Americans can spend a majority of their time in a few spaces in their home and still want large homes

Americans may not need such large homes if a recent study is correct in showing where they spend their time inside their house:

A research team affiliated with UCLA studied American families and where they spend most of their time while inside their homes. The results were fascinating, but really not all that surprising. Here’s one representative example:

As you can see, most square footage is wasted as people tend to gather around the kitchen and the television, while avoiding the dining room and porch.

This is part of the reason newer homes do not need formal living rooms or dining rooms and instead often focus on open floor plans connecting kitchens with living areas.

However, while this study may have measured where people actually spend time in their homes, it does not necessarily mean that homeowners do not desire extra features. I can think of at four additional arguments homeowners might often make:

  1. They need significant amounts of space to store their stuff. Indeed, why get rid of stuff when you can just purchase a larger house?
  2. Even if the family or household members do end up in certain spaces more than others, this does not necessarily mean that they do not need separate spaces occasionally to have their own space away from each other.
  3. Certain spaces may be highly specialized and helpful, such as a dining room that accommodates large family meals or a hobby room where a homeowner can pursue their interests or a quiet and comfortable space.
  4. A larger home is a sign of success or tied to a particular lifestyle. For example, many homeowners may no longer use a porch but still prefer that look.

I’m also reminded of a recent survey that suggested the largest regret homeowners have is that they did not purchase a larger home.

See also a February 2017 post titled “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”

Open floor plan, hide the kitchen mess

One downside of an open floor plan is that it also exposes all the work that goes into daily life:

That is why one company, Schumacher Homes of Akron, Ohio, has a fresh new design on offer: a house with an open floor plan, with its kitchen, dining area, and living room all flowing into one another. But then, behind the first kitchen, lies another. A “messy” kitchen. There, the preparation for or remainders from a meal or party can be deposited for later cleanup, out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

That this is “necessary” at all is a consequence of the rise of the open floor plan in the first place. On the next block or on HGTV, remodels blow out walls, enlarge kitchens, and couple them to the surrounding space. In new construction, enormous great rooms combine hundreds of square feet of living space into singular, cavernous voids, punctuated only by the granite or marble outcropping of a kitchen island. This amorphous, multipurpose space has become the center of domestic life.

It hasn’t always been this way. These layouts first became popular in pre-war modernist architecture, but their origins stretch back earlier, to the turn of the 20th century at least. Then, as now, they promised to tear down obstruction and facilitate connection. But that promise was aspirational from the start: It assumed an equality in the home that has never come to pass. In practice, open-plan design has always been a stage to a quiet struggle between freedom and servitude. That struggle continues today, and messy kitchens won’t put an end to it. It’s just hard to notice when the experience has been sold, universally, as “great for entertaining.”…

In this respect, the open plan might represent the most distinctly American home design possible: to labor in vain against ever-rising demands, imposed mostly by our own choices, all the while insisting that, actually, we love it. It’s a prison, but at least it’s one without walls.

I wonder if another trend truly explains the move to all this open space with kitchens. Americans are eating less at home as they spend more money spent at restaurants than at home. Yet, homeowners, particularly those on HGTV, regularly suggest that the kitchen is the heart of the home. But, could this heart be more of a showpiece or an aspiration than a regularly messy kitchen? Perhaps the open, gleaming kitchen of today is more like the formal living room (now less common in newer houses) of the past: it is a showpiece, is not necessarily used often, and the typical homeowner should be skilled at using the items in the room (even if they do not use it often). The open floor plan is then a selling point, status symbol, and entertaining space but not always a messy space.

The discussion here of modernism is also interesting. I have argued before that American homeowners are not fans of modernist homes but they may be more inclined toward modernism in their kitchens and open spaces. Again, these are showpieces of the new home and as I see these spaces regularly on HGTV I wonder how families actually live in them.

When all the suburban homes are the same, how can residents set themselves apart?

Continuing to draw from a 1953 Harper’s study of six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses an interesting aspect of the cookie-cutter houses:

Henderson3.png

We are used to the idea that a home, like many other goods one owns, is a means by which people differentiate themselves from others. Your car reveals your personality (or your financial resources). Your clothes celebrate your individuality. Your favorite TV show provides deep insights into your psychology. Your McMansion impresses those driving by with its size. And so on. But, what if residents do not have the luxury of differentiating their exterior?

Henderson suggests they then move their differentiation into activities: what groups are you a part of, what are you contributing, who do you know. But, I think this misses two features about homes:

  1. Even if these homes were mass-produced, it wouldn’t take long before residents could alter their homes and yards. Indeed, Barbara Kelly in Expanding the American Dream details how residents of Levittown made changes to their homes. People add additions, make landscaping decisions, paint their exteriors, and more. If you look at the streets of these homes sixty years later, you can both pick out some of the common architectural features as well as see significant efforts to stand out.
  2. After the section cited above, Henderson then goes on to say that the residents then emphasize interior decorating. They may be cookie-cutter homes from the outside but could have very different feels. While this is not as visible to the neighborhood, it does present an opportunity to show family and friends your own unique self.

There are current parallels to the dilemma Henderson poses: residents of condos, townhomes, and apartments have similar issues as their exteriors share characteristics with others around them.

This is also a reminder of a tendency of modern humans to look for ways to secure a higher status for themselves. Even in a supposed middle-class society, Americans want to be seen as their own individual, even if their housing choices are constrained.

Tastefully painting the large interior of a McMansion

Decorating the cavernous interior of a McMansion could require some special advice:

Q: I’d like to do some interior painting and I’m not sure about colors. I live in what would be described as a “McMansion” about 20 years old, and the rooms are all very large with cathedral or high ceilings. All of the rooms, including the kitchen, have some form of white/beige/tan coloring, but I would like to paint the living and dining rooms an actual color. But is this appropriate for a contemporary home? Both rooms sit on either side of a cathedral foyer, which we would like to keep in the beige family. Will this look strange to have color, and should it only be lighter shades? Should the inner archways be beige like the foyer or the color of the room you are entering?

A: Homes like yours offer a lot of challenges but some fun creative opportunities as well. Balancing the flow between rooms is important, along with finding ways to make each space interesting, distinct and comfortable. As you noticed, it can be hard to figure out where to start and stop a color on the walls when all the rooms flow together!

One idea is to keep the foyer, its ceilings and the archways light in color to emphasize the big, airy and dramatic entryway. I like your idea of neutral, consider a warm white or light sand color. Painting the adjacent rooms in slightly darker, warmer versions of the foyer color will help make them feel inviting. Since the basic color is the same, you’ll achieve continuity.

Throughout the foyer and other rooms, accent with more colors at eye level and below. The furniture upholstery can be darker versions of the wall colors or coordinating neutrals. Throw pillows, art and accessories can be bolder, so you can change them out more often. And tie the draperies and window treatments in with the wall color of that room.

It is unusual for a homeowner to publicly admit to owning a McMansion but it does help convey information about this home. It sounds like the common two-story, large foyer. Additionally, the colors sound like they could be straight out of a standard set of builder colors intended to provide a neutral palette to attract potential buyers.

Typically, the critique of garish McMansions emphasizes the outside as this is what is easily viewed by the public. Less attention is devoted to the interior. (This is aside from McMansion Hell which also dissects McMansion interiors.) Can a well-done interior offset bad exterior architecture? Can tasteful paint and furnishings provide a stylish and comfortable interior that is hidden from the outside world? For the typical McMansion owner, they must not see the interior as a waste of resources or unnecessary space but rather something desirable and maybe even exciting. McMansions are certainly big – meaning they can hold lots of things – but they also have to be homes on the interior for people to live there for years.

Wide buildings ripe for use for wide-open workplaces

Several recent high-profile deals for large Chicago buildings suggests spacious floor plans are in:

The recent deals demonstrate how perceptions of those buildings and others with ultrawide floor plates, such as the Merchandise Mart and the former Apparel Center next door, have evolved. Long considered inefficient albatrosses, with too many large columns and not enough natural light, the buildings today are coveted by employers such as technology and creative firms.

Wide floors allow firms to have hundreds, or even thousands, of employees together on one floor. Open layouts and abundant meeting areas are designed to promote collaboration.

As a result, seven of the 17 largest new office leases in downtown Chicago since 2012 have been in buildings with floors of at least 50,000 square feet, according to a study by Chicago office leasing broker Matt Ward of Newmark Knight Frank. Those deals of 200,000 square feet or more include relocations or large-scale expansions within a building.

“This thinking of different floor, different planet is finding its way into every boardroom,” Ward said. “The idea of us getting out of our offices and being together is seen as a necessity in today’s business.”

The trend continues toward open floor plans where employees can interact and discuss ideas beyond their immediate isolated tasks, both theoretically leading to an outpouring of creativity and cross-pollination. This evolution of office design is chronicled well in Cubed.

At the same time, I have read about enough feedback from workers in response to these open plans to know that this is not universally beloved. The open plans limit privacy and inhibit focus. Some of the organizations that went to radically open plans later had to scale back to once again provide some more private spaces.

It would be worth going back to some of these wide structures in a few years to see how firms have organized the large spaces differently.

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.