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.

A McMansion with a real McDonald’s/fast food theme inside?

A home in suburban New York has an interior devoted to McDonald’s and fast food:

There is a New York house for sale that was decorated as a love affair with fast food and it’s crazy. The kitchen looks like a modern McDonald’s complete with a kids section with old playland furniture. There are also tons of old fast food memorabilia like Ronald McDonald statues and stained glass that was used in McDonald’s restaurants in the 70s.

The fast-food theme doesn’t just start and end with McDonald’s. It includes Burger King, Wendys, and White Castle too…

This is the actual kitchen in this house. Does that not look like a modern McDonalds? Just about the only things missing are cash registers and a drive-thru window…

I swear I didn’t just run down to my local McDonalds and snap a picture of their bathroom. I mean really, how creepy would that be? This one of the bathrooms off the kitchen and it looks just like one you’d find in a typical fast food joint.

According to Zillow, the home is over 3,400 square feet and has seven bedrooms:

The term McMansion is linked to McDonald’s in that the “Mc-” prefix implies something mass produced with relatively poor quality. Does this home fit? The home is big, roughly 1,000 more square feet than the average new home. The exterior is interesting: the proportions are off as the top windows which look like they are symmetrical do not line up with the bottom features where the entryway (completely with columned portico) and garage are offset. The gables over the top windows are unncessary though the siding looks consistent.

Is the house a bit odd looking? Yes. Is the McDonald’s and fast food interior unique? Yes. But, I wonder if something else is going on here that does not quite line up with the McMansion moniker. When I first saw the home and location, I wondered if this was a postwar house. Indeed, the Zillow listing says the home was constructed in 1947. My guess is that this home had at least one addition or major change since its initial construction and these add-ons contributed to the odd facade. When people use the term McMansion, they tend to refer to a home built since the 1980s that was constructed with the poor features and quality. This home is not that. When looking on Google Street View, many of the nearby homes look to be older homes as well.

Perhaps this home is more like a McMansion because the interior specifically references fast food. Is it ironic? Nostalgic? Does all of it come the property? Put a Golden Arches in front of the house and this might be accurately termed a McDonald’s House, not a McMansion.

Reconsidering the need for faculty offices after COVID-19

With more faculty and college instructors working from off-campus during COVID-19, does this mean faculty offices can be done away with in the future?

Many campus planners have long advocated for fewer traditional, individual, closed-door offices, and more shared workspaces for faculty and staff members, like what many private companies have. The idea is that open, common work rooms will foster collaboration and make instructors more visible and less intimidating to students. A few phone rooms, meeting rooms, and lockers could serve for whenever somebody needed quiet, privacy, and somewhere to store belongings.

Having fewer private offices could also save on heating and electricity costs. On average, 19 percent of campuses’ indoor square footage is dedicated to offices, according to a 2007 survey (the latest available) of 276 institutions that are members of the Society for College and University Planning. (Only housing, at 20 percent, commands a larger area.) Using that much space more efficiently could make a big difference to a college’s bottom line.

Especially if faculty and staff members will continue to work from home more often, leaving their desks unoccupied some days of the week, colleges could save by having people who come in on different days share the same private office. As Paul Dale, president of Paradise Valley Community College, in Phoenix, Ariz. put it, it’s a way of fitting “30 pounds of potatoes in a 20-pound bag.”

Faculty members accustomed to their own offices can be loath to give them up, however. Private faculty-office space is a marker of accomplishment and prestige, said Luanne Greene, president of Ayers Saint Gross. Sometimes it’s even written into tenure contracts. But with the pandemic-driven increase in working from home, Greene and her team have seen a shift.

These arguments mirror those from corporate world where the open office emerged in recent decades: efficiencies in how space is used plus possibilities for collaboration and quick interactions. Yet, open offices are not embraced by all workers.

From my own studies of spaces plus my experiences as a faculty member, here are at least a few reasons why offices are valuable:

  1. A sense of space that is yours. College classrooms are often impersonal, spaces meant to be used by instructors from a variety of disciplines. They contain the tools necessary for teaching and learning – projectors, computers, whiteboards, desks or tables plus seating, etc. – but they often have little character. In contrast, offices are spaces where instructors can customize their surroundings to fit their personality and their needs for work (conversations, study, writing, etc.).
  2. A permanent place to store books and other materials. An open work space has little room for this and the assumption may be that we are living in a paperless world. This is not true for many scholars.
  3. A place of solitude that is conducive to the kind of creativity and study that scholars need to do. Putting on headphones in a busy area or working from home may not be able to approximate the way that an office can provide the solitary setting that is often needed.

Of course, not all college instructors might see this the same way. But, as the article notes, faculty would have concerns. And the solution presented at the end of this section – smaller individual offices with more space that could shared by all – is an intriguing compromise for settings and instructors where that collaborative space would be valued.

Who exactly designs “zany McMansions”?

Are architects capable of designing McMansions?

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Pro tip: One of the more fun ways to hunt for real estate is to go to your favorite site and search the keyword “architect.” You’ll end up with a lot of zany McMansions, but among the chaff are some well-pedigreed gems.

While this sounds like an interesting exercise, it brings up an important question. Who exactly is designing the McMansions that critics revile?

One of the biggest critiques of McMansions is that they are poorly designed and their architectural quality is suspect. This might come in the form of odd proportions or a mish-mash of styles or a blending of features. Instead of a pleasing aesthetic, the McMansion presents a mass produced version of something that tries to nod to established homes but only succeeds in aping such residences.

Typically left unsaid in these critiques is who exactly put together these unpleasing designs. Often the designs for homes come from builders or developers. What they have in mind when designing a home may not be the same as architects.

I would guess that architects would prefer that more single-family homes are designed by architects. Not only would this supply more work, it would have likely lead to more architecturally coherent homes. The emphasis might be less on providing space, an impressive front, and the most bang-for-your-buck, and instead focus on beauty plus functionality. Of course, some homes could l look great in the eyes of some and not be very desirable (see some modernist structures).

Perhaps more of the focus should come back to builders and developers: what could they do to provide the features American buyers want while also designing more architecturally pleasing homes? The same McMansions might not be so bad for many if they had a better design or fit the neighborhood better. Some would still object to the size of the home – is it really necessary to have 3,000-10,000 square feet? – but at least it would not be in danger of easy attacks. The architectural coherence could affect the price point but might also help the long-term reputation of the neighborhood and builder.