-This particular film follows 7 friends. This means plenty of space for people to sleep, live, and interact. A McMansion provides plenty of space.
-The tackiness or gaudiness or lack of authenticity of a McMansion can provide a creepy or unsettling backdrop.
-The McMansion falls apart at a key moment or the limited architectural quality lets the characters down.
-The extra interior square footage a McMansion offers provides more space for nefarious actors to operate.
-The McMansion could be set in a neighborhood of McMansions, perhaps unfinished, that are all creepy and ominous.
–A horror film set in suburbia can play off a common idea that suburban life is not as happy or successful as it seems. How much more so could this be true in a McMansion, a home that tries to broadcast its success in obvious ways.
But not simply any new floors and counters will create the desired effect. The feeling of newness is largely relative, and the only real key to creating it is banishing the things that people expect to see in a dwelling built decades ago—“landlord beige” walls, all-white appliances, dingy carpet, laminate counters, wood so warm-toned it’s practically orange. Gray floors and all of their comorbid design phenomena are cool and crisp and modern by comparison, even if they’re also crushingly boring and totally character-free and really limit a space’s potential capacity to feel warm and alive and like a home.
And the purpose of these changes is to sell properties:
In theory, the things that make up the interior of your home should be either beautiful or useful; if you’re lucky, they’ll be both. And surely some people do lose their mind for gray laminate or subway tile or barn doors, and not just because there’s no accounting for taste. Once a particular design element becomes a shorthand for newness and freshness and successful domesticity, people come around to it precisely because they want their home to reflect those qualities. But that’s a different phenomenon than appreciation for the thing itself—for how nice it is to look at, or how much more functional it makes a space. In the hands of flippers and landlords, these choices are generally made not by people who want to fill the world with the best, safest, most comfortable homes possible but by those looking for a return on the bets they’ve made on the place where you’ll start your family or play with your future grandkids. They’ve chosen these things just as much for what they aren’t as for what they are—inoffensive, inexpensive, innocuous. These houses aren’t necessarily designed to be lived in. They’re designed to go into contract.
A related argument: homeowners and sellers exhibit their investment, emotional and economically, in a property by updating it to more recent trends. They show that they care about the home fitting in a new era rather than being left behind. It can suit a new family just as well as it did its original occupants.
Would it be possible to signal newness in different ways? A particular smell? How the occupants use the space? Altered infrastructure (ranging from new furnaces or electrical systems to greener options)? Integrating the Internet, screens, and sounds?
But like any good home design show, the real main character is not the couple doing the renovations, but the end results. For the two years that I’ve watched this program, I’ve tried to dial down what one might call this aesthetic, which is both specific and generic—like every other high-end Airbnb listing on the market, or an antiseptic boutique hotel that prides itself on design. But it wasn’t until halfway through this season when one of the McGee’s clients hit the nail on the head. “It’s upscale-looking,” a woman says of her newly-renovated basement, which is divided into three clear “zones” meant to delineate what kinds of leisure activities should occur there and why. It’s not quite upscale, but suggestive of it instead, a different kind of new money aesthetic. But if given the choice between Studio McGee’s all-white fantasia and a giant McMansion fit for a Real Housewife of New Jersey, I’d take gold restroom fixtures and Travertine tile any day. At the very least, it’s fun.
What is the look inferior to glitzy McMansions?
What this translates to is large architectural gestures that convey wealth—vaulted ceilings in the kitchen and the living room, a “wine room” with built-in bookshelves that meet the ceiling, and other flourishes that speak to the vast amounts of money this couple must have to maintain their bonus home. It’s not that any of these design choices are anywhere close to hideous, per se—Studio McGee’s signature look is quieter than the Property Brothers, but more sophisticated that Chip and Joanna Gaines’s farmhouse chic. Staged as they are, though, the spaces designed by Studio McGee lack any discernible personality. Children get giant bedrooms with queen-size beds; every kitchen has an enormous island, whether or not the space actually needs it. (While most kitchens could use an island, not every space needs one. Understanding this difference is crucial.)
Is the primary offense that the bland yet wealthy interiors required a lot of money to implement but have no personality? McMansions are often criticized for their blandness; they are big boxes with large rooms that people can fill in many different ways.
It could be that the “fun” of the loud McMansion is that it shows up better on TV and with its particular cast of characters. The show under review is meant to show off a particular aesthetic of its designers while the Real Housewives of New Jersey has a different purpose. The loud McMansion on TV might be fun in the way that McMansion Hell is fun: you make fun of the McMansion and its dwellers. Which home viewers might want to live in might be a different story.
Australian architect and artist Mathieu Gallois working with several groups described the negative environmental consequences of McMansions:
The project organisers made the following conclusions about McMansions: “the brick veneer construction’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for Australia’s hot climatic conditions; the foundations are laid on a large concert slab that possess high levels of embodied energy; the terracotta tiled roof’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for the Australian climate; the aluminium window frames have a high level of embodied energy and their thermal performance is poor; the window glazing is of a poor level, as is its thermal performance; the PVC plumbing has a high embodied energy; the steel lintels have a high embodied energy and represent lazy design solutions”.
On this basis they argued that “Australian brick veneer homes are the biggest and most poorly designed built homes in the developed world; too big, not built to be recycled, not responsive to climatic conditions, not built for future adaptability, with poor cross ventilation. Moreover, such houses are designed to face the street rather than being orientated to maximise the site’s positive climatic engagement; their multi-faceted roofs do not optimise or facilitate the provision of PV panels or solar HWS; their roofs do not harvest rainwater; the stairwells are not sealable; and the rooms and living spaces are generic, unresponsive to different seasonal climatic conditions”.
That is a negative assessment, particularly compared to how homes might be constructed in a greener manner.
Just thinking about these negative environmental consequences, I wonder if it is possible to create a greener McMansion that roughly keeps the size, architecture, and price that a decent number of Americans and Australians are willing to buy. Could strategic choices be made to make a significantly greener home without too many alterations? This would provide a different product and help address concerns some might have about McMansions.
Teardowns can often raise concerns in established neighborhoods when a McMansion suddenly arises in a collection of bungalows. The design team didn’t want that to happen. “We didn’t want it to look like a UFO just landed in their yard,” Bloomberg says. “We looked at scale, proportion and massing.”
This quote above highlights what the new home is: it is has better scale, proportion, and massing compared to McMansions which tend to get these wrong. It was designed by an architectural firm rather than builders.
The best text description of the new home is this paragraph:
“Everything feels very scaled,” Bloomberg says. “It has a warmth to it even though it’s a very modern house – there [is] lots of wood, which helps make it very warm and welcoming.”
The pictures of the interior reinforce this description: it is a more modern structure.
But, one picture early on in the article hints at a contrast between the new home and the neighbor:
The teardown does not appear to be that much different in size than the neighbor but it certainly presents a different style of home compared to the brick and shuttered Colonial. Teardown McMansions are often criticized not fitting in with the existing style of homes.
But although the state’s definition of manufactured home could include a prefabricated McMansion, House spokesman Larry Berman said the bill requires units to qualify under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of manufactured homes, which is much narrower.
On the first point, I imagine most prefabricated homeowners are not intending to create a McMansion. It is possible, but I do not imagine there are many prefabricated McMansions. If they do exist in sizable numbers, I would be interested to see them.
On the second issue, would a prefabricated home be a better construction choice compared to concerns some have with mass production builders? Or, could prefabricated homes successfully address the architectural issues of McMansions such as too many gables, poor proportions, and a mishmash of styles? I do not know how more expensive prefabricated homes rate in terms of quality and I suppose prefabricated homes could look like anything.
If the number of prefabricated homes in the United States increases, some might be McMansions or some might be the new McMansions in what could be a fluid term.
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.).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.)