Filming a wealthy home exterior, McMansion interior

A film production designer describes the problem of finding a home for filming:

Photo by Mark McCammon on

We were looking for the Voze mansion and having trouble finding an exterior and interior to match, as most wealthy estate-type people heavily renovate their interiors and look more McMansion inside. The exterior was a house in Pasadena.

I think this is saying that they had a problem finding a home fit for wealthy characters because the homes with the gravitas-invoking exterior did not necessarily have the same kind of interior. Having lots of money can be associated with a particular aesthetic. Describing a portion of the home as having a McMansion look is not usually a good thing. It is a negative term. I imagine a McMansion interior could involve the latest trends, having large spaces, and going for shock and awe rather than refined details.

Through the magic of filming and editing, a different exterior and interior can be put together without too much evidence otherwise. Of course, it is also fun to watch for situations where they do not exactly match.

Making clear where HGTV shows are filmed

Some HGTV shows are very clear about where they are located. As two examples, Chip and Joanna Gaines are based in Waco and have built a local empire through Fixer Upper while House Hunters shows multiple shots of the local community and region.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

But, other shows say less about their filming location. One such show is Love It or List It. While this is old news to regular viewers, this article discusses the switch in filming locations:

Like Renovation Island, Love It or List It actually began as a Canadian series, and filming took place in Ontario. Despite where it was shot, the home renovation series became a popular franchise on HGTV in the United States. As such, in 2014, after filming in Ontario for six years, hosts Hilary Farr and David Visentin, along with the crew, picked up and headed to North Carolina to start fresh in a new city…

And, if in doing so you find that you love the area as much as the homes being showcased, know that you can experience it for yourself by booking a trip to the Tar Heel state — specifically the Triangle and greater Raleigh-Durham area.

One could argue this does not matter: the real show involves Hilary, David, and the interior of individual properties. The show tends to provide a few aerial views of the properties in question and there might be some discussion of the location of the home in relation to workplaces or destinations. Does it matter if the homes are in Ontario or in North Carolina? Most of the action and filming takes place inside.

On the other hand, the community context matters a lot. Even if the show focuses on individual properties, the place matters for at least a few reasons:

  1. House architecture and style depends on what happens in particular places. The design of homes in North Carolina is quite different from Ontario. Different builders and developers operate in each place.
  2. Different logics apply in different places regarding where people want to locate. Do people in older Toronto and suburban neighborhoods see locations in the same way as Americans in sprawling contexts? Maybe, maybe not.
  3. What looks like normal life differs by place. In years of showing the same kinds of places on a TV show, do viewers accept it as how life works? Any TV show can project stability with consistent characters and story lines. But, see enough single-family homes in tree-lined neighborhoods only accessible by cars – and this is the primary dwelling on HGTV – and it can appear to be the default.

While not all HGTV shows ignore the community or region, I would be interested in more of their shows seriously incorporating place into their narratives about homes.

College students see inequalities while doing classes from home

Video conferencing software allows colleges classes to go on during COVID-19 but they can reveal differences between lives at home:

But as each logged in, not everyone’s new reality looked the same.

One student sat at a vacation home on the coast of Maine. Another struggled to keep her mother’s Puerto Rican food truck running while meat vanished from Florida grocery shelves. As one young woman’s father, a private equity executive, urged the family to decamp to a country where infections were falling, another student’s mother in Russia couldn’t afford the plane ticket to bring her daughter home…

She added: “It’s possible to believe that we can bridge inequalities by coming together on the Haverford campus, or that we can at least soften the edges — and then there is this incredible rupture. I’m very worried about what comes next for them.”

I suppose there is an optimistic and pessimistic way to look at this. For the first, perhaps college campuses truly do offer opportunities for students to have a somewhat level playing field. At the least, they have similar accommodations on campus and face similar day-to-day pressures regarding school. For the pessimistic side, on-campus college experiences may simply gloss over stark differences and access to resources while in school (as well as before and after). The campus experience might even make the problem worse by suggesting everyone has similar resources and opportunities.

Going further, there is a possible research study here looking at how students – and others using conferencing software for a variety of groups and organizations – display their surroundings. What are markers in a Zoom tableau or background that indicate relative advantage or disadvantage? How aware are users that they are doing this? Does it get discussed in the class/meeting/session or is it talked about later off-screen? What are the accepted norms in these areas?

From my own areas of research, I wonder what could be found regarding homes and interior spaces. Particularly for college students, where are the best or most common spaces for them to participate? American home activity can tend to center around the kitchen but I assume this is not the optimal space for video conferencing. This creates an interesting contrast: there are parts of homes that are meant to be showpieces for visitors – updated kitchens, big open concept spaces, entryways, the front exterior – but these would rarely show up on video conferences. If extended isolation becomes more common, would this change how people design homes and interior spaces?

Closing the blinds when showing home interiors on HGTV

I watch my fair share of shows on HGTV and I recently noticed something: many of blinds or shades are closed when the interior of the homes are shown. This could be for multiple reasons:

  1. Lighting issues. Windows can produce glare either from interior or exterior lighting.
  2. The shows may be filming at night. Looking out into blackness is not that appealing.
  3. Blocking off the windows means the show can emphasize the interior and perhaps particularly show new window treatments.

These are good reasons to cover the windows. Yet, it strikes me that taking this action means the private nature of the home is emphasized even more. HGTV homes tend to emphasize the actions of the nuclear family inside the new home. Sometimes, the yard is really important to the homebuyers or homeowners but even then, the exterior is far less important than the interior spaces where it is presumed the family will spend more time.

Additionally, blocking off what is outside the windows ignores one of the most important features of homes: location, location, location. HGTV shows spend little time showing the neighborhood. Again, even when the characters are really tied to a location or neighborhood, this is primarily conveyed verbally and then the rest of the show focuses on interiors. Thus, not only do we not see much of the neighborhood, we also do not always see what the homeowners would see out their own windows.

All of this makes more sense when it is placed into the larger context of the American ideal of a single-family home on its own plot of land inhabited by a nuclear family. This is a powerful ideal, particularly for HGTV’s target demographic.



An award-winning redesigned McMansion entry inspired by baskets

Can you redeem a McMansion with redesigned spaces? Here is one such example from Juneau:

A Juneau McMansion’s redesigned entryway was recently celebrated at the 17th Annual Northwest Design Awards in Seattle. Juneau’s Bauer/Clifton Interiors took first place for most innovative design for their work. The entire home’s remodel was inspired by something you might not expect…

But the biggest influence for the entryway might surprise you.

“Looking at the bottom of a woven basket,” said Bauer. “It was something that the owner collected and was very fond of and we had one of them that we took as an inspirational piece that we had laying here on our island in our studio. That was the piece that we turned over and looked at, and it was when the light went off and went, ‘OK, let’s try doing this — let’s try creating a woven wood floor,’” said Bauer.

With farmhouse chic in mind, the designers found reclaimed 150-year-old American chestnut wood flooring from an old farm in West Virginia. The reuse factor is something the designers like, too.

We might imagine an odd scenario: those McMansions that critics say are so garish on the outside, such an ugly mishmash of styles, may just have beautifully designed interiors. Much of the architectural critique of McMansions emphasizes the outside and this makes some sense; they are easier to view and the exteriors are part of how the home presents itself to the world and thus influences social interactions. On the other hand, the prime private space that the McMansion has – thousands of square feet – is hidden from public view and is primarily meant for the residents. Granted, many McMansions may have problems on both the outside and inside but it is much harder to summarize their interiors.

Put differently, can McMansions be redeemed by designing them better from the inside out?

Trading the large yard and dining room for interior play spaces

Home buyers with young kids are looking for houses with certain kinds of spaces:

The biggest requirements for families with children, according to the National Association of Realtors, is what you’d expect: 62% of those with kids 18 and under say the quality of the neighborhood is important, while 50% are looking for a good school district and 49% want the home to be convenient to their jobs. Fewer said that lot size or proximity to parks and recreational facilities were a factor in choosing a home. The statistics come from the group’s 2015 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers report.

Yet once those top-level needs are met, families start to make more detail-level compromises. And being able to visualize a place for the kids to corral their stuff and play has become a priority, according to Blackwelder and others…

But in the Kansas City area, too, an indoor play area is a priority, Hines said, since parents want a separate space to keep toys from flooding the kitchen and family areas. “The volume of toys we have is much higher [than in generations past],” she observed…

Retailers are also suggesting the dual-use room as a trend. On the website for Land of Nod, a Chicago-based retailer of children’s furniture and products, there are tips on how to create a formal dining room and playroom in one.

How Americans choose and use their homes is often influenced by larger social forces. Based on this article, here are some of the larger forces at work:

  1. A move away from formality. Americans have often been said to be casual and informal people and this removes one of the more formal rooms of the house (along with the living room).
  2. An ongoing interest in private space. Play for children here is confined more to settings that are easier to control and within quick sight and sound of parents.
  3. The need for increased safety for children also contributes as kids are not only in private spaces but are also still within the home where others cannot reach them.
  4. A greater emphasis on the needs of children as opposed to other members of the family. Perhaps every child should now have a dedicated play room and parents should have no spaces off-limits to kids. (Think of the formal parlor of past decades where children were banned or very infrequent guests.)

Will the dining room completely disappear in the trend toward great rooms and open living spaces? Probably not, particularly if there are some easy solutions to split the use of the space between more formal dining and play areas. Yet, if fewer people have formal gatherings, perhaps the dining room will become a luxury item in homes with the extra space or for those who desire such segmentation.

LA McMansions prize interior space over backyards

New LA McMansions tend to have limited backyards for a variety of reasons:

“Comfortable” translates to a desire for bigger spaces, more amenities and higher-quality materials than in the past, notes John Closson, vice president and regional manager of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services...In many cases, the yard is not the family center it used to be, says architect Hsinming Fung, director of academic affairs at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. “What a family would do together for entertainment value is no longer in the backyard or the frontyard,” Fung says. “Technology has completely changed the way we use space. They need the indoor space because they use it much more.”…

A simple — some say brutal — development equation is at work today: More square footage equals greater return on investment. “Obviously, the price of land continues to climb in Los Angeles,” architect Ron Radziner of Marmol Radziner says. “Even if the client doesn’t necessarily want a bigger house, they feel they need to have it as an investment to have it make sense.”…

One point generally acknowledged is that many people today do not want the expense and hassle of a big yard. “It’s not practical to have a big lawn these days,” Tighe says. “People are rethinking that, rightfully so.” But they do still want something of a yard, just not the way we think of it.

One complaint about teardown McMansions is they are built close to the lot lines, dwarfing other homes or open spaces. At the same time, I’m not sure about the concern for backyards. These spaces have also tended to be private spaces, even if they are outdoors. Many yards have fences and landscaping intended to keep others out of sight. Backyards are also a symbol of sprawl: every housing unit has its own outdoor space.

A stronger public argument might be made for front yards. As New Urbanists and others argue, these are important for joining the street and sidewalk with the private home. This is why many architects emphasize front porches – they can provide some of the same features of the backyard deck but do so in sight of the public, encouraging social life and presenting a more lively and green streetscape.

It will be interesting to see if arguments/discussions about McMansion regulations in Los Angeles include guidelines about backyards.

What I suspected: new homes might be slightly smaller but buyers want more amenities

Here is a little evidence from the Hartford Courant of something I suspected might happen: people might buy smaller homes but this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be cheaper or have fewer amenities.

While “downsizing” may be the housing buzzword of recent years, not everybody’s doing it. And even those who are buying smaller homes are spending big on upgrades like granite countertops and hardwood floors, area builders say…

The houses may be slightly smaller than the 6,000-square-foot-plus “McMansions” of the past, but “people still want size,” according to Greg Kamedulski, president of the New England division of national builder Toll Brothers, which is building Weatherstone…

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be huge, the house,” said George Santos, sales and marketing director at Plainville-based By Carrier Inc. “A lot of people want new construction because they want to be able to customize the home the way they want it to be.”

“There has definitely been a shift in … the popularity of those very large houses in exchange for those relatively smaller homes but with the same amenities,” said Bill Ferrigno, president of Sunlight Construction, which recently completed Knoll Lane in Avon. Houses on Knoll Lane range from 2,700 to 3,700 square feet…

“People are very concerned with interior appointments — trims, a more sophisticated decorating package, numerous wall colors,” he said. “All these things cost more money, of course.”

So people know that having a home of a certain size is either unnecessary or is frowned upon (it may even be morally wrong) but having the nice interior features is still desirable. Perhaps this is because these interior appointments are not immediately apparent from the outside? Perhaps people now value their own experience of their home and what they want versus what they think people want to see on the outside?

Emphasizing the McMansion interior

Many times, McMansions are defined by their exterior: a many-gabled roof or a mish-mash of architectural styles or a cookie-cutter home or a large home that seems to overwhelm its relatively small lot or doesn’t fit into an older neighborhood. But a Sarasota blogger suggests that one could have a small home with a “McMansion interior”:

They have a new development out at Lakewood Ranch called Central Park, and even though it’s very generic and a little closely packed for my taste, they have finally done what I have been hoping somebody would do for years—build a small, inexpensive house that suggests a McMansion inside, but on a tiny scale. By that I mean it has things like a particularly nice master suite and fancy master bath, high ceilings—many coffered and trayed, lots of windows, imaginative layouts, big, well-integrated kitchens, cute little dens and lanais, entrance foyers—all for well under $200,000.

This definition suggests that McMansions can be more about the luxurious interior appointments than the garish or ostentatious outside.While the exterior qualities tend to draw negative attention, would this interior flourishes get the same criticism? I would guess no for several reasons. The interior is not as obvious to outsiders and so it is harder to call it ostentatious. Also, there seems to be a higher level of tolerance for interior appointments: the Subzero refrigerator or Viking stove or 60″ LED TV seem more acceptable as consumer items that are still useful.

Additionally, this story hints at what is likely already a trend: smaller homes with luxury upgrades. A homebuyer no longer needs large amounts of money to buy the square footage typically associated with luxury. Although your home might be just over 1,300 square feet (the size of the model reference above), you too can feel like you live in a mansion.