love It or List It. While this is old news to regular viewers, this article discusses the switch in filming locations:

Like Renovation Island, Love It or List It actually began as a Canadian series, and filming took place in Ontario. Despite where it was shot, the home renovation series became a popular franchise on HGTV in the United States. As such, in 2014, after filming in Ontario for six years, hosts Hilary Farr and David Visentin, along with the crew, picked up and headed to North Carolina to start fresh in a new city…

And, if in doing so you find that you love the area as much as the homes being showcased, know that you can experience it for yourself by booking a trip to the Tar Heel state — specifically the Triangle and greater Raleigh-Durham area.

One could argue this does not matter: the real show involves Hilary, David, and the interior of individual properties. The show tends to provide a few aerial views of the properties in question and there might be some discussion of the location of the home in relation to workplaces or destinations. Does it matter if the homes are in Ontario or in North Carolina? Most of the action and filming takes place inside.

On the other hand, the community context matters a lot. Even if the show focuses on individual properties, the place matters for at least a few reasons:

  1. House architecture and style depends on what happens in particular places. The design of homes in North Carolina is quite different from Ontario. Different builders and developers operate in each place.
  2. Different logics apply in different places regarding where people want to locate. Do people in older Toronto and suburban neighborhoods see locations in the same way as Americans in sprawling contexts? Maybe, maybe not.
  3. What looks like normal life differs by place. In years of showing the same kinds of places on a TV show, do viewers accept it as how life works? Any TV show can project stability with consistent characters and story lines. But, see enough single-family homes in tree-lined neighborhoods only accessible by cars – and this is the primary dwelling on HGTV – and it can appear to be the default.

While not all HGTV shows ignore the community or region, I would be interested in more of their shows seriously incorporating place into their narratives about homes.

The role of religious buildings in the decline in religiosity in the US during COVID-19

New data from Pew Research suggests religiosity declined during COVID-19:

Photo by Nikko Tan on Pexels.com

The percentage of Americans who identify as Christians now stands at 63%, down from 65% in 2019 and from 78% in 2007. Meanwhile, 29% of Americans now identify as having no religion, up from 26% in 2019 and 16% in 2007, when Pew began tracking religious identity.

Many places of worship closed during the pandemic—some voluntarily, others as a result of state and local social-distancing rules—and in-person church attendance is roughly 30% to 50% lower than it was before the pandemic, estimates Barna Group, a research firm that studies faith in the U.S. Millions of Americans moved to worshiping online, and questions linger about how many will come back in person.

A previous Pew survey, in January, found that a third of Americans said their faith had grown stronger during the pandemic—the highest share of any developed country. But overall, religious engagement trended downward at roughly the same rate as before the pandemic, according to the new Pew survey.

These findings are likely part of a longer trend away from religion that was already underway before COVID-19 hit. Sociologists and others have noted the rise of “religious nones,” particularly among younger Americans. Religion in the United States can often be individualistic and anchored less in religious traditions or denominations.

Yet, I wonder if COVID-19 presented a unique disruption to religiosity as it limited interaction with religious buildings. Sociologist Robert Brenneman and I discuss the impact of religious buildings on worship and community in Building Faith. We argue that the religious building and the ways that exterior and interior features are designed influence people who interact with them. The buildings do not just reflect religious values or doctrine; they help shape religious experiences.

When COVID-19 stopped people from being in buildings that influenced their faith, did this register as a loss and/or lead to a decline in religious engagement? With today’s technology and the ways that many congregations pivoted to online options, people can still engage with faith communities. Yet, that experience through Zoom or other video options is not the same as being in a physical structure that reinforces faith experiences. Even in congregations that tend to downplay the role of space, they still try to shape the religious building space in ways that encourages particular emotions and experiences.

Can religious faith in the United States survive as an enterprise free from the confines of a religious building? I have my doubts. While buildings themselves are unlikely to reverse the decline in religiosity in the last decade or so, they have a role in shaping communal and individual faith.

Discovering the “unaccounted” time at work and then designing work spaces around that

I have considered the design of offices and work places before (here and here as two examples) but have not seen this particular issue described: when researchers found that workers had “unaccounted” time in the office, this led to changing the workplace and new problems.

Photo by Cadeau Maestro on Pexels.com

Wilkinson, who designed Google’s 500,000-square-foot Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California, says he had his first epiphany about the office in 1995. While reviewing old studies and surveys about worker habits, he came upon a study that measured how office workers spent their time between 9 am and 5 pm. He was immediately struck by just how much “unaccounted” time workers were spending away from their desks—that is, not in meetings or any other explicit work function. But Wilkinson found it hard to believe that all of these workers were taking multi-hour bathroom breaks or simply leaving the office together. They were still in the office; they were just hanging out in hallways, chatting in foyers, clustering around someone else’s desk as the occupant tells a story.

“It blew my mind,” he told us. “And it made our team realize that the planning of the office was fundamentally flawed.” His realization was straightforward: Office design had long revolved around the placement of desks and offices, with the spaces in between those areas treated as corridors and aisles. But that “overemphasis on the desk,” as Wilkinson recalled, “had worked to the detriment of working life, trapping us in this rigid formality.”

And so he set out to liberate it, shifting the focus of his designs to work that took place away from the desk. In practice, this meant designing bleachers and nooks in places that were once poorly lit corridors, and spacing out desk clusters to incentivize more movement among teams. A kinetic office environment, the idea went, could increase spontaneous encounters, which would then spark creativity. The design also allowed for private areas—many with comfy couches and plush ottomans to replicate a family room feel—to do deep work, away from the noisy bullpen of desks.

This led to tech campuses like that of Facebook, Apple, and Google. What could go wrong?

The danger Wilkinson is describing is, of course, exactly what happened. The new campus design had a profound impact on company culture. Some of that impact was undeniably positive: He created work spaces where people genuinely want to be. But that desire becomes a gravitational pull, tethering the worker to the office for longer and longer, and warping previous perceptions of social norms.

Two thoughts strike me from reading this book excerpt:

  1. The idea of “unaccounted” time. How much of human daily activity is not directly related to productivity or a particular task? How much of that unaccounted time has long-term benefits such as stronger relationships and closer community? Part of the full human experience is having unaccounted time. On the other hand, it is not a surprise that if that unaccounted time occurred on company time, corporations and organizations would want to maximize it. (See this recent post about time, space, and calendars pushed into predictable patterns.)
  2. Humans have the ability to shape buildings and other physical settings to encourage particular behaviors. Offices are not just empty receptacles into which workers are placed willy-nilly. Religious buildings shape worship and communal experiences. Land use policies encourage more private spaces or more public spaces and these choices have consequences. This is simply part of our daily lives where we shape and are shaped by the spaces we are in.

Build a dorm where 94% of the bedrooms have no windows in order to encourage more activity in common areas

The construction of college dorms not not typically attract national attention but an unusual plan at the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara and the architect who quit in protest did make the news:

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

Billionaire Charlie Munger is bankrolling the design of a massive dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The $1.5 billion project comes with a major catch — 94% of the dorm’s single occupancy rooms are in the interior of the building, and have no windows.

A consulting architect on the university’s Design Review Committee quit in protest of the project, in a resignation letter obtained by CNN Business and reported by the Santa Barbara Independent…

Munger, the 97-year-old vice chairman of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, donated $200 million to UCSB to fund the dorms, with the caveat that his designs are followed. He wanted the dorm rooms to be tiny and windowless to encourage residents to spend more time outside in the common areas, meeting other students…

The rooms do have artificial windows, however, which Munger said resemble the Disney cruise ship’s artificial portholes where “starfish come in and wink at your children,” the Santa Barbara Independent reported.

The debate between Munger and the architect seems to come down to differing opinions on what the optimal residential experience is. Munger hopes that no windows would help students leave their rooms. The architect wants students to have access to natural light. Architecture often has ideas about how people in spaces should operate based on the physical surroundings. As my sociologist colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith, religious buildings are also built with specific experiences and behaviors in mind.

Three other factors connected to larger trends are interesting here:

  1. From what I have read, the demand for single-person rooms has increased at colleges. This provides students more private space. But, this may limit sociability and it could increase costs for everyone because more space is needed.
  2. I wonder what role smartphones play in all of this. Even with a window, smartphone use is pretty pervasive. Even with smartphone use, natural light and seeing the outside world has benefits.
  3. People with money and influence sometimes want to translate that status into physical buildings. If you have big money, you can help plan a significant building or attach your name to it. It would be interesting to see how long Munger’s name would continue to be attached to this particular building.

See an earlier post on spending a lot of time in windowless rooms.

Designing religious buildings, for function and flourishing

Building off yesterday’s post about the small percent of American buildings that are designed, I was reminded of the book Robert Brenneman and I released in 2020 about religious buildings. Here are several connections between our work and arguments about designing the American built environment:

  1. Different religious traditions and groups place a different level of emphasis on the importance of design and details for religious buildings. A number of Protestant congregations downplay the need for a designed building or the importance of a building. Take the megachurch with its theater/performance space sanctuary or the gym that could be home to services, meals, and basketball games. Yet, we found that congregations can put a lot of effort and energy into the process of constructing and maintaining their building. A building matters for religious groups and it has the potential to shape both the experience of the transcendent and the community for those who use and visit the building.
  2. In Chapter 5, Robert talked with three architects who work with different religious groups to realize their dreams for buildings. These architects have ideas about what religious buildings could or should look like and they interact with congregations to help produce what the congregation and the architect agree on.
  3. Congregations also have the ability to take the space they can access – determined by resources, networks, etc. – and add function and/or their own aesthetics. In Chapter 6, we have multiple case studies of congregations that took existing buildings and molded them to their purposes. Our cases included converting a former military barracks, a church building constructed by another congregation, a factory, and a high school.
  4. Enhancing and adapting buildings is an ongoing process for both religious buildings and congregations. Over time, a religious buildings could be home to multiple traditions and uses. A congregation may find that its needs evolve or they have different resources. Maintaining a beneficial built environment requires effort beyond the initial design.