“10 anti-McMansion design commandments”

Looking to avoid constructing or buying a McMansion? Here are four of “10 anti-McMansion design commandments”:

1. Thou shalt not build a house with turrets, as it is unlikely to be attacked by hostiles or provide shelter for a damsel in distress…

3. Thou shalt not build a house with a three-car garage as the dominant street-facing feature…

7. Thou shalt not build a house with seven gables when two would be more than enough.

8. Thou shalt not build a big, big house on a small, small lot.

There are two related themes in each of these commandments that goes beyond just avoiding features that are now associated with McMansions. Many of these commandments address two key issues: (1) proportionality and (2) unnecessary features. Regarding the first, specific features – windows, gables, garages – should not appear oversized compared to other features. (I supposed you could have a house where everything is outsized but then it could be criticized as cartoonish compared to normal-sized homes.) Additionally, certain features are not required such as turrets, tall columns, and expansive foyers.

The proposed solution to these McMansion sins is this: “good housing design really means keeping it simple, be the house big or small.” If this is followed to the letter, the simple counter to McMansions would be modernist houses or ranch homes. From the outside, these are simply boxes with limited ornamentation. But, for many, these homes may be too simple. They do not invoke traditional styles. Or, these simpler designs may be viewed as lacking character. They were built in large numbers during the postwar era and came to be associated with suburban sprawl. While McMansions are derided for their construction in more traditional neighborhoods, imagine a typical ranch plopped down in a neighborhood of Victorian homes or a modernist home within the typical suburban subdivision. Even with more reasonable sizes compared to McMansions, I would guess the neighbors would still have concerns.

Fast food restaurants move from one-size-fits-all architecture to “curated” design

Americans often can recognize a McDonald’s or Taco Bell anywhere in the country with their familiar architecture. This may be changing:

“What is different now from what we used to do is we are breaking away from a one-size-fits-all model and going to more flexibility, more variations, to end up with a more curated approach,” says Deborah Brand, Taco Bell’s vice president of development and design. Taco Bell has spent the past two years rethinking its restaurant design, and Taco Bell Cantina is just one result. “I think it’s a different approach to value,” Brand says. “We’ve always known that we have inexpensive food that is craveable, but we also look at value as serving the same food at the same price point in a potentially much more elevated dining environment.”…

Many other fast-food chains—“quick-service restaurants,” or QSR, in industry parlance—are doing the same. Restaurants from McDonald’s to KFC to Starbucks are rethinking their spaces inside and out, in a wave of design interventions that, given the sheer number of these restaurants, will spread throughout the U.S. These designs are setting a new standard for the commercial landscape, guiding the look and feel of the stores and restaurants on our streets and in our daily routines….

A quirk of designing for chains with thousands of restaurants and global marketing campaigns means that the design of the physical spaces often has to align with the image of the restaurant being portrayed in advertisements. In recent years, the KFC brand has built its advertising campaigns around an updated interpretation of the chain’s white-haired founder and human mascot, the long-deceased Colonel Harland Sanders, playing on his Southern gentleman character, while also making him, and the restaurant he represents, a little feisty. McCauley and FRCH were tasked with redesigning the restaurants to reflect this new attitude…

Today, in the era of the Taco Bell Cantina, the chain has diversified its approach to design, shifting far away from this signature building style. But branding through architecture is still a strategy used by some fast-food chains. Take the white castle-shaped buildings of the White Castle brand, for instance, or the sloping, hat-shaped red roof of the Pizza Hut chain. In its early years, McDonald’s required that its franchised restaurants use the famed “golden arches,” two parabola-shaped yellow bands on each end of the building that became a form of physical advertising. Now, for reasons such as cost and flexibility, brands are putting less emphasis on highly defined ornamental architecture and paying more attention to the experience of the customer, both in the drive-thru and inside the building.

This has the potential to both make the structures more attractive to certain demographics – and it sounds like the young adult consumer is in the crosshairs – while disrupting a common experience across locations. Are smaller branding elements like logos enough to carry the architecture if it varies quite a bit across locations? Might this chase away older consumers who are used to a particular aesthetic?

Another thought: some of this change may be in response to local guidelines where communities are more resistant to typical fast food restaurants which are viewed as lower-class. There are plenty of McDonald’s and other fast food locations that adhere to local design standards to fit in with the streetscape. Imagine you are a big city and McDonald’s wants to open a new location: would you prefer a standard looking restaurant or something unique that does not immediately scream McDonald’s?

Thinking through “architecturally ambitious” shopping malls

One writer suggests the shopping malls of the future will need to offer a unique architectural experience:

My version of the mall game would offer more aggressive architectural interventions. Pop the top, and change the air-conditioned, enclosed food court into an open courtyard with a creek running through it. Cover the tan stucco with silvery panels to give it that au courant “industrial” look. Turn one section of the parking lot into a food truck rodeo, local vendors only. Replace the Dillards with a Spa Castle, or a Nitehawk Cinema. The mall of the future is architecturally ambitious, includes plants and water features, judiciously sprinkled with local retailers and food options, and surrounded not by a donut of surface parking lot but with housing, hotels, even educational facilities.

Don’t get me wrong: Malls are still dying. Credit Suisse estimated that 220 to 275 shopping centers, 20 to 25 percent of the current stock, would close within the next five years. We built too many, too cheaply. And it would cost too much to make many of them a worthy destination in 2018.

But even in the age of Amazon, people still leave the house, still shop, still eat. Malls have generated their own version of industrial ruin porn, including video. But when I talked to Erik Pierson, the man behind YouTube channel Retail Archaeology, he freely shared that, while his video of Mesa’s defunct Fiesta Mall may have gone viral, SanTan Village in Gilbert is doing just fine.

In an experience based society, going to the mall needs to be an exciting or satisfying experience compared to shopping at a big box store or purchasing items online.

Three thoughts about this suggestion:

  1. Only certain malls (and in certain areas) will have the resources to try to be architecturally ambitious and not all of them will get it right. My guess is that shopping malls in less well off communities will die off while those in wealthier areas will continue and will be the ones that take more architectural risks.
  2. Shopping malls have been criticized over the decades for their crass commercialism and their fakeness (acting like public spaces when they are really not, simulating other environments). Would more ambitious architecture make them more or less acceptable to critics? Take water features: they may be interesting to patrons but are they authentic design elements or just another symbol of the artificiality of the setting?
  3. What about creating malls that have flexible or changing architecture? Designing malls so that they have regularly changing features – as cited above, the “silvery panels” that provide an industrial look could be swapped out every 6 months with different kinds of panels – could help provide an element of novelty and excitement.

As is suggested in the article, perhaps the real secret is to better embed these ambitious malls in already interesting architectural settings. Instead of having to build a destination in the middle of a suburban parking lot, take advantage of already lively spaces and put an interesting and unique mall there.

List of cities with the most McMansions does not actually look at McMansions

Realtor.com asks an intriguing question involving McMansions – “So which are America’s housing markets with the biggest cribs, and why?” – but then does not follow through because of a limited definition of which homes count as McMansions:

We sifted through realtor.com listings to figure out which of the 150 largest metros had the highest percentage of homes on the market that are 3,000 square feet and above. (The average square footage of a new single family home is 2,627, according to the National Association of Home Builders’ analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.) Sure, this includes some tasteful, large homes and legit mansions. But it was impossible to separate those from the McMansions—it’s rare to see the word “tacky” in a home listing.

There are plenty of big homes in the United States – the median square footage of a new home is over 2,400 square feet – but not all big homes are McMansions. The article provides a different definition for McMansions than the one they actually use with the data:

The imposing, ostentatious structures looming over surprisingly wee plots of land. The crazily mismatched architectural styles. The hipped roofs, gabled roofs, and pyramidal roofs—all on the same house! The bank columns. The front yard Romanesque fountains. The puzzling profusion of window sizes and types. The gigantic, two-story front doors.

I can understand how the real estate listings do not easily allow for the easy categorization of homes as McMansions. Few, if any, homeowners and realtors want to advertise their homes using such a pejorative term. Yet, if you are going to use a headline involving McMansions and then talk about the poor architecture of McMansions, then your measure should take these features into account.

How might this be done? A few ideas:

  1. Take random samples within each metropolitan area and look for specific features.
  2. Do a survey of realtors, architects, and others who might be able to identify McMansions to get their sense of how many McMansions are in particular areas.
  3. Train a computer program to scan thousands of images of homes for sale and determine whether the homes are McMansions or not. (The coding scheme would be very similar to the one used in #1.)

These approaches are not necessarily easy but would be essential for actually getting at which AMerican cities have teh most McMansions.

For a more complete definition of a McMansion – including but also beyond their size and architecture, see my summary here.

Black Mirror portrays a future in sleek, modernist structures

In watching episodes of Black Mirror, I noticed a pattern in the buildings and streetscapes depicted on the show: they are often modernist. There could be multiple factors behind this:

  1. This is how Western society often portrays the future: in contemporary structures comprised of glass and steel and with sharp lines and minimalist decor. This trend goes back decades with modernist architects and culture producers from the early 1900s to today exercising a significant influence on what we think the future should look like.
  2. This particular vision of a future in modernist buildings also allows the show to hint at the problems with future technologies. While everything may look impressive, these modernist spaces can be perceived as cold and unwelcoming. When discussing the show’s title, creator Charlie Brooker said, “The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
  3. Many of the episodes are set in England. Perhaps the architecture there is indeed different than what is found in many American locales. Perhaps local residents and organizations are more open to modernist architecture. I’ve argued several times before in this blog – here is one example – that average Americans tend not to like modernist architecture for their own dwellings.
  4. The plot lines for the episodes tend to involve futuristic technology created by tech companies. Tech companies in modernist buildings seems to make sense. The campuses of Silicon Valley, such as the new Apple headquarters, as well as their retail locations, such as the new Apple store on the riverfront in Chicago, reflect these design choices.

Could you have a show about futuristic technology that takes place in older homes and buildings? Would this seem too anachronistic? For better or worse, much of the near future (think at least the next few decades) will take place in structures built decades before the Internet, smartphones, and driverless vehicles. Indeed, some people may want to live and work in these older structures because of their character and history even as they also enthusiastically embrace the modernist dictates of new technologies to be thin, sleek, and modernist.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #3: Architecture and design

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.
The size of the McMansion – whether absolute or relative – is important but not all large houses are McMansions. Another key trait is the architecture and design of the home. At the least, McMansions are considered to have a mish-mash of architectural styles, an architectural incongruence where the individual pieces don’t seem to go together. One guide to American houses described this as an eclectic style. More negatively, this may be described as garish or buffonish or unrefined. The particular design may have a purpose – to impress viewers – but the architectural purity is dubious or just plain wrong.
The recent Tumblr McMansionHell has great visuals explaining the architectural difficulties McMansions pose. I won’t repeat what is there (see a 2014 post about possibly the ugliest new build McMansion) but considering the design of McMansions leads me to several different areas of thought:
1. If McMansions are not acceptable architecture, what exactly is? American homes display a variety of styles involving historical periods as well as regional designs. (See some of these on one handy poster.) Of course, one of the oddities of McMansion designs is that they tend to colonize both older and regional designs into some new combination. Take, as one example, the ranch home of the postwar era. Are such homes beautiful or functional? Are they the result of mass production processes after World War Two? And yet, with the passage of time, some now find them worth celebrating and preserving.
2. Many Americans may not mind the architecture and design of McMansions. This could be for multiple reasons: Americans prefer other features of homes (such as their size or their location) over the architecture; Americans aren’t well educated in architecture (where exactly is this subject taught?); Americans don’t mind novelty and bricolage. As one Australian architect suggested, perhaps more residents would reject McMansions if their architectural awareness increased.
3. For good reason, including that it is easy to view from the street (whether from passing vehicles or Google Street View), the exterior (particularly the facade) of McMansions gets a lot of attention. Yet, the interior is a bit neglected. I’ve asked in earlier posts whether a home could be not bad by exterior McMansion standards but the interior is McMansion-like (see here and here).
4. I’m fairly convinced that if given a choice between modernist homes (a favorite of some architects and designers) and McMansions, more Americans would choose the McMansion. See earlier posts here and here.
5. I would guess that much of the architectural critique of McMansions is related to education levels. People with more money tend to live in nicer places regardless but think about the stereotypical image of who lives in McMansions or who you have seen or heard criticize McMansions. Additionally, if architects criticize McMansions, are they doing so partly due to self interest? A relatively small percent of American homes are designed by architects and criticizing bad designs could lead to more business.
6. Finally, I’m still waiting to find the builders and architects who would admit to designing and constructing McMansions. There are a variety of ways to get around the term (think “executive home” or “estate homes“) even if the architecture and design of the home clearly signals a McMansion.

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.