Too many teardown McMansions in the Washington, D.C. region?

One writer complains of the spread of “infill McMansions” in the Washington D.C. region:

An example of a teardown McMansion – Naperville, Illinois

The modus operandi is always the same: Take a totally usable older house that is the same style and size as neighboring dwellings, though perhaps needing a rehab, and knock it flat, along with every mature tree on the property—there will be no room for them, owing to the enormous footprint of the planned structure. Then construct a particle-board chateau that has at least 75 percent more square footage than the neighbors, complete with a quarter-acre driveway for the obligatory Range Rover…

While the sheer size of the structure guarantees disharmony with the local houses, the eye-lacerating incongruity of its style brings it to a new level. The structures resemble the architecture of the Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany—as imagined by Walt Disney, or perhaps Liberace. As with McMansions everywhere, the new owners could have obtained a sounder design for less, but they prefer the turrets, portes-cochères, and ill-proportioned Palladian windows that they bought.

The basic proportions are unfailingly clumsy. The roofs aren’t symmetrical, so that one more giant walk-in closet could be shoehorned in. From the side, this asymmetry and the too-small windows make the construct look like an old sawmill in the Pacific Northwest, or a three-story wooden barracks hurriedly thrown up during World War II. Some manage to look imposing from the front, mimicking George Mason’s brick mansion. But closer inspection reveals the fraud: The front is a brick veneer; the sides and back consist of vinyl siding. Often enough, the brick is a shocking uremic yellow…

The infill McMansion spectacle is a warning and a symptom, like political polarization, of the rising income inequality and concomitant decline of community feeling in the United States. It is not something that fell out of the sky, but a phenomenon that was carefully engineered by financial management.

Having just published an article on suburban teardowns outside Chicago, it is interesting to see similar processes at work in wealthier communities in another region.

Even as the focus of this piece is on a particular kind of McMansion – the teardown McMansion – the critique of McMansions hits multiple aspects of such homes I identified in a 2012 article. Here is what I see above:

-Teardowns are a problem in multiple ways. They often do not fit the architecture of neighborhood. They take up too much of the lot on which they are built.

-The size of the teardown and the incongruity with the existing homes are not the only problems: the architecture of the home is subpar. A McMansion can take multiple architectural features and styles and try to mash them together in an imposing array of size and newness.

-McMansions are problematic houses but also symbols of other significant societal problems. The article notes income inequality and a lack of community plus financial intrusion in housing.

So, yes, critics argue teardowns or infill McMansions have some unique disadvantages. But, these concerns about teardowns are connected to concerns about McMansions as a whole.

Naperville mayoral candidates concerned about teardowns, infill development?

A quick overview of the six candidates interested in running for mayor in Naperville suggests at least a few are concerned with teardowns and infill development:

Councilman Doug Krause, a 66-year-old real estate broker, has been serving on the City Council since 1989 and ran unsuccessfully for the city’s top spot in the past. He said the city needs to be careful with infill developments, “making sure (they’re) compatible with the surrounding neighbors.”…

Retired Carol Stream firefighter Marty Walker agreed, saying the city must support both large and small businesses. Walker, 62, has been volunteering with Naperville events like Ribfest and Last Fling and said taking on the job of mayor would be a way to “continue to help people.”

Jim Haselhorst, a 54-year-old dental office manager who volunteers through the Naperville Jaycees, said he is entering the race because he feared several of candidates may not be as committed to the job as Pradel has been. He too, listed development as a major issue, especially in light of teardowns and rezoning in recent years.

“It’s a challenge to maintain a family-friendly environment in a way that keeps the nature of the city, the character of the city, intact,” he said.

While it is still early in the process, I believe these comments are quite indicative of the state in which Naperville finds itself today. It is built-out, meaning that there is little to no open land available for development. The city is large but has a high quality of life, as indicated by its recent ranking as the 33rd best place to live in the United States. The downtown is quite attractive – with plans underway to expand across to the south bank of the DuPage River – and there is still a thriving high-tech corridor along I-88.

Given these conditions, the statements by the mayoral candidates make a lot of sense: how can a mature community encourage growth (enough to pay for the good quality of life without having to raise taxes too much, keep its reputation as a thriving place) in such a way that its good character (wealthy, lots of good-sized single-family homes, family-friendly) is preserved? This will be a delicate balance but one that will go a long way to determining the Naperville of the next 50 years.

Uptick in bigger homes but with some twists: more infill, multigenerational, and upsized homes

Some recent evidence suggests big homes might be making a comeback in America but with a few twists:

The average size of a newly built home increased 3.7 percent in 2011 from 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was the first annual increase since 2007 and indicates that home builders are seeing demand for larger spaces. The demand, however, is not where it used to be. Home buyers are less willing to head out to the so-called “ex-urbs” to get their larger space,” according to the latest findings from the American Institute of Architects.

“In many areas, we are seeing more interest in urban infill locations than in remote exurbs, which is having a pronounced shift in neighborhood design elements,” said AIA Chief Economist, Kermit Baker. “And regardless of city or suburban dwellers, people are asking more from their communities in terms of access to public transit, walkable areas and close proximity to job centers, retail options and open space.”

Half of residential architecture firms highlight demand for multi-generational housing, up from 44 percent in 2011. Fifty-nine percent said access to public transportation is key, up from 47 percent a year ago.

More homeowners are also upsizing what they have, with 58 percent of architects reporting improvement in additions and alterations, up from just 35 percent a year ago; kitchen and bath, as usual, top the must-have list.

These factors may make new McMansions more appealing. Infill locations might lead into teardown situations but this could be preferable to sprawl. Multigenerational housing makes better use of the large houses and they appear less wasteful. Upsizing helps people build value in their home and not contribute to sprawl. While these are still big homes, they don’t sound like the exurban cookie-cutter McMansions critics love to attack.

Another note from this article: it suggests in the final paragraph that McMansions are usually thought to have between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet. This seems somewhat right to me though this could be on the conservative end. I’ve seen plenty of instances where a home over 5,000 square feet is called a McMansion and sometimes it seems like the upper end, moving into mansion territory, might be more like 8-10,000 square feet.

Builders constructing denser, more urban developments in the suburbs

USA Today reports that more builders are constructing denser suburban subdivisions:

The nation’s development patterns may be at a historic juncture as builders begin to reverse 60-year-old trends. They’re shifting from giant communities on wide-open “greenfields” to compact “infill” housing in already-developed urban settings…

“It’s the kids (ages 18 to 32), the empty nesters (Baby Boomers with no kids at home),” says Chris Leinberger, president of Smart Growth America’s LOCUS (Latin for “place”), a national coalition of real estate developers and investors who support urban developments that encourage walking over driving. “These two generations combined are more than half of the American population.”…

Most major builders have created “urban” divisions in the past five years to scout for available land in already-developed parts of cities and closer suburbs — even if it means former industrial and commercial sites or land that may require environmental cleanup…

Even traditional communities built on greenfields are transforming. In Southern California’s Inland Empire, an area where housing prices are lower and appeal to first-time buyers, Brookfield is building Edenglen in Ontario. The homes are built on smaller lots — 4,500 square feet instead of the more conventional 7,200 square feet — and priced from $200,000 to $300,000.

This phenomenon has been noted by a number of commentators in recent years though I wonder if it will last.

A few other consequences of this for suburbs:

1. How will existing suburban residents respond to dense, infill projects? I would guess that a good number of suburbanites would object to these dense projects being built near them, spoiling their neighborhoods.

2. Related to the first question about NIMBYism, how will these new developments change the character of existing suburbs? If a community is used to wide suburban streets and big lots, narrow lots and denser housing could change things.

3. This article hints at this but this could also be a product of the age of many American suburbs. Outside of the suburban fringe or exurbs, many suburbs not have at least a few decades of history and perhaps little to no open land (reaching build-out). If these suburbs want to continue to grow (boosting revenues and fees as well as prestige), infill development might be the only choice.

4. This article makes a common claim: certain generations (emerging adults and baby boomers) desire more urban kinds of housing. However, I wonder if it less about generational differences and more about the changing structure of American households. Is the increasing number of single households (which might be located more in these generations) really driving this? If so, this would be have bigger effects as the American suburbs have traditionally been communities build around family life and child-rearing.