Summing up the environmental issues McMansions present

Australian architect and artist Mathieu Gallois working with several groups described the negative environmental consequences of McMansions:

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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.

If you replace a suburban colonial with “a very modern house” rather than a McMansion, is this a win?

A profile a recent teardown in Bethesda, Maryland highlights that the new structure is not a McMansion:

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.

I have asked before: would Americans prefer to live next to a McMansion or a modernist home? The article says “there has been no neighborhood backlash” to this new teardown. Now, what happens if a teardown McMansion goes up next to this modern home…

Prefabricated McMansions

A debate in Rhode Island about what counts as an affordable housing unit included this suggestion about prefabricated McMansions:

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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.

I wonder (a) how many prefabricated homes might qualify as McMansions and (b) how a prefabricated home fits with the critiques of the poor construction and/or architectural quality of McMansions.

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.

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.

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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

Most of the American built environment is not designed

Sarah Williams Goldhagen argues in Welcome to Your World that despite what we know about the importance of the built environment, few American environments are designed:

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Most of what we see from our windows or in our surroundings has been constructed, but it was not really designed in any but a rudimentary sense of the word. In the United States, 85 percent of new construction – whether it is a new bridge, an urban park, a housing development, or a school addition – is realized at the hands of construction firms collaborating with real estate developers or other private clients. Many of these buildings bypass designers (a catchall term for professionals involved in designing the built environment, including architects, landscape architects, interior architects, urban designers, city planners, civil engineers, and other sorts of civil servants) completely, or employ them only cursorily, to review and stamp their approval on drawings… (xxi)

Why is this the case?

In the United States and in most other parts of the world today, many people believe that engaging a highly trained design professional is an unnecessary expense. True, wealthy individuals and corporations with plenty of assets do buy design to add beauty or prestige, and public and private institutions aspiring to serve as cultural stewards hire trained, informed professionals for complex structures such as skyscrapers. But this is not the norm.

The reason aside from financial considerations is that most projects in the built environment are commissioned on the basis of and judged by two complementary standards. Safety first: building codes and legislation and inspectors enforce standards that ensure that our bridges and buildings and parks and cityscapes will withstand gravity and wind, will weather the vicissitudes of climate and the ravages of time, and that their smaller features, such as electrical systems and stairways ,will not shock or trip people up. Function next: people expect projects to serve an institution’s or private individual’s daily needs both effectively and efficiently, which often means with as little expenditure of resources – space, time, money – as possible. (xxii)

In other words, design and beauty and their effects on people and their interactions are not considered as much as they should be. An emphasis on safety, initial cost, and function shortchanges what the built environment could offer in the long run. Thus, Americans often get uninspiring buildings and places.

This reminds me of three similar arguments:

  1. James Howard Kunstler makes a similar argument about the American suburbs. Why would people care about such places that offer so little in terms of the built environment?
  2. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that public buildings and spaces could offer much to enhance community life if they were built with design and people in mind. For example, schools and libraries could be true gathering places that bring people together.
  3. Architect Sarah Susanka argues Americans do not need bigger homes but rather homes that are designed for them and that will enhance their life. Instead, the homes that Americans get – not designed by architects – are lifeless boxes.

Given the social forces at work leading to this, it would take substantial effort to have Americans value and employ better built environments.