Defining a McMansion, Trait #3: Architecture and design

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.
The size of the McMansion – whether absolute or relative – is important but not all large houses are McMansions. Another key trait is the architecture and design of the home. At the least, McMansions are considered to have a mish-mash of architectural styles, an architectural incongruence where the individual pieces don’t seem to go together. One guide to American houses described this as an eclectic style. More negatively, this may be described as garish or buffonish or unrefined. The particular design may have a purpose – to impress viewers – but the architectural purity is dubious or just plain wrong.
The recent Tumblr McMansionHell has great visuals explaining the architectural difficulties McMansions pose. I won’t repeat what is there (see a 2014 post about possibly the ugliest new build McMansion) but considering the design of McMansions leads me to several different areas of thought:
1. If McMansions are not acceptable architecture, what exactly is? American homes display a variety of styles involving historical periods as well as regional designs. (See some of these on one handy poster.) Of course, one of the oddities of McMansion designs is that they tend to colonize both older and regional designs into some new combination. Take, as one example, the ranch home of the postwar era. Are such homes beautiful or functional? Are they the result of mass production processes after World War Two? And yet, with the passage of time, some now find them worth celebrating and preserving.
2. Many Americans may not mind the architecture and design of McMansions. This could be for multiple reasons: Americans prefer other features of homes (such as their size or their location) over the architecture; Americans aren’t well educated in architecture (where exactly is this subject taught?); Americans don’t mind novelty and bricolage. As one Australian architect suggested, perhaps more residents would reject McMansions if their architectural awareness increased.
3. For good reason, including that it is easy to view from the street (whether from passing vehicles or Google Street View), the exterior (particularly the facade) of McMansions gets a lot of attention. Yet, the interior is a bit neglected. I’ve asked in earlier posts whether a home could be not bad by exterior McMansion standards but the interior is McMansion-like (see here and here).
4. I’m fairly convinced that if given a choice between modernist homes (a favorite of some architects and designers) and McMansions, more Americans would choose the McMansion. See earlier posts here and here.
5. I would guess that much of the architectural critique of McMansions is related to education levels. People with more money tend to live in nicer places regardless but think about the stereotypical image of who lives in McMansions or who you have seen or heard criticize McMansions. Additionally, if architects criticize McMansions, are they doing so partly due to self interest? A relatively small percent of American homes are designed by architects and criticizing bad designs could lead to more business.
6. Finally, I’m still waiting to find the builders and architects who would admit to designing and constructing McMansions. There are a variety of ways to get around the term (think “executive home” or “estate homes“) even if the architecture and design of the home clearly signals a McMansion.

Reconfiguring your house to store your stuff

A trickle-down effect of American consumerism includes finding space to store all that stuff:

Take closet space — that holy grail of home must-haves — as an example. Says Brininstool, “Fifteen years ago, it was about how many linear feet of closets you had. Now it’s economics and people are adapting more to scaling down. So with closets today, it’s more specifically designed for built-in drawers and shelves — specific places for specific things.”

On the kitchen side, Brininstool says, “It so much reflects where the culture is with the artisanal, farm-to-table movement. People now shop more selectively for their food and they are willing to shop more often. So the idea of having a lot of kitchen square footage for groceries that you’re not sure when you’re going to consume them is going away.”…

Abels says that “people are looking for creative ways to utilize their storage,” and notes that Pinterest boards devoted to inventive storage ideas abound. She also says that, for multiunit buildings, there is a growing trend to have “bedroom-sized storage lockers” in common areas that can also serve as workrooms. “One of my next-door neighbors has her kiln down there.”…

So often, decisions about stuff come down to creating space for how you actually live, rather than how you think you should live.

Perhaps we should view the homes of today as giant storage units? Many people may want to maximize their storage space rather than just pile up a bunch of things in a room. A decluttered home and/or efficient use of space might say something important about the resident. Yet, it is one thing to purchase a home for its primary social spaces and another because it has sufficient storage space for a lot of consumer goods. I imagine we’ll see even better designed storage spaces – whether specialty rooms or unique storage options like the movable walls already found in some micro-apartments – in the future.

The Not So Big House is also featured in this article. On one hand, the home is supposed to be superior because instead of having super-sized yet sterile spaces, it has customized settings. On the other hand, I hadn’t previously considered that the Not So Big House can allow an owner to have just as much stuff but simply tidily organized.

Selecting “The Most Overexposed Chicago Design Trends”

Curbed Chicago identified six Chicago-specific design trends that they think are now passé.

Stylized Chicago neighborhood maps [I have a t-shirt version but not a poster]

Reclaimed wood Chicago flags [Odd – no]

Stolen ‘L’ maps [A version of the stolen street sign…don’t have one]

Chicago World’s Fair prints [No – but have one of the better South Shore Line posters]

Generic Chicago skyline poster [Sort of – a real matted photograph but a similar image]

The nothing-but-a-black-leather-sofa-and-flat-screen-TV look [No]

I want to know whether these are real patterns or not: how many Chicago area residents have these features? How does this compare to residents of other cities? Someone could create a bot to scan real estate listing photos or the list could have emerged from a set of in-the-know interior designers. Alas, we have no idea what methodology Curbed Chicago employed which perhaps indicates that it wasn’t very rigorous.

All of this hints that decor trends are driven more by “feel” than hard data. What’s “in” these days could be tracked in a variety of ways yet it often seems that a class of gatekeepers – professionals, the media, corporations – gets to dictate when these trends begin and end. For example, are we past the era of stainless steel appliances and granite countertops? The average resident or seller is looking to others to signal the latest trend.

Seeing American home trends from the 1900s to the 2020s

This scrolling exhibit highlights some of the changes to American homes in the last 110 years. Here is what it predicts for homes in 2020:

Houses are nearly three times the size of homes from 1900.

Two master bedrooms (one upstairs, one downstairs) is a growing trend.

Water and energy conservation systems are becoming mainstream.

Extra bedrooms are being replaced by specialized storage (i.e. bigger pantries and closets).

Home automation tech (remotely controlling locks, lights, HVAC, and appliances) is booming.

There are some major changes over time this period including increasing size (with decreasing household sizes), more of an emphasis on cars, and changes in interior design and layout that take advantage of new technology and different social arrangements but are also subject to aesthetic whims (floating staircases in the 1970s, floral wallpaper in the 1980s, etc.).

Also noted: the 2000s are said to be the decade where “McMansionism continues.”

Why your McMansion may need a Juliet Balcony

From the Reddit “McMansionDesign” thread comes this interpretation of an interior Juliet Balcony:

For when you want to lord it over your domestic kingdom and watch your lowly familial subject go about with their useless lives and hobbies.

Snarkiness aside, I could imagine two uses for such a balcony beyond the Big Brother implications:

1. It looks like this balcony is simply a cut in the wall from a hallway. That looks like a pretty dull hallway except for the overlook. Dark hallways are rather drab so why not liven things up with a balcony as you walk by?

2. Perhaps there are people who would really want to entertain from such a balcony. Isn’t that the point of a two-story great room with an open concept? Perhaps a music performer could play from there. Perhaps it could be the site for a celebratory speech. Or, how about some impassioned Shakespeare reading?

Selecting the right McMansion for Gone Girl

Following up on a post from two days ago, here is how the production designer described finding Nick and Amy’s McMansion in Gone Girl:

It’s hard to explain without being insulting (laughs). Those neighborhoods, with that style of housing— and without finding any other better way of describing it, sort of that “mcmansion” — they aren’t very attractive. You go, oh geeze do we have to really film this, you know? We found this simple one, and it had all the attributes of that type of house without being too obscene. It felt like it could be traditional, but it was a modern take on traditional. Just the fact that it was on the corner, it gave us good angles for a lot of the scenes with the driving and the staging of the news vans.

We built the entire interior on a stage in Los Angeles. We took the floor plan of the house that we shot on location, and we started adjusting it for our own story and our own camera angles. It was important for me, especially, not to do something where you’d look at the exterior and then you go inside and you’re like wait a second, how could this interior even fit with that exterior? I didn’t want to do that. David [Fincher, the director] and I had long conversations about it. We cheated a few things, we stretched the interior.

You know those homes are they’re done with traditional elements but in a modern style? They have the built-in cabinets and they have the wooden molding, but there’s something askew about it. The way the moldings are done, they are made out of mdf instead of real wood. It’s that modern construction where they use traditional, classical elements— they put medallions on the ceilings and they have recessed lighting in drywall ceilings instead of real plaster. The spiral staircase isn’t really spiral. It’s curved, and it looks elegant but when you stand there and take it in, you realize there’s something skewed about it.

It works in the sense that Nick is trying to give Amy the perfect home in the perfect place. It’s sort of like, why wouldn’t you like this? Why wouldn’t you feel comfortable in this large house? There’s remnants of the New York feel, but it’s a little bit offbeat from that.

A few thoughts, question by question:

1. The dislike for McMansions is clear. But, then he notes that the house wasn’t too bad in its attempt to replicate a traditional style. What then marks it as a McMansion? Subdivision. Multiple gables. Square footage. Tall entryway.

2. Even with a home that is already large, they stretched the interior. Does this mean that the home scorned for its size was depicted as even larger on the screen?

3. Commentary on the quality of construction. The style may fit from a distance but someone who knows the older style can spot the problems quickly.

4. Conjecture about what such homes are supposed to symbolize: the perfect house. Looks new, nice landscaping, quiet neighborhood…how did all that violence and coldness end up there again?

Even with all that explaining about the negatives of such homes, it is amusing to see the comments below the story from people who want to replicate the look.

Can a home be unassuming on the outside but a McMansion on the inside?

One Detroit house for sale looks unassuming on the outside but has a remodeled interior that Curbed claims is a “McMansion on the inside”:

House hunting in Indian Village is usually an adventure. Covering a wide range of architectural styles, every house in the neighborhood has its own personality. Plus, it’s Detroit, so there’s always the chance of finding a hot mess of a mansion.

Perhaps that’s why 2741 Seminole is kind of a bummer. The four-bedroom house dates back to 1915, but a recent remod swiped its personality for that of the local Marriott. Beige tile, beige backsplash, beige granite, and beige carpeting a sad interior do make. There is hope in the living room, where you’ll find original wood floors and what looks like an old bar. Ask: $264K.

After looking at the pictures, it seems that McMansion is used here as shorthand for bland. As noted, the colors are not that exciting though it looks like much of the trim is still dark wood and at least one stained-glass window and built-in drawers feature was saved. The bland charge hints at a kind of mass production that one wouldn’t expect looking at the exterior of the home or the year it was built. If a buyer was looking for character in this interior, it has been glazed over with neutral colors and updated features. Perhaps there is a market for this kind of house: people who want the exterior to exude true gravitas (as opposed to the garishness of newer McMansions) but want the updated and neutral interior.

Another connotation of McMansion is of poor design or quality; it is hard to know from these pictures whether that is the case with the interior changes.

But, would critics of McMansions really be willing to brand this home a McMansion? Many such determinations are based on the exterior and the image the owner projects to the neighborhood. But, if the owner doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those who see it, is it really that bad?