If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions

McMansions are rarely celebrated and are often skewered (read more here and here). Yet, given the number of McMansions constructed in recent decades plus the number of Americans who live in McMansions, I predict this: we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine at least a few McMansion preservation districts or homes converted into museums and/or local history sites to help future American residents envision the past.

Critics argue McMansions have a multiple negative traits including their size, their architecture, and what they stand for. At the same time, not all buildings and structures that are preserved or celebrated are ones that all Americans celebrate. Take but three examples: ranch homes, modernist homes, and Brutalist buildings. Ranch homes have their own proponents and backers but they are also derided for their simplicity and lack of traditional architecture, particularly in mass-produced suburbia. Modernist homes may catch the eye of architects and those interested in minimalist design but I think more Americans would prefer a McMansion. And Brutalist architecture may come under fire but a number of prominent public buildings in this style still stand and will be preserved.

If future Americans want to understand typical life at the turn of the twenty-first century, they may need to see and tour a suburban McMansion. This does not mean that the presentation will be all positive. Those future visitors may scoff at the open design, the architectural mish-mash, the hobby rooms and copious amounts of storage space, the granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, the use of McMansions in horror stories, and the rows upon rows of such homes. Or, such a preserved home might endeavor to explain why Americans continued to buy McMansions even with the negative connotations of the term.

I look forward to seeing some of the first McMansion preservation sites. These may be both business and community opportunities as well as part of an effort by Americans to better understand their own past. And because there are so many McMansions and they are so emblematic of a particular era, let the era of McMansion preservation begin.

“McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children”

A Connecticut architect considers the McMansion legacy left by a generation of homeowners and builders:

Skyscrapers are the image of New York. The White House is more America than a home. And McMansions have become a punchline. When I sought to find land in 1982, a broker pushed a building lot in a McMansion development, pushing its allure by flatly asserting, “We’re talking about some seriously beautiful homes here.”…

Time has not been kind to we boomers. We basically tanked the entire world’s economy with “irrational exuberance” that found its most publicly grotesque distortion in those McMansions. Make no mistake millions of less-than-McMansions had more distortional impact on the credit markets than the hundreds of thousands of McMansion, let alone the one-off attempts by individuals who try to buy social legitimacy by building large homes — the real mansions…

McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children, the millennials, who have had the worst economic birthing since the Great Depression. Kate Wagner was barely in her 20s when she called out the final fruits of 40 years of serial housing booms that afflicted America. But the impact of in-your-face domestic chest-beating is especially present in Connecticut, which realtor.com trumpeted as having the “metro” with the third most McMansions in the country. And that impact was doubled down by the added insult of unending instant “tear-downs” of those homes built in the previous generation in the tight Northeast.

As an architect I have remade any number of these instantly dated ego vehicles. We have also revived any number of raised ranches, garrison colonials and Capes. Often those homes need strategic expansion. But with McMansions, removal of the offending detail and pretense is often the first remediation.

I like the idea that a social group – here the emphasis is on Baby Boomers – can leave a physical legacy for later members of the same society. People do not just pass down values, norms, and behaviors; they also leave a physical landscape and places that they have made and shaped. Even though we do not focus much on this in the United States, these places shape us and also provide inertia for what future residents will experience. McMansions have the potential to influence millions of lives even as the original designers, builders, and residents may no longer be present.

At the same time, I wonder how obvious the excesses of the McMansion were while they were being constructed in large numbers. It is relatively easy today to look at them with disdain or wonder at what prompted them. A blog like McMansion Hell has the benefits of hindsight as well as new eyes from a younger resident from a different generation. Did this architect call out McMansions back in the 1990s when wealthy Connecticut communities built them in large numbers? My own research suggests the tide starts to turn against McMansions in the early to mid 2000s as consistent critiques of their architecture and consumption arise as well as there are enough of them in communities across the United States to see them as a single phenomenon.

Going forward, I don’t think McMansions will disappear. There is plenty of money to be made in McMansions compared to building smaller housing units. It is not clear that all millennials or future homebuyers will see them as homes to be avoided. And many of the McMansions critics say are poorly built and designed will last for decades.

Building a 1,000+ foot skyscraper in a rural town of 7,000 residents

Skyscrapers and cities are tightly linked. Can one be built in a small town in the countryside?

Until a local company announced plans to send a 320-metre skyscraper soaring over the surrounding countryside, most people in Denmark had only the haziest idea where Brande, a town of 7,000 people in rural Jutland, even was.

The Bestseller Tower, designed by star architectural studio Dorte Mandrup, will not only be the tallest building in Denmark, but the tallest in western Europe, besting the Shard in London by a crucial 10.4 metres…

It won’t be the first rural skyscraper. At the height of Japan’s property bubble back in 1991, a 41-story residential tower, Sky Tower 41, was erected among fields.

But in Jutland, the surrounding landscape is so flat that the tower will be visible from 60km away. Visitors to Jelling, the royal seat of Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king who united Denmark, will see its slender form jutting up from the horizon, as will visitors to Legoland 30km away.

While the article suggests it will not be the only rural skyscraper in the world, they are certainly rare. They are rare enough outside of sizable central business districts that numerous tall buildings in the Chicago suburbs – probably in the 20 to 30 stories in height – attract attention as unusual and sticking out in the landscape in a metropolitan region that takes pride in its tall buildings and architecture.

It is certainly possible to build such a structure almost anywhere but I wonder how this will all work out in day-to-day life in this community. Small towns and rural areas have a particular scale that people are used to and that is human scaled or even dominated by nature and landscapes rather than human creations. Constructing a building over a 1,000 square feet disrupts all of this: it will be visible for miles, it will dwarf anything nearby, and it will cast shadows and block the sun from certain angles. It is not slightly out of scale for this community; it is a massive change. It could be beautiful, modern, and efficient and still have negative consequences for the community.

 

The bigger and feature-filled “New American Home”

What the National Association of Home Builders displays as the “New American Home” just keeps getting bigger and bigger:

The first New American Home that N.A.H.B. built, in Houston in 1984, was 1,500 square feet and cost $80,000. By 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble, the N.A.H.B. home – a lakeside McMansion in Florida with a tri-level kitchen island and a waterfall off the master suite – was over 10,000 square feet and listed for $5.3 million in what is today one of the nation’s foreclosure capitals, Orlando.

That 1984 project was the smallest; square footage hasn’t dipped below 2,200 since 1985. The 2018 version, also in Florida, is “Tuscan”-inspired and is close to 11,000 square feet, with eight bathrooms and both an elevator and a car elevator in the garage. The 2019 version, to be unveiled soon, is 8,000 square feet and has an “inner sanctum lounge” and a view of the Vegas strip.

NewAmericanHomeSquareFootage

The N.A.H.B. house may be meant to highlight trends, but they’re not necessarily the trends homeowners want (and certainly not what most people need). Instead, they’re what builders, kitchen and bath manufacturers and real estate agents would like to sell them: Think cathedral ceilings, granite countertops, gift-wrapping rooms and, more recently, “smart” appliances like a refrigerator that can text you when you’re low on milk and eggs.

Many builders will tell you that though these houses are large, they are more efficient – even that they have a small carbon footprint. But this is like bragging about the good gas mileage of an S.U.V. While a 10,000-square-foot house built today uses less energy than a 10,000-square-foot house built a decade ago, a home of this size requires a phenomenal amount of energy to run. (And most likely has an S.U.V. or two in the garage.)

I see enough from the NAHB to guess that they have some influence in the housing industry, particularly among national or larger builders. That their show home put together each year keeps getting bigger on average and with more and more features suggests the emphasis is on new and profits. At the same time, it might be hard to show a direct causal link between these annual productions and what homes are actually built. Builders in the United States have constructed many large homes in recent decades but the median square footage has dropped slightly in the last few years.

I suspect it would also be interesting to analyze the architectural and design choices for the New American Homes. Americans may like big homes but not necessarily modern ones. How many of these homes are modernist, Craftsman, or Mediterranean (and which styles are studiously avoided)? Are they all open concept in the main living areas? Is storage a priority and/or large garages? This sort of project could then be expanded to model homes in different areas or among different builders to think about how what builders present influence buying patterns.

Linking the uniformity in the architecture of new apartment buildings to stick framing

The architectural commonalities among new apartment buildings may be connected to how the edifices are built:

The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.

The method traces to 1830s Chicago, a boomtown with vast forests nearby. Nailing together thin, precut wooden boards into a “balloon frame” allowed for the rapid construction of “a simple cage which the builder can surface within and without with any desired material,” the architect Walker Field wrote in 1943. “It exemplifies those twin conditions that underlie all that is American in our building arts: the chronic shortage of skilled labor, and the almost universal use of wood.” The balloon frame and its variants still dominate single-family homebuilding in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also standard in Australia and New Zealand, and pretty big in Japan, but not in the rest of the world.

In the U.S., stick framing appears to have become the default construction method for apartment complexes as well. The big reason is that it costs much less—I heard estimates from 20 percent to 40 percent less—than building with concrete, steel, or masonry. Those industries have sponsored several studies disputing the gap, but most builders clearly think it exists…

The advance of the mid-rise stick building has come with less fanfare, and left local officials and even some in the building industry surprised and unsettled. “It’s a plague, and it happened when no one was watching,” says Steven Zirinsky, building code committee co-chairman for the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. What caught his attention was a blaze that broke out in January 2015 at the Avalon apartments in Edgewater, N.J., across the Hudson River from his home. “When I could read a book in my apartment by the flame of that fire,” he says, “I knew there was a problem.” Ignited by a maintenance worker’s torch, the fire spread through concealed spaces in the floors and attic of the four-story complex, abetted by a partial sprinkler system that didn’t cover those areas. No one died, but the building was destroyed.

Cutting building costs makes sense. Still: if the costs of construction are reduced, this means there could be more money for interesting architectural or design elements. Enhancing the building in this way could lead to higher rents. (Of course, this assumes Americans are willing to pay a little more for apartment buildings that look good. I could imagine why this may not be the case. See the appeal of ranch homes – though not modernist homes.) Are there some developers out there who see value, aesthetically or monetarily, in helping their “stumpie” complex stand out?

I still marvel at times at this ingenuity in building homes and houses with balloon frames and its descendents: take standardized sizes of mass-produced wood and millions of dwellings are born. The pieces of this supply chain that had to come into place for this to be possible is interesting to consider as is the permanence of such dwellings that are based on frames of two-by-fours.

Showing a McMansion while saying, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.”

In a recent HGTV episode intro, the host is driving through a Chicago suburb. He says, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.” And this is the home we see as he says this:

HGTVMcMansionMidwestCharacter.jpg

This is a McMansion due to at least four features:

1. The two story entryway.

2. The multi-dimensional roofline.

3. The three car garage and large driveway.

4. The lighter brick and other style choices that date the home as roughly a 1990s build.

(For aesthetic purposes, the dangling power lines in the front do not help.)

This home may have plenty of brick but critics of McMansions might argue the brick is deployed poorly. This home may have character – but of the negative kind rather than the charming variety.

A vote against urban McMansions in 2018

One design and architecture writer takes aim at urban McMansions as a tired trend from 2018:

Allison Arieff (columnist, New York Times):

Urban McMansions. I gotta ask these folks—was it always your dream to live in the Apple store? And if you want to live in 10,000 square feet, maybe you should move to the suburbs?”

Arieff draws attention to three traits of McMansions which she sees as negative:

  1. Their large size. She pegs the size at 10,000 square feet though I would argue that once you are at 10,000 square feet and above, this is more of a mansion than a McMansion.
  2. Their poor or low quality architecture. The comparison here is to an Apple store, presumably a structure of a lot of glass and silver metal. This may be appropriate if you are selling trendy phones and tablets but perhaps not so much in a new residence.
  3. A connection to the suburbs. Whereas McMansions are expected to arise from empty fields, plopping a large McMansion in an urban neighborhood, particularly an older one, could be viewed more negatively. How exactly does a big and poorly-designed single-family home contribute to a vibrant and cosmopolitan city scene?

Together, these homes are an inappropriate size, do not look good, and are meant for a different kind of streetscape and lifestyle. For more, refer to my four traits that can define a McMansion.