What was present and missing from my peak suburbia drive to Costco

A few days ago, I picked up a few family members and we visited the nearest Costco (utilizing one of their memberships). One family member remarked this may have been a peak suburbia experience – and they may be right for several reasons:

  1. We traveled in a minivan. We didn’t necessarily need all of that space but it could have proved useful at some point.
  2. We stopped at McDonald’s along the way. The minivan went through the drive-through, a common American occurrence.
  3. We traveled to a quintessential big box store: Costco. The store was crowded, we browsed for over an hour, and we purchased a good number of items.

At the same time, we missed a few elements of a truly peak suburban experience:

  1. The trip to Costco was not sandwiched between a kid’s activity. Put a pick-up from preschool at the beginning and a travel to a lesson or sports practice at the end.
  2. The crowds and traffic were not too bad because of the time of day we went to Costco. Instead, make this all part of a evening commute between roughly 3:30 PM and 6:30 PM.
  3. While we certainly purchased items that we did not need, I would not say that we mindlessly consumed on bulk items. Most or all of the items had a justifiable reason for their purchase.

The combination of driving in a large vehicle for consumption purposes among a semi-dense landscape…is this what Americans dream of when choosing to live in suburbia?

“Americans demand more bedrooms, baths”

I argued a few days ago that the American system is set up to encourage people to purchase bigger homes. Look, the system is working! Americans continue to build and buy bigger homes.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show newly-constructed homes in 2017 are 4 percent larger on average than a decade ago. And they come with a larger price tag — the average price of a new home jumped 23 percent from $313,600 in 2007 to $384,900 last year. Meanwhile, the average family size in the U.S. continues to shrink, from 3.33 persons in 1960, to 2.54 in 2017…

Below are some takeaways from the Survey of Construction data released in June. Based on the most common features, the most popular home built in 2017 was a two-story, two-garage home with more than four bedrooms and three bathrooms.

Several graphs highlight the proliferation of bedrooms and bathrooms in recent years:

Chart: Number of bedrooms in new single-family houses completed

Chart: Number of bathrooms in new single-family houses completed

Even with plenty of critics, American builders and buyers still seem to want larger homes. Perhaps the market is primarily open these days to wealthier buyers and builders may not be interested in constructing starter homes but this is not an isolated blip in the data: for decades, Americans have sought larger homes.

 

Where is the evidence? McMansion owners “favor” Cadillac Escalades

The connections between SUVs and McMansions continue: this article features a list of traits of Cadillac Escalade owners and their favored kind of housing.

The Escalade has long dominated the Navigator both in sales and cultural currency. Check out this list of Ten Seriously Dope Cadillac-Inspired Hip Hop Tracks. Indeed, the Escalade has long been a favored ride of the hip-hop crowd, pro athletes, Wall Streeters, business owners, drug kingpins and “McMansion” owners…

Who’s buying these hulking SUVs, according to the data? Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for KBB.com, says it’s more than just the bling and business tycoon sets. “The Escalade and Navigator shoppers on kbb.com are very similar, leaning heavily toward a domestic, family-oriented mindset. But the Escalade buyer tends toward techie side, so if the new Navigator is stacking up well against Escalade on the telematics interface, Cadillac could have its hands full.”…

The market for large luxury SUVs is as well established as cigars, expensive brandy and coal furnaces. Even these harsh words from Consumer Reports can’t dampen the enthusiasm for these vehicles among the rich and brash. “This hulking SUV can comfortably accommodate seven, effortlessly tow more than 4 tons, and practically cast the shadow of the Queen Mary II. While the Navigator pampers you with power everything and a rich interior ambience, a few details detract from the idea of embracing this almost $90,000 behemoth.”

That people of different class statuses purchase different brands and models is well-established, going back to the General Motors brand for every buyer as well as more academic studies showing different tastes among different social classes. What I would want to see in this case involves something more: where is the data that shows McMansion owners favor Escalades over Navigators? Or, that people who own Escalades are more likely to live in McMansions than other kinds of homes?

This is not the first time McMansions have been connected to Escalades. For example, take the New York Times. From a July 2001 story:

There are those who are drawn to the Escalade simply because it is so far over the top. You see them pulling up to McMansions in the suburbs and to hip-hop clubs downtown, making a statement before the truck comes to a halt. On the flip side, it is not hard to find people who are appalled, sometimes with fanatical fervor, by what the Escalade represents. Glaring from subcompacts or crosswalks, they seem to hold this hulk of metal responsible for global warming and dolphins in tuna nets.

Or an October 2005 review of a Lincoln SUV subtitled “A McTruck for the McMansion“:

The Mark LT is priced thousands below its prime competitor, the Cadillac Escalade EXT, but the equipment list shows why. The Caddy has 45 more horsepower and comes only with full-time four-wheel drive. (Lincoln’s system is part time, and costs extra.) Lincoln doesn’t offer a navigation system, air-conditioned seats, traction assist, stability control or power folding mirrors. Its power seats have manual recliners.

Or a January 2014 story titled “In Housing, Big is Back”:

Affluent buyers are drawn to new homes in part because the market for existing homes is so competitive, said Stephen Kim, a Barclays analyst. Inventories of existing homes for sale remain low, and buyers are less interested in large homes in far-flung developments — the McMansions of the exurbs that were emblematic of the boom and bust…

In April 2012, they selected a model costing about $850,000 from a luxury builder and chose a number of standard options for an additional $650,000. Ms. Sleep, who was in the process of selling the software firm she founded nearly two decades earlier, added a wall of windows to the basement and furnished it with a pool table, a media room, a wet bar, a home office and a suite for their youngest daughter to use when she was home from college.

They added a second master bedroom suite, on the ground level, for use when they are older and stairs become tougher to climb. They upgraded floors, carpeting and molding, added a sunroom and a large deck and supersized the garage door to fit Ms. Sleep’s Cadillac Escalade. The home’s lighting and temperature, as well as media on any of 14 televisions and the sound system, can be controlled remotely.

I get that it takes a certain amount of wealth to own either an Escalade or McMansion – and linking McMansions to wealthy people is common – but I have yet to see more evidence that McMansion owners prefer Escalades.

Millennials seek suburban homes and SUVs

Recent data shows several consumption patterns among Millennials:

Generationally speaking, the stereotype of millennials as urbanites falls flat when it comes to homeownership. The Zillow 2016 Consumer Housing Trends Report found that 47 percent of millennial homeowners live in the suburbs, with 33 percent settling in an urban setting and 20 percent opting for a rural area.

Millennial homebuyers do wait longer to buy a first home than did previous generations. But they are skipping the traditional “starter home” and buying larger homes that were previously considered the norm for “move up” buyers…

Erich Merkle, an economist with Ford, says that as millennials cross the threshold into family life, they’re buying large SUVs.

“We expect them to carry on as they age with three-row SUVs and likely go larger simply because they need the space to accommodate children that are now teenagers or preteenagers,” he said.

That combination so emblematic of 2000s consumption – the suburban big home (a McMansion?) and SUV – may be back. On one hand, perhaps this is what millennials are used to or they think they should aspire to. On the other side, consuming these objects can draw criticism. Did Americans learn anything (housing bubble, reliance on cheap oil)? Do they understand the consequences of these purchases (a commitment to sprawl and consuming more than they need)? How could they make such uncool choices (compared to dwellings in hot urban neighborhoods or acquiring cooler vehicles)?

Perhaps this suburban driving culture will continue for a long time…

Mixing shopping malls and transit centers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong demonstrates a very different model of shopping malls compared to the American suburban mall:

Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures—cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls—“mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums…

As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square—as in many other podium-tower developments—the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas…

For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small—its summer climate hot and humid—the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash…

The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus—the centerpiece of the World Trade Center—has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.

American shopping malls tend to get a bad rap: they take up a lot of space with their endless parking lots, they often require a car in order to get to one, and are centers of consumerism. The Hong Kong malls eliminate two of these major issues: they are a more compact use of space and don’t require cars. Indeed, it is clever to combine mass transit space with a mall. However, these integrated malls may present even larger consumption issues since travelers have to go through these spaces rather than choose to go there. Isn’t this the complaint about gift stores in museums, zoos, or amusement parks where you finish an exhibit or ride and then have to go through the items for sale? And mass transit is supposed to be a public good so it may be a bit strange to mix it so closely with private profit-making. (I wonder if the transit facilities/authorities could take a cut of the sales in these transit malls and funnel more money into transit systems. Is this a way to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvement in the United States?)

I’d love to see an analysis of how sales change when people are intentionally funneled through consumption spaces like this.

Explaining why Americans desire larger homes

Here are several possible explanations for why Americans want bigger houses:

But there’s no real “normal’’ when it comes to desired home size — except the persistent perception that size equates to prestige, said Dak Kopec, director of Design for Human Health at Boston Architectural College. “Throughout all cultures, bigger is better and associated with wealth and power.’’…

“It’s clear that the American dream of living in a big house on a large lot has not gone away,’’ said Ralph McLaughlin, Trulia’s chief economist…

One reason American homes are so big, Powell argued, is that we have more disposable income. “You’re not just buying a 2,000-square-foot house, you’re also going to fill it with a whole bunch of stuff,’’ she said. The larger house and its contents soon become your new baseline, she said, as the furniture, paintings, and lamps you buy blend into the background to become part of your environment. “And then you can only upsize from there if you choose to keep your possessions.’’…

Dunn speculates that a larger home could boost happiness if it reduces conflict. “If you have a house that enables you to get along well with your spouse, if each person has a little of their own space, that might reduce conflict,’’ she said, “but I suspect there are seriously diminishing returns on that.’’

With these four factors – the status of a larger house, the American Dream, more disposable income and more stuff, and finding more happiness – perhaps we could argue that it requires some effort for Americans to live in a smaller place. It is not impossible to do so and certain factors, such as living in an expensive metropolitan area like New York City or San Francisco, can override the cultural conditioning to have a larger house. But, the American inertia may just be to have a larger dwelling.

We could also add some additional factors leading to larger homes in the United States:

  1. Suburban sprawl leads to more room for larger homes.
  2. Americans privilege private spaces over public spaces.
  3. Over the decades, the government and other actors helped make it easier for more people to own homes.
  4. Americans don’t necessarily need the space but they like the flexibility that more room provides such as having a hobby room or having children, parents, and/or relatives live with them.

Asking again: who buys McMansions?

Given the negative connotations of the term McMansion, who exactly purchases such homes? The A.V. Club takes a quick shot:

It doesn’t seem likely that McMansion Hell will make these kinds of houses disappear from the landscape. Not as long as there are orthodontists and hedge-fund managers with money to burn.

This is a standard claim: the people who move into McMansions are the nouveau riche and they want the home to impress others. They are not concerned with architectural purity; they just want neighbors and people to drive by and be wowed by the grandiosity and features. But, is this actually true? We don’t know some fairly basic information, such as who lives in McMansions or what they actually think about domestic architecture.

For me, the basic question is this: if McMansions are so unquestionably bad, whether due to architecture or excessive consumption or contributing to suburban sprawl, why do people continue to move into them or live in them? There is something in the McMansion that appeals to a good number of Americans with the means to afford them (and before the housing bubble burst, more of those who maybe couldn’t afford them). And if you oppose McMansions, I’m guessing the architecture criticism simply doesn’t register with many Americans. The postwar era is littered with bad housing (I know ranch homes get some love today but they aren’t special) and aesthetics may not matter much compared to other factors (like the quest for more space or being in certain desirable locations) when purchasing a home.