McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:
McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.
Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.
According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…
The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.
The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:
The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.
These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:
- Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
- McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.
McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.
One columnist connects the economic crisis of the late 2000s and McMansion values:
Perhaps you thought the last decade’s global economic meltdown, which crushed stock prices and McMansion values, would most hurt the wealthy. Nope. The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. expanded in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The (sarcastic) good news: America’s wealth gap expanded less than Bulgaria’s between 2010 and 2017.
Three quick thoughts:
- McMansions are often cited as a symptom of the problems that led to the economic crisis and housing bubble of the late 2000s. The spirit of consumption in the United States with lenders providing more and more risky loans (and not recognizing the problematic loans and then selling and buying them as if they were good investments) plus decisions by consumers to purchase more and acquire debt all contributed to the larger issues. If you needed one symbol of excessive consumption from the early 2000s, commentators often go for the McMansion or the SUV.
- While the McMansion became an important symbol, housing prices almost across the board declined precipitously. Not just McMansions were affected. And since most American single-family homes are not McMansions, it seems a bit odd to single them out here. Many Americans who would not or could not purchase McMansions felt the effect of declining property values.
- Housing construction declined during and stayed depressed for a number of years after the economic crisis. Even during this down time, builders continued to construct McMansions. And once the economy started to pick up, more McMansions appeared. While the economic trends certainly affect how many McMansions go up, the style of home has some staying power. Even if such homes helped contribute to the economic crisis, some Americans still want to build and buy them. The value of such homes may not be the only reason people build and buy them.
Reporting on the growing size of American houses, one writer starts off the column this way:
Americans’ waistlines aren’t the only things expanding. Their houses are, too.
This is a common tactic used by journalists and other writing about McMansions in the last fifteen years ago. This could have two purposes:
- Link the size of large homes – not owned by the majority of Americans – to other areas of life where Americans are likely to experience larger items.
- The problem may not be big houses but rather the fact that Americans like to consume all sorts of things.
I’ve seen a number of examples cited including SUVs, large TVs, air conditioning, and steak. Food comes up occasionally, whether steak or big restaurant portions or oversized sodas.
Regarding the second purpose, few of the news stories have space for tackling how to reduce overall consumption. The criticism is clear – leading the story with the quoted line implies that both things are bad – yet unexplained.
A journalist discusses keeping up with the Joneses and includes this bit involving McMansions:
So what does this mean for the drive to keep up with the Joneses? It means that having a nicer car, a bigger McMansion, a greener lawn or even the latest iPhone probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.
How many suburban status symbols can you include in one sentence? While this piece summarizes the detrimental effects of spending in order to keep up a wealthier reference group around us, this reference to McMansions is not unusual. Here, the McMansion stands in for a pattern of excessive consumption, a consumer good that isn’t necessary, requires long-term debt, and doesn’t really lead to long-term well being (at least such satisfaction based on comparisons with others).
Perhaps the more scandalous suggestion here is that the iPhone could function in the same way as a McMansion. The iPhone costs a lot less, is much more common (at least 500 million units have been sold – imagine that number of McMansions), and might even enhance sociability (as opposed to the McMansions emphasis on private space). The iPhone is a status symbol in its own right. But, the iPhone doesn’t attract the same level of criticism…
I’ve seen lots of stories this year about Christmas lights and decorations on people’s houses. The biggest displays. The ugliest displays. Those that synced up their decorations to a hot song. The traffic generated, both on the street and online.
Such stories tend to contain some reaction from neighbors. Most seem either slightly amused with their excessively festive neighbors (“if they want to pay that kind of electric bill, that’s their choice”) or resigned to their fate. But, the variety of reactions illustrate one of the key pieces that holds suburbia together: the moral minimalism where residents tend to leave each other alone. In other words, suburbanites get along by not rocking the boat too much and not adversely affecting each other through their actions.
Christmas lights and decorations can cross these lines. They pit two opposing trends against each other: the moral minimalism of suburbs versus the excessive consumption and cheer of Christmas time in America. This is the one time of year that people can enhance their bland exteriors – often regulated by homeowner’s associations – and truly show their individuality. Large SUVs and garish homes illustrate bad or excessive taste at all times but Christmas means you can buy all sorts of things. It’s Christmas, after all. Yet, such displays threaten to decrease the quality of life of others and even lower property values (this is what some neighbors claim). What if your good cheer irritates your neighbors?
Hence, most people settle for limited decorations. This might be due to their own muted cheer or good taste but it also depends on the social control of the neighbors. Too much means that we may have violated the suburban trust. Such situations can get ugly. Best to display our Christmas cheer in ways that keep the suburban neighbors happy or at least indifferent.
Here is a review of the 2015 Chevy Suburban that clearly ties the large SUV with McMansions. The headline? “Suburban: McMansion on Wheels.”
2015 Chevrolet Suburban 4WD ½ Ton LTZ: The all-new King of the Road.
Price: $72,835 as tested ($64,700 base).
Marketer’s pitch: “Built for everything and everyone.”
Conventional wisdom: A McMansion on wheels.
Reality: Ginormous on the outside. But the inside? Debatable…
The big fella: This is it, the beast, the mother (or father; the Suburban is all masculinity) of all family vehicles. With seating for up to nine and plenty of room for storage, they don’t offer more space than the Suburban, right?…
In the end: Sorry, Suburban lovers and minivan haters. Unless you’re towing or foraging through the muddy hills of the Dark Forest – or if you want something that lots of people will notice – a Sienna is a more versatile people mover. Still, the caché of the Suburban will keep this monster popular for years to come, I’m certain.
The main emphasis in this review is on the size of the vehicle: quite large. The reviewer compares this vehicle several times to his family’s Sienna which also offers a lot of cargo space but has some other features (even if the minivan is not as cool, it less like a “box truck” and has more flexibility with the middle seats). I have to wonder how much the recent story that SUVs have regained some popularity with decreasing gas prices influenced the connection here to McMansions. SUVs are large, McMansions are large – why not connect these two common items of large size as well as symbols of excessive consumption? The headline illustrates a journalistic shorthand: big consumer items are comparable to super-size houses.
Interestingly, yearly sales of the Suburban fluctuated quite a bit in the last 15 years. Sales peaked just over 150,000 in 2001-2002 but then bottomed out at 41,055 in 2009 before rising slightly to 51,260 in 2013.
One academic tries living in a dumpster – and finds that it has possibilities.
Professor Wilson went to the dumpster not just because he wished to live deliberately, and not just to teach his students about the environmental impacts of day-to-day life, and not just to gradually transform the dumpster into “the most thoughtfully-designed, tiniest home ever constructed.” Wilson’s reasons are a tapestry of these things.
Until this summer, the green dumpster was even less descript than it is now. There was no sliding roof; Wilson kept the rain out with a tarp. He slept on cardboard mats on the floor. It was essentially, as he called it, “dumpster camping.” The goal was to establish a baseline experience of the dumpster without any accoutrements, before adding them incrementally.
Not long ago, Wilson was nesting in a 2,500 square foot house. After going through a divorce (“nothing related to the dumpster,” he told me, unsolicited), he spun into the archetypal downsizing of a newly minted bachelor. He moved into a 500-square-foot apartment. Then he began selling clothes and furniture on Facebook for almost nothing. Now he says almost everything he owns is in his 36-square-foot dumpster, which is sanctioned and supported by the university as part of an ongoing sustainability-focused experiment called The Dumpster Project. “We could end up with a house under $10,000 that could be placed anywhere in the world,” Wilson said at the launch, “[fueled by] sunlight and surface water, and people could have a pretty good life.”…
“The big hypothesis we’re trying to test here is, can you have a pretty darn good life on much, much less?” He paused. “This is obviously an outlier experiment. But so far, I have, I’d say. A better life than I had before.”
I can imagine the marketing campaign now: “Tiny houses may look tiny but they are a waste of money and resources. All you need is a 36 square foot dumpster to find happiness.” Or perhaps: “Tiny houses are indulgent. Purge yourself of consumerism with this newly designed dumpster.”
On a more serious note, it is interesting to see the number of these “experiments” where a middle- to upper-class Americans find it is not that difficult to downsize. Not all of them are going to these extremes – and they might have some advantages due to their education, wealth, and social networks – but getting away from the consumeristic clutter may not be that hard and could be quite rewarding.