Local fire department plans for a potential fire at a 30,000 square foot home

How exactly does a fire department plan for a new 30,000 square foot home in the community?

A planned 30,000-square-foot home off Lake Norman would take an estimated 10,000 gallons of water per minute and dozens of firefighters on the scene if it were to go up in flames…

Modern homes of all sizes offer new threats now that open floor plans are more desirable to compartmentalized rooms, which would keep the fire more contained in years past, said Charlotte Fire Department Deputy Fire Marshal Jonathan Leonard of Davidson. What once could have stayed in the kitchen, now quickly passes through much of the first floor before moving upstairs if there is nothing to stop it.

Furniture, once only constructed of cotton, wood and metal, is now plastic, vinyl and foam that is more flammable, burning hotter and faster. Those two elements cut the estimated time for a home’s flashover point to occur from the 18 minutes firefighters had 20 years ago, to just over four, Leonard said.

That’s four minutes for families to have a smoke detector go off, call 911 and get out…

A simple solution that would be a safety net for both residents and firefighters is a sprinkler system.

I wonder if some communities would tell owners of extra-large homes that they would do all that they could to put out a fire but the municipality wouldn’t incur extra costs to adjust just for these extra-large houses. How much should a fire department adjust for a few homes? While this article suggests McMansions have these fire problems, a 30,000 square foot home is way out of McMansion league and probably does require its own planning. At 30,000 square feet, sprinklers sound like a good option.

Now that I’ve seen a few articles about this issue, I wonder if this comes up in the planning and zoning process in communities. While building homes may seem like a source of revenue for communities, they also require services including water, sewer, roads, fire and police, and schools. Could you add a special fire tax that only hits huge homes?

Presenting “McMansion man”

David Siegel is wealthy and known for building the largest home in the United States (see my review of the film about its construction). Could he be known as “McMansion man”? Read this headline and story:

‘McMansion’ Man Gives Everyone a Raise

You of course remember the head of the Westgate Resorts timeshare billionaire whose efforts to build the largest home in the U.S. were the subject of the documentary “The Queen of Versailles.”

When last we heard from him, he prophesied that the election of Barack Obama would lead to economic ruin. He sent an email to his employees saying that the election of Obama will “threaten your job” and mean “less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone.”

It turns out his crystal ball was clouded. In a company-wide email to employees announcing that he was raising minimum wage to $10 an hour, he noted: “We’re experiencing the best year in our history.” It is not clear what he was paying them or how many of his employees will be impacted, but a company spokesman said it numbers in the thousands.

As I’ve argued before, Siegel is building much much more than a McMansion: a 90,000 square foot home is super mansion territory and is unlikely to show up anywhere near a typical suburban subdivision. (Perhaps this is illustrated best by the years it has taken Siegel to build his gargantuan home.) Thus, I don’t think he qualifies.

Who might qualify as “McMansion man”? What might such a superhero look like? Or, given the negative attention often paid to McMansions, perhaps a super villain. If you have read a lot of the press coverage of McMansion in the last 15 years or so, perhaps one of the executives at Toll Brothers deserves the title. (But, they are now into urban building.) Maybe the McMansion protestors in Los Angeles could name such a figure.

Court says director of “The Queen of Versailles” did not defame film’s subject

The director of an interesting film about the largest single-family home in the United States was cleared of defamation charges in court:

Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.

An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19…

Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.

“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.

An unflattering but true story can still be told. But, if the story was not going to be positive, why participate in the first place or go through the whole process after things had turned sour? As I note in my quick review of the film, the story is less about the big house and more about what happens when someone loses lots of money and disconnects from his family. Also see a September 2013 update on the fate of the home.

“The Queen of Versailles” super mansion back on track and on TV

The couple at the heart of the documentary The Queen of Versailles is back in their big house and headed back to television:

David and Jackie Siegel, last seen in the Documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” are the first guests in a new CNBC program, “Secret Lives of the Super Rich,” premiering September 25 at 9 p.m.

Even in a show dedicated to conspicuous consumption, the Siegels are special. When last seen, the Siegel empire was in disarray and their Orlando-area mansion — designed to resemble Versailles — was in foreclosure.

But at least the Siegel economy has rebounded. David Siegel’s Westgate Resorts time share company is recording record profits, he says. Now he’s repurchased the manse from the bank and has resumed construction.

How big is the place? It has 13 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, 11 kitchens and a 20-car garage. It is so big that at one point in the tour, Jackie Siegel gets lost and doesn’t know what room she’s in.

It will be interesting to get an update on the state of the home. Though it is quite unnecessary, it is quite a building.

My biggest complaint about this article: the title suggests the home is a McMansion. It may share some features such as harkening back to older architectural styles and owners who seem interested in space as well as impressing people. But, this is way beyond a McMansion in terms of size and even way beyond a “normal” mansion. There is a reason a documentary was made about the house: it is one of the largest houses in the United States. This house cannot be mass produced nor is it within buying range of the middle-class or upper middle-class.

Can a $10 million home really be a McMansion?

I’ve worked on defining a McMansion before but after seeing a recent story about a new house listing few times, I stumbled into a new definitional issue: is there a price point where a home can no longer be considered a McMansion?

Location: Los Angeles, Calif.
Price: $10,000,000
The Skinny: Just weeks after closing on a 9,000-square-foot McMansion in Bel Air and reported plans for a gut renovation, hip-hop star Kanye West and reality TV regular Kim Kardashian have decided to cohabitate elsewhere. According to recent reports, the duo have flipped the property for around a million more than they paid. Redfin lists the previous sale price at $9M, so it seems Kim and Kanye have unloaded the place for somewhere around $10M. The mansion, completed in 2010 on less than an acre in the Holmby Hills neighborhood, features five bedrooms and seven bathrooms, but that wasn’t enough for the celeb couple, who were planning to gut the place and expand to 14,000 square feet.

Several features of this home would seem to put it in McMansion territory: it is 9,000 square feet (though this is getting close to regular “mansion” status), it is on a fairly small lot for a house its size, and it may be located in a neighborhood with a number of similar homes.

Yet, the price for this home may be way beyond the typical McMansion at $10 million. This is not just a mass produced home for the American masses; it is a home that from the beginning was only available to the wealthiest in global society. In this case, two of the biggest entertainment stars were able to flip the house. Because of this, I argue this home isn’t really a McMansion at all even though it might exhibit some McMansion traits. It should fall more in the mansion category because its price makes it quite inaccessible.

Quick Review: The Queen of Versailles

I recently watched the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which details the quest of David and Jacqueline Siegel to built the largest house in the United States. My thoughts on the film:

1. I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed more of the movie isn’t about the house. And, I hope the house is completed just to see what an 85,000 square foot house looks like.

2. The film ends up being a lot more about what happens when a wealthy person/family suddenly sees that money disappears. This is an interesting story in itself. How do they adjust? How much of their behavior really changes? Even if they say they can readjust to a lower income, which is closer to what they grew up with, it appears this is is a really hard process. This reminds me of recent research suggesting people feel losses more strongly compared to equal gains.

3. Jackie is a somewhat sympathetic character but David Siegel is the one to watch here. His mood gets darker and darker as his financial prospects dim. I felt sorry for him; he freely admits at several points that he can’t separate his family and work and it shows in how he lives. Is this what trying to hold on to money looks like? If so, it doesn’t look attractive at all.

4. The film does address at various points who is responsible for the situation the Siegels are in: banks who made money easily available or people who got addicted to this easy money? But, the film doesn’t go far enough in trying to resolve this. It would be interesting to see banks or financial institutions interviewed on this particular case, or even more broadly, to get their side. We see the personal fallout of the problem as the Siegel family tries to recover but the film only hints at the bigger picture.

While this is an interesting story, I wonder: if the outlandishly large house was not involved, how different is this from a number of reality shows or films about wealthy people? In the end, I do think the family is pretty honest about the changes they are experiencing and perhaps it is this authenticity that sets this documentary apart.

(Note: critics like the film. On RottenTomatoes, 98 out of 103 reviews were fresh.)

“The Queen of Versailles” is not about a McMansion

More reviews are coming out of the new documentary The Queen of Versailles (and critics are liking it according to RottenTomatoes.com) but I would still argue with some of the depictions of the 90,000 square foot house at the center of the film. Here is an example: the Jewish Daily Forward has a headline titled “The Biggest McMansion of Them All.” I’ve argued this before: a 90,000 square foot home is far, far beyond McMansion territory. This is the land of the ultra-rich. Take this information from the same Jewish Daily Forward story:

David Siegel, 76, is the billionaire founder of Westgate Resorts, which he claims is “the largest privately owned time-share company in the world.” Jackie, 31 years his junior, is David’s surgically enhanced wife, and mother to seven of his 13 children. They live in a 26,000-square-foot home in Orlando, Fla., with a household staff of 19. They believe the house is too small…

All went well until the credit crunch of 2008. The Siegels’ problems weren’t caused by the house — though it did become a burden. Rather, David’s company ran into trouble as lending dried up. Typically, Westgate customers borrowed money from the company to pay for their vacation time-shares. The company, in turn, borrowed from the banks at lower interest rates. When the banks stopped lending, the bottom fell out.

Added to that difficulty was the burden of the PH Towers Westgate, a new 52-story high-rise luxury resort in Las Vegas, which drained Siegel’s corporate resources as well as $400 million of his own money. Finally, in November of 2011, Siegel was forced to sell…

Originally, the project was going to be a look at how the wealthy live and, of course, at the Siegel’s house-in-progress. It was very much in line with Greenfield’s previous work as a documentarian and photographer.

I’m looking forward to seeing this film at some point but it is difficult to draw conclusions about McMansions and American excess from one ultra-wealthy couple. Thus far, it sounds like reviewers and others see this film as a metaphor for the American economic crisis of the last five years or so and I’m not sure you can stretch it that far. As a view into the life of the elite, it may be fascinating but it would be difficult to describe this as a “typical” experience that explains the logic behind all McMansions and excessive consumption.

Michael Jackson didn’t die in a McMansion; he died in a mansion

Perhaps this is a very minor point about the life of Michael Jackson but as a researcher of McMansions, I think there are better ways to describe the house in which Michael Jackson died which is now for sale:

“McMansion” doesn’t even begin to describe the grandly ostentatious home, which sits on a massive 17,000-square-foot chateau-style property.

It boasts seven bedrooms and 13 bathrooms, with an elevator to zip you where you want to go.

Oh my, did you happen to get a little lost there? Must be because you took a wrong turn while passing the theater, the spa, the gym and the wine cellar, which has its own tasting room.

Feeling chilly? Pick a fireplace—there are 14 of them.

Feeling hot? Then won’t you take a dip in the pool? You can practice your Olympic laps there.

Oh, we almost forgot: the asking price. The digs will set you back a cool $23.9 million.

As I’ve argued before, this is not a McMansion because of its size. Yes, the home may be ostentatious but this is not your typical large, mass produced suburban home. Rather, this house is 17,000 square feet, far behind the reach of most homebuyers. Perhaps this home is lacking in architectural quality but it is far too big to be a McMansion.

I think this use of the term McMansion is meant to convey the idea of tacky or kitschy. I’m not quite sure how that applies here: isn’t it pretty normal for the uber-wealthy or uber-famous to live in a huge house? Is the idea that Jackson had poor decorating taste? Or is the term applicable because the person who buys this home would be doing a strange thing since Jackson died here?

Gisele Bunchen defends her eco-friendly, 22,000 square foot home

I’ve wondered this before: can you have a truly large house that is really eco-friendly? Gisele Bundchen tries to make such a case for their new home:

While Giants fans have been rabble-rousing Tom Brady over the upcoming Super Bowl XLVI, environmentalists are giving the Patriots quarterback and his supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen the stink eye for a different reason – their brand new, 22,000 sq. ft. mega mansion in Brentwood, CA. The celebrity couple recently moved into the $20 million home with their young son, and one has to ask why a two and a half person family needs such a ginormous space (if you do the calculations, that’s about 7,333 sq. ft. per person). Bundchen, who is known for her eco-activism, rebutted people who questioned how such a McMansion could be called eco by touting its sustainable features such as solar panels on the roof and rainwater recovery systems, but we wonder if that’s enough to call the ginormous home green.

The eight bedroom mansion has a six-car garage, a lagoon-like swimming pool, a spa, a gym, a nursery, a butler’s room, an elevator and a wine cellar. Apparently, Bundchen and Brady purchased the land in 2008 and had an original plan for the house, but ended up adding to it because they felt it was too small. To give you more of an idea of how sprawling the home is, the two wings are connected by a bridge.

While the vast size of the manse has many environmentalists raising their eyebrows, Bundchen is reported to have explained that the home is actually quite sustainable with solar panels installed on the roof, rainwater recovery systems, waste reduction and recycling programs, energy-efficient lighting and appliances and eco-friendly building materials. She also made the case that while the Brady clan is only three people, with all of their relatives constantly visiting, they need more space.

Perhaps it is more sustainable than the typical 22,000 square foot home (how many of those are there in the United States?) but this probably isn’t the right metric to use. Is it as sustainable as a 10,000 square foot house or even a 5,000 square foot house? Perhaps. What we need to happen is for a big star to have a huge home like this but then have it be LEED certified – would it be green enough?

Beyond the eco question, I think a typical person might ask what one even does with that much space. That must be one big family to host…but this is related to another issue: the size of a home itself and the land it requires could itself be seen as wasteful beyond the actual energy the home requires.

Unusual 60,000 square foot house in northern Ohio

Big houses tend to draw attention but particularly eccentric big houses. Here are some of the features of an unusual 60,000 square foot home in northern Ohio:

A wealthy inventor conceived of a home with whimsical, underground ‘streets’ built to scale and inspired by those he’d seen in Georgetown, Paris and Savannah. Above ground, it featured a private beach and marina sculpted into the shores of Lake Erie. And a helicopter pad…

“It takes four-and-a-half hours to show this property,” said Scott Street of Sotheby’s, the listing agent for the Waterwood Estate, which is now listed on the Vermilion real estate market for $19.5 million.

The property sits on 160 acres, boasts three-quarter miles of frontage on Lake Erie and contains a series of “pods” connected by glass corridors that were navigated by scooters and golf carts…

Jacobsen used his trademark “pod” style design to give the design more flexibility and allow it to evolve as Brown wanted other things added. The entire home is a series of 20 castle-like concrete buildings connected by glass corridors and each structure is topped with a slate pyramid.

Perhaps one could argue that any 60,000 square foot home is unusual but this has many intriguing traits.

Why build this property on Lake Erie?