Another reason Americans need McMansions: to fit their giant TVs!

You need a large room to fit the biggest televisions:

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What’s the biggest TV you can buy? If we’re talking about conventional televisions, the TCL 98R754 is a staggering 98-inches wide. But if you’re willing to consider a laser or short-throw projector TV, Samsung’s The Premier is capable of showing a screen up to 130 inches. But unless you live in a cavernous McMansion with 18-foot cathedral ceilings and a sprawling layout, you won’t be able to get them to fit in your living room, let alone be able to take full advantage of their features.

How can I know if an 85-inch TV will fit in my room?

The best way to find out is to measure (in inches) from where the TV will be wall mounted or placed on a stand to where you will be sitting, and then divide that measurement by 2. If your couch is anywhere from 150 to 170 inches (12.5 to 14 feet) from the TV, an 85-inch screen will be an almost perfect fit. You can, of course, go a bit bigger (if possible) or smaller depending on what your budget is and what is available from each brand. But a screen that is too big can overwhelm your space and even cause motion sickness while one that is too small will make it feel cavernous and force everyone to crowd around in order to see.

Put together the hours of TV Americans watch each day on average plus their tastes for big houses and the cycle continues: people need a large house to fit their large TV which leads to needing a bigger TV which leads to a bigger house…

Presumably, there is some limit to how big a television can or should be. Perhaps this is about the ability to see what is happening on the entire screen. Perhaps rooms truly can only be so large. Perhaps screen technology will be replaced by an entertainment chip in glasses. Or, people might get tired of important rooms in their house being dominated by a gigantic screen.

On the other hand, perhaps this helps signal a shift away from homes leading with their garages – the so-called “snout houses” – and instead leading with a giant screen. Imagine walking in the front door and the major room is devoted to the biggest possible screen. The screen is something to show off and impress visitors with. Homes could even be designed so that the outside would make clear the giant screen and the room it sits in.

Selling homes with an image of a large pantry with basic shelves

A commercial from Pulte Homes touts unique features in the houses they build. For example, they have large pantries:

The pantry is large, the stuff on the shelves is well-organized, and the shelves themselves are…mediocre. Builder-grade. Why show off such a large pantry with basic shelves?

Perhaps this accurately reflects the shelves Pulte includes in its homes. This kind of shelves might be found in closets throughout many new homes in the United States. They are usable shelves, after all. If the first homeowner wants something more complicated, they have plenty of options ranging from Ikea designs to those who can custom-fit shelves and all sort of options.

Or, perhaps I am only supposed to notice the space in the pantry. The girl has so much room to move. There are so many shelves. The Costco shopper has somewhere to put all of their bulk purchases.

Even with these explanations, I find it a strange image. I see the space…and the shelves.

Trying to sell a home outfitted for COVID life

Doing more life, work, and school from home during COVID-19 means that some homes going on the market now have unique features:

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As the spring home-selling season gears up, homeowners who installed temporary or permanent amenities to accommodate COVID-19-era living now must navigate a maze of no-win decisions. Should they leave as-is the bedrooms converted to offices, the chest freezers parked in the garage, the bidet toilet seats warming their bathrooms, the bulky exercise equipment flexed in the basement — in hopes that buyers can look past the COVID clutter to see the bones of the house? Or must they dismantle it all, potentially subjecting themselves to additional chaos if another virus variant forces yet another retreat?

According to an analysis released in April by construction equipment firm Bid-on-Equipment, 89% of homeowners nationally have tackled home improvement projects since the COVID-19 virus began forcing many Americans to spend more time at home for work and leisure. The average cost of those projects was $3,797. Illinois residents made bathroom renovations their top priority, the analysis found…

Now, all that extra gear is part of their everyday lives and they have no intention of letting a new buyer have it, she said. Customers would rather put their top-end appliances in storage and swap in new, but lower-end, appliances, for the duration of a sale, Hood said. Then, they reinstall their coveted appliances in their new houses…

The pandemic also amplified the long-term preference for flexible rooms that can be easily be devoted to a single purpose, such as a second home office or even an isolation bedroom for a quarantined family member.

I have argued before that one of the reasons Americans tend to like bigger homes is that extra space provides options. Need a hobby room or a guest bedroom or space for clothes or a workout space or an office? That McMansion can accommodate you.

For sellers, it seems like a key would be to present the kinds of flexible options with the space that buyers might want. Do they want an office setup? A workout space? This might requires playing to some categories but I would guess that the price of the residence and the surrounding community provide plenty of clues about what potential buyers might want.

More broadly, if homes and residences need to be more flexible in the future, this could lead to significant changes. Imagine less permanent walls and more dividers. Or, fixtures, appliances, furniture, and rooms that can be more easily altered by the typical resident. This does not necessarily mean people will live in the larger equivalent of a studio apartment – or the giant kitchen/living space combo – but many rooms may also not be the answer.

TV writers playing with floor plans for fictional residences, The Simpsons edition

The depictions of residences on TV do not always line up with reality (examples here and here). Here is another example: the writers of The Simpsons played around with some inconsistencies in the home.

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Weinstein engaged with Twitter users after posting the photo, responding to comments about the rarely seen “rumpus room” on the main floor’s northeast corner, the “mystery door” in the entryway, and other inquiries…

“Simpsons” fans may notice the layout doesn’t include the basement — a frequent location for various Simpson shenanigans. Twitter users chimed in, noting the different spots the show has placed the basement staircase.

Here is my interpretation of this “flexible” floor plan. On one hand, television shows need a predictable set of spaces. The audience needs to be able to recognize quickly where a scene is taking place. The behavior of the characters connects to where they are. In many shows, a residence, whether a single-family home or an apartment, is one of the most important settings as this is where the characters eat, sleep, and interact.

On the other hand, a rigid floor plan limits what can be done. Most homes and apartments would make bad television sets due to walls and angles not conducive to filming and/or particular activities. Parts of the home of the Simpsons family are fixed and predictable: the TV is in the same place, the kitchen looks the same, the stairs go upstairs from the front door, etc. But, other portions allow for some creativity. A mystery room? A basement that can turn into all sorts of things (I am recalling what happened there in the episode “Homer vs. the Eightenth Amendment”). An animated show does not suffer from the same camera issues but it too could benefit from slight changes to the floor plan that enable all sorts of plot lines.

That McMansion space comes in handy during a pandemic, Australian edition

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald notes that the square feet available in a McMansion can be useful:

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The trend to large new houses with multiple bathrooms and bedrooms is decades old but they have proved especially handy over the past two years because lockdowns and quarantine rules have forced people to stay indoors more than usual.

Home schooling and working from home is easier with a separate dining room or living room and the hundreds of thousands of people now forced to isolate at home will be glad if their house has extra bathrooms.

“Many households are wanting larger homes than they did before the pandemic. The combination of the time confined at home during lockdowns and the likely future of more working from home has brought the quality and size of one’s home sharply into view,” Reserve Bank of Australia assistant governor Luci Ellis told the federal inquiry into housing affordability in November.

Yet once the pandemic passes, one of many aspects of Australian life that may come up for discussion is whether we need to keep building such big houses.

In a typical housing unit, people spend more time in some spaces than others. The kitchen can function as the hub of the home.

Yet, in the midst of a pandemic when people are home more and the home may need to provide more different kinds of spaces, having more rooms and space helps. The open concept kitchen and great room is central in many larger dwellings but such spaces do not work as well with working from home, running a household, and other activities. A larger house at least provides options, even if the layout is not the most conducive to more private separate spaces.

What happens after the pandemic? As the editorial notes, questions will persist about large homes. Australians and Americans have been asking about the need for the largest homes for the world for several decades and people keep buying them. Will there be an interest returning to smaller spaces and closer connections or will people want the option of more space should something every come up? Of course, in the meantime that space can be used for storage or other activities…

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: using space differently

In thinking about religious services and gathering after the COVID-19 pandemic, how congregations use their physical space may be different. One pastor and lecturer notes what likely helped congregations during COVID-19:

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Those that are successful in reemerging from the COVID-19 lockdowns will likely be those that did a better job adapting to the pandemic, said White-Hammond. Eight in 10 congregants in the U.S. reported that their services were being streamed online, Pew said.

Adaptation comes in multiple forms, including in how congregations use their religious buildings. During COVID-19, buildings may have been empty, changing the regular pattern of use with regular services and meetings. The buildings may have been used but in different ways, perhaps with fewer people attending and/or with spacing to try to cut down on spreading COVID-19.

This could lead to long-term changes to how congregations use their space. Do they need their sanctuary of a particular size? Did they need to make room for a broadcast center (lights, microphones, cameras) to better suit services via Zoom? If congregations are providing food and other things for the community during a time of economic and social trial, do they use kitchens and other spaces more?

The most radical turn might be abandoning larger religious buildings for smaller structures where smaller gatherings can happen and there is all the equipment necessary for permanent streaming capabilities. If attendance goes down and more people are interested in accessing services via the Internet/apps/phones, congregations don’t need the same kind of building. I could even imagine a large congregation moving to an office suite in a building and streaming a full and exciting service from there and having better control over lights, sound, and video.

Congregations will have opportunities to assess their space needs during and after COVID-19. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

Spending significant time in windowless rooms

As the days lengthen and the sun and warmer weather is more common at this time of year, I recently thought about the time I have spent in windowless rooms. Three instances came to mind:

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-I worked for years at WETN, the radio station at Wheaton College, which was located in the middle of the basement of the Billy Graham Center. Outside of the ends of the basement which open into parking lots, there are no windows in any of the rooms along this long basement. Going into the studios for hours at a time, putting on headphones, and working with audio software left little time for thinking about natural light. However, when I would emerge from the building, the contrast was jarring, whether I had entered on a winter afternoon and came out for dinner at 5 PM and it was dark or entered on a sunny Sunday morning and came out five hours later. (The studios had large windows between them but this just offered a view of a hallway with florescent lights.)

-For a trip to London, we ended up booking several hotel nights in a windowless room. This cost us less than a room with windows – we could have paid more for this luxury – and we had limited options for hotels due to a busy time of the year. On one hand, we were not planning to spend much time in a hotel while on vacation. How much time do people stare out the window while on vacation in a city? On the other hand, it was strange to return to and wake up in a windowless place.

-During college, I lived in our basement when at home for summer and breaks. I had a little natural light from two window wells but not much and I was often gone during the day at work. I think I noticed the temperature difference more than the lack of light; the cool setting was much appreciated during the summer. Of course, I could go upstairs when needed to get light.

Perhaps this is not actually that much time in windowless spaces. Many offices or dwellings likely have rooms with no windows. I have been in such spaces for temporary situations and my current dwelling and office have plenty of windows.

I can see how many people find natural light necessary. Should it be required in all dwellings? While I can survive in spaces without it, it makes a big difference to have natural light. I would prefer to have natural light than use artificial light, particularly the whiter institutional light.

How Americans arrived at converting rooms into closets

Is it as simple as Americans own a lot of stuff so they then need giant closets?

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That model held for the next century or so, until the postwar American economy lurched into motion, setting the country on the conveyor belt that would eventually deliver it to Kylie Jenner’s mirrored hall of designer handbags, a tour of which has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube. Prosperity settled in the suburbs, where millions of families moved into progressively bigger homes. Today, the average new single-family home is more than 1,000 square feet larger than it was in the early 1970s, even though new homes have, on average, fewer people living in them. (Regardless of Americans’ lack of need for giant houses, our zoning laws create them; many local governments have made building apartments or condos effectively illegal, and they are supported in this by homeowners, many of whom fear attracting less wealthy neighbors but welcome anything that pumps up property values, such as bigger houses down the street. Developers are happy to comply.)…

American homes not only have more space and fewer people than they once did; they also have a lot more stuff. “We’re conditioned that we need the right thing for the right activity,” Jill LaRue-Rieser, the senior vice president and chief merchandising officer for the custom-storage company California Closets, told me. As clothing in particular has gotten less expensive and more bountiful, big closets have become a selling point unto themselves. “The builders really figured it out,” she said. “If they could hook women with enough space for their shoes, they could sell the whole house.” Which is why, for decades, the country’s closets have had no reason to do anything but grow, fueling the perpetual-motion machine of the modern wardrobe—you have more space, so you don’t hesitate to buy more stuff, but eventually your big new closets seem cramped and small. At that point, maybe it’s time for a new place with even bigger closets…

Bradford said that converting a spare room to a closet has become particularly popular in recent years because it accommodates various internet home-design fantasies: natural lighting, room for a center island, seating areas, and space to show off particularly beloved collections of sunglasses or handbags or sneakers. “If people have something they value a lot, they want to create a perfect space for it, to highlight it,” she told me…

In other words, extreme closets may be starting to resemble those of, say, 16th-century Europe: a collection of prized things on loving display, a comfortable seating area in the innermost sanctum of one’s home, maybe a little desk area to work in solitude. “It’s about being proud of your space, feeling really good and calm in your space,” Adams said. Just like the Renaissance-era closet enthusiasts—though they probably lacked a wine or coffee station.

Jay Pritchett was ahead of his time: what America really needs are closets, closets, closets.

As the article notes elsewhere, if HGTV is to be trusted in this matter, a lot of bedrooms have been turned into large closets. This is a formal statement: a homeowner wants a large closet with particular features. But, this is a formal declaration of what has been happening for decades as Americans used spare rooms, attics, basements, and garages to store all of their items. As a person with a fair amount of stuff myself, I was intrigued by the first neighborhood we lived in as homeowners where all of the units had one car garages. Very few people parked in those garages. Instead, they held various items that did not fit in the relatively-small-by-today’s-standards 1,450 square foot residents.

I do think the curating and display of one’s possessions is worth noting. Today, it is not just about owning items but also about having ways to organize and show these items. Traditionally, closets are not something a homeowner might show to visitors. But, convert a room into a closet, put in an island and custom shelving plus a dazzling light fixture and this is now part of the home and possessions tour. How much time people actually spend in the expanded closet does not matter; this is a luxury item for the homeowner and the visitor.

I wonder if the reduced size of American households plays a large role here. If households have three-plus bedrooms but only a few members living in the home, there is now a free room. This could become an office; this has also picked up in recent years, even before working from home due to COVID-19, due to an interest in a clearly-defined and purposeful space. But, it could also become a closet or a theater room or a workout space.

Roughly 3,500 churches close each year; the fate of all their buildings is unknown

In profiling religious buildings that are repurposed into new and unusual spaces, a New York Times story highlights how many potential religious buildings could be repurposed:

A church turned real estate office in Orland Park, Illinois. Image from Google Street View, August 2018.

But not every flock-less church faces an afterlife as living spaces stuffed full of “exceptional quirks around every corner” for hipsters. Many have become different kinds of creative spaces and communal gathering spots, often providing what might be considered “secular ministry.”

It is unclear how many religious buildings are repurposed. Roughly 1 percent of the nation’s 350,000 congregations — or 3,500 — close each year, based on an analysis from Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study. But not all find new uses and some buildings are filled by different congregations.

The eight subsequent profiles of transformed religious spaces are indeed interesting. And this follows a pattern of news reporting on these conversions: look what cool spaces can be created from church buildings! (See earlier blog posts on converting churches to residences here and here.)

Yet, the paragraphs cited above from the beginning of the story note the need to study the full story of religious buildings. What happens to all the buildings associated with congregations that close? A few guesses based on the research Robert Brenneman and I did in our book Building Faith:

  1. Many of these buildings are reused by other religious groups. These can sometimes be groups in the same religious traditions and other times not. A number of congregations are willing to use an existing religious building and then modify it to their own purposes. This might provide a unique opportunity to acquire a building or location for a cheaper price and/or borrow the tradition in an older structure.
  2. Some religious buildings are converted into other uses. I would guess that the percent of all sold or abandoned religious buildings converted into cool uses – ones that become architectural marvels for other uses or feature the kind of activity to be featured in a newspaper – is relatively low.
  3. Some of these church buildings are eventually torn down. It can be expensive to maintain aging structures. It can be costly to convert old structures. The land may be too valuable to be taken up by a religious building. The building might be in a neighborhood or community with limited resources or declining fortunes.

If the buildings are indeed repurposed, the new owners may or may not keep some of the original features. It is hard to tell exactly from the images with the New York Times story but it looks most of these conversions tried to keep some of the church-specific features like stained glass windows, organs, lighting, and ceilings. This may not be desirable for all uses or even for religious groups reusing the building.

Providing a fully designed and furnished home

The CEO of Restoration Hardware recently discussed providing customers with homes that are completely designed and furnished:

architect architecture blueprint build

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I would ask everybody in this call, if you get a second tonight, go on Zillow, go on Redfin, go on, pick your website for real estate. Go look at 100 homes tonight in a price range that you think we might play at. And tell me how many have great architecture, tell me how many have great interior design and how many have great landscape architecture. If it’s 1% — if it’s more than 1%, like you must live in a really great area. But even in the great areas, it’s so low. How many friends’ houses do you go to that you say, “Wow, this is beautiful architecture. This is great interior design. This is great landscape architecture”? Almost never. Almost never. It’s like a completed — completely uncharted world.

When you really look at the big homebuilders, they’re kind of stamping out some — it’s not a McMansion anymore. Call it whatever you want. But it’s a stamp out, right? And it’s a nice organized development, but there’s no one providing completely turnkey homes. Like Eri says to me a lot, like they don’t sell you a car without an interior. You don’t go buy a beautiful Mercedes or whatever brand you like, and it comes without an interior and you got to figure it out yourself.

I don’t know how many people on this phone have tried to do their own interior design or furnished their house. It’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for me, and I do it for a living. I have a house in the Napa Valley that I finished remodeling like 3.5 years ago. It’s not furnished yet. It’s that hard. It’s a pain in the ass. And so we know how hard it is. We know we’re good at it….

And I sit here and I go, well, why can’t we — we’re really good at architecture, really good at interior design, really good at landscape architecture. I know we can design and build things and furnishing that people will like. And I think there’s — if you think about people with money, okay, and you think about just what’s the most valuable asset, time, right? By far, the most valuable asset. Everybody on this phone can figure out — if you lose your money, you can figure out how to make more money. If you lose your time, you just can’t get it back, right? So we think a lot about businesses that deliver time value will become more valuable.

Four things stand out to me here:

  1. It is interesting to consider this in light of the increasing emphasis on staging properties. With staging, the design is more temporary but it gives potential buyers a vision for what the property could be. The option discussed above is more long-term.
  2. Generally, Americans act as though homes should be empty boxes filled in by owners to fit their tastes. When people buy homes, they customize them (within the confines of what is possible with the home) to what they desire and what they can afford. What if it could also work the other way around: a fully designed home shapes the owner as they come to grow into it?
  3. This highlights the mass produced nature of many American homes, whether they are McMansions are not. Particularly after World War Two, larger homebuilders started constructing more homes and buyers purchased them more like factory items. Straddling this gap from mass produced home to more customized home is not easy.
  4. I think he is right that there is a market for such homes. Yet, I imagine the market is fairly small given the price that would be involved. It is one thing to stage a home and then take those items back out; it is another to have a fully immersive design process and keep everything. For a business, I wonder what is the lower price point of homes that this makes sense for businesses (particularly if this is meant of more of a luxury product that is supposed to remain exclusive).