McMansions don’t represent progressive home design

Here is a suggestion that McMansions are not in the best tradition of modern American architecture:


In the past American design was modern and the emerging architectural vernacular reflected that, from the Farnsworth to LA’s Case Study houses (such as the one pictured above) or to Eichler’s industrialisation of modernism, for the masses.

But now this has been replaced by a new version of the old, from McMansions to Pottery barn, Victorian design represents regression in the form of aspiration to a pre-industrial age, America’s current design prudery is a form of technological regression that is so pervasive, we should be very thankful for the brilliant exceptions such as Apple.

In this critique, the McMansion is simply recycled architecture, an example of our “design prudery.” I will grant that McMansions may borrow from older designs and may even do a poor job of combining multiple styles.

But, I think there could be a larger argument made here: Americans have been fairly resistant to modernist home designs. The functional and simple ranch may be the most modern home most Americans would consider. (Was there a historical point where home design really took a great leap forward or where it took a great leap back?) Thinking in Bourieu’s terms, are Americans more concerned with the functionality of homes rather than their aesthetic value?

This quick description of McMansions also leaves out another element: home design is also about status for homebuyers and residents. Older or established styles can confer a sense of permanency, history, and grandeur. Do Americans not like more modern home designs because it paints them in a negative light by suggesting they are elitist or too individualistic?

“Anti-obesity housing”

The design of housing units is rarely meant to just be functional. But here is design that I have not heard about before: a new “Bronx co-op apartment building” that is meant to reduce levels of obesity:

The building, called the Melody, has a backyard with brightly colored exercise equipment for adults, and climbing equipment for children. It also has both indoor and outdoor fitness centers.

City officials say it’s the first in New York to be built with design elements aimed at countering obesity.

Two flights of stairs feature silhouettes of dancing women and jazz playing through speakers and motivational signs posted throughout the building tout the benefits of exercise.

A sign posted between the elevator and stairs, for example, notes that stairs are a healthy choice.

This description doesn’t sound like much has changed: couldn’t a lot of housing units be enhanced with playground/exercise equipment and signs/images that promote exercise?

The New York Times has more on why this building has the specific design elements that it does:

Near him hung a sign, between the building’s sole elevator and a staircase door, reading, “A person’s health can be judged by which they take two of at a time, pills or stairs.”

In 2010, the city released a 135-page guide called Active Design Guidelines, on the construction of buildings that would encourage exercise and mobility; it was compiled by city agencies in collaboration with health experts and architects. City officials said that while the Melody was the first to incorporate its suggestions, other projects were being developed.

Builders do not receive tax credits or compensation for following the rules in the guide, but doing so can earn them points in a rating system administered by the United States Green Building Council called LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The city’s guidelines are more detailed and specific than LEED rules, which reward builders who, for example, use less toxic paints or locate their buildings near subway stops. The city’s guide encourages windows in gyms, bicycle storage areas and stairways that are bright, centrally located and attractive.

This is interesting. Of course, we will have to wait and see whether these design elements actually do increase levels of exercise and activity and decrease obesity levels.

When I think about other designs that promote exercise, New Urbanism springs to mind though I’m not sure I have seen them use exercise as a selling point. Since their developments are intended to be walkable or bike-friendly, this pitch could be made but what they often highlight is the community that is fostered by denser space and the environment-friendly design.

At some point, I may just have to dig into the “Active Design Guidelines” although you have to register online to download a copy or purchase a copy.

Just how many McMansions have actually collapsed like Trump’s polling figures?

One common critique of the McMansion is that they are poorly built. The story continues that because they are mass-produced, the materials are bottom of the line so builders don’t have to do anything more than necessary  in the search for big profits. This idea was found in a recent story about the decline of Donald Trump’s polling figures:

Public Policy Polling finds Donald Trump’s numbers collapsing like a poorly-built McMansion.

Might some people find this phrase redundant and ask whether McMansions are poorly-built by definition?

Perhaps I am being too literal here but this gets me thinking about how many McMansions have actually collapsed. I would guess that not too many have collapsed on their own so perhaps the more appropriate figures to search for would measure how many McMansions needed major renovations or fixes and then how this data compares to other kinds of homes. Would HGTV, the network always on the search for homes that need help, be a good source for figures? This is probably not the kind of data builders would want to keep and it would be difficult to collate the information from millions of individual homeowners.

And what would be a better metaphor for the collapse of Donald Trump’s polling numbers?

A 32,000 square foot McMansion?

One aspect of McMasions is that they are large houses. But here is a description of 32,000 square foot home that is called a McMansion:

Coeur d’Alene is interested in all things Hagadone. Even dated things. So I browsed the 20-page, color-photo, online spread in the Robb Report that named Duane Hagadone’s Palm Desert hilltop hideaway as the “2009 Ultimate Home.” Huckleberries has visited Hagadone’s mega-manse before, during the construction phase, when lesser millionaires and townspeople were fighting city approval that allowed the Coeur d’Alene tycoon to construct his 32,000-square-foot McMansion in the viewplane on one of the area’s few buildable hilltops. Now, according to the Robb Report, Hagadone prides himself on having to point out the location of his spread to golfing buddies because the color schemes and the footprint make it hard to see from the plain below. Of all the items featuring Hagadone sizzle enumerated in the article, none impresses Huckleberries more than the three-sided, 4,000-gallon aquarium tunnel leading into the dining area, featuring a shark tank on the ceiling. Mebbe the shark tank is to remind well-heeled Big Fish at Hagadone’s brunches of their humble beginnings.

In my thinking, a 32,000 square foot home is simply a mansion.

So what might make this extra large home a McMansion? Based on this short description, a few possible reasons come to mind:

1. The McMansion idea refers to the recent growth in Couer d’Alene, Idaho. Could this be referring to sprawl and building on one of the areas “buildable hilltops”? (But at the same time, this hints that the home has to be pointed out because it is “hard to see” from below.

2. There is something about the quality or design of the home that is reminiscent of other homes. So it is a big home but more so looks like a copy of other homes, hence the “Mc” prefix.

3. Is this term used just because McMansion is a pejorative term?


Measuring the popularity of tiny houses

I enjoy looking at pictures of tiny houses, those abodes with around 100 square feet. Perhaps it has something to do with my interest in home designs or my liking of cozy places or thinking about how Americans are finding alternatives to buying large homes.

But it is difficult to get a handle on exactly how many people like these houses or actually decide to buy them. One thing is sure: it is a small number of people. But this story suggests the number of people interested is on the rise:

Tumbleweed’s business has grown significantly since the housing crisis began, Shafer said. He now sells about 50 blueprints, which cost $400 to $1,000 each, a year, up from 10 five years ago. The eight workshops he teaches around the country each year attract 40 participants on average, he said…

Since the housing crisis and recession began, interest in tiny homes has grown dramatically among young people and retiring Baby Boomers, said Kent Griswold, who runs the Tiny House Blog, which attracts 5,000 to 7,000 visitors a day…

Gregory Johnson, who co-founded the Small House Society with Shafer, said the online community now has about 1,800 subscribers, up from about 300 five years ago. Most of them live in their small houses full-time and swap tips on living simple and small.

Johnson, 46, who works as a computer consultant at the University of Iowa, said dozens of companies specializing small houses have popped up around the country over the past few years…

He said his small houses, which sell for $20,000 to $50,000, are much cheaper than building a home addition and can be resold when the extra space is no longer needed. His company has sold 16 houses this year and aims to sell 20 next year.

These numbers are small – and anecdotal. Even with this rise in popularity, there are still few people interested in selling or buying tiny houses. Are there enough people here to declare that there is a “tiny house movement”? Why not include figures about how many people have joined Facebook groups having to do with tiny houses?

While the popularity of these homes might be indicative that more Americans are interesting in downsizing, the better figure to look at is the average size of the new American single-family home. Taking into account national data, this figure dropped this year and suggests that houses across the country are becoming slightly smaller (or at least reversing the trend of always getting bigger).