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?

Calling McMansions “Kleenex box[es]”

I’ve seen McMansions called many things but haven’t seen the term “Kleenex box” before:

Our young builder, with approval from the City, had to chop down a fifty foot street tree to clear the driveway into the garage.  To me, the tree was as important to the look of our street as the structure of the new house itself.  The house is a modernist design, a McMansion in the style of a Kleenex box with huge areas of glass that many readers of this article have seen popping up all over Los Angeles. 

That is one expensive Kleenex box. I’m not sure exactly how the term relates to McMansions: it is mass produced? It is flimsy? It is a boring box? It is just a container to put stuff in? Regardless, the term is not meant to be positive.

The two basic floor plans in the original Levittown

One important aspect of the influential Levittowns were the houses: simple, cheap for buyers, and could be efficiently built.

The Levitts mass-produced these homes in a way that would become fairly standard among large builders. The process involved manufacturing a number of the pieces off-site and having different crews tackle each home site at different points of the home’s construction. This process differed quite a bit from the rest of the housing industry which was largely comprised of small builders who took more time with each home. While this mass process led to more uniformity (and suburban critics jumped on the architectural similarity as a metaphor for all of suburbanization), it also dramatically reduced the cost of houses. A number of initial buyers noted that they could purchase a new home in a Levittown with a cheaper monthly cost than they could rent accommodations elsewhere.

Two additional thoughts about these floor plans:

1. A fascinating aspect of these basic house models is the number of modifications made to the homes over the decades.

2. The square footage of these new homes, roughly 1,000 square feet, is unthinkable today in new homes as the average new American home is now over 2,500 square feet.

McMansions can derail your retirement plans

Amidst concerns baby boomers will have difficulty selling their homes, here is a suggestion that buying a McMansion can derail retirement plans:

We occasionally hear about a friend who somehow saved up enough money, or just decided to chuck it, and walks off to retire at age 60, 55 or even 50. It can be done.

Also, some people live in a McMansion, drive a Tesla, and vacation in the south of France. But we know it’s a very expensive lifestyle. And we know we all can’t afford it, as the real estate bust of the 2000s so cruelly reminded us. We need to appreciate that, like buying a McMansion, taking early retirement is a very expensive proposition. Yes, a fortunate few can afford it. But most of us just have to get real.

Two things are interesting here. The first is that purchasing a McMansion seriously hampers retirement plans. Purchasing one uses up a lot of money and saddles the owner with a large mortgage (plus the home might be underwater and it can cost a lot to fill such a large home). A more prudent investor would purchase a more modest home rather than splurging on a McMansion.

The second interesting part of this is the comparison to owning a Tesla or vacationing in France, both relatively rare things. For example, Teslas start around $70,000 and only about 22,500 were sold in 2013. In the 2000s, it was common to see McMansion purchases compared to SUVs, a mass production item that cost much less than a Tesla. The implication then is that McMansions are even rarer today, making it even more of a folly to own one.

Imagining tacky uses for buildings designed by starchitects

What if buildings designed by noted architects were turned into Walmarts or casinos or gas stations? Check out the images here.

While the proposed changes are unique, I’m more interested in what counts for potentially ruining these buildings. Walmart is a good store to pick as it stands for mass consumerism, big box designs, suburbs, and cheap goods. Imagine it another way: would any renowned architect agree to design a Walmart? Gas stations are a common part of the landscape but are rarely known for any great design as they hope to fit in as many cars as possible as quickly as possible. Casinos might be glitzy but they can have a seedy image, no matter how much glass and how many shiny objects are used. I’m a little surprised we don’t see more brands in these designs, perhaps a McDonald’s or a Home Depot or some other mass market company, as this would highlight the differences between well-known brands and their common lack of much architectural style.

Another thought: are there any big brands right now that are known for good or notable architecture? I’m not talking just about interior features but rather a company-wide ethos that would define numerous locations.

The balloon-frame building invented in Chicago in 1833

The building technique that helped give rise to mass-produced suburbia was invented in Chicago in 1833:

But traditional building methods required hand-hewn beams, hand-wrought mortise and tenon joints, lapped half dovetails, and something more crucial — labor-intensive construction at a time when labor was spread too thin.

Then in Chicago, Augustine Taylor got credit for creating balloon-frame construction, a hammer-and-nails forerunner to the light-frame construction that still dominates U.S. housing…

Experienced builders supposedly derided Taylor’s St. Mary’s Church in Fort Dearborn as “balloon-framed” because it looked like a stiff breeze would blow it away. But many accounts suggest the name came from a similar French Missouri type of construction called maison en boulin

Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel attributed the invention to Chicago carpenter George W. Snow in 1832. The Chicago History Museum and other scholars point out that Virginia carpenters in the 17th century — facing similar pressures to build fast — employed similar techniques. But it wasn’t mass-produced like Chicago was prepared to do. Between 1866 and 1875, the Lyman Bridges Company of Chicago sold pre-fab balloon-frame structures to western settlers, one of several purveyors of so-called “sectionalized housing.”

This technique was perfectly suited for mass produced suburban housing in the post-World War II era as it could involve standardized parts, be constructed quickly, and be done cheaply. Builders like the Levitts could quickly construct the frame of a home (after a foundation was laid) and then have a series of other workers come through to complete the home. The majority of American homes rely on wood studs nailed together – not complicated but relatively sturdy.

It is interesting to see that this is the #5 innovation from Chicago’s history. Considering the work that went into some of the others (like #8 Reversing the Chicago River), the balloon-frame structure had an outsized impact on American life.

Big builders making custom houses

This might just be a trend: the Wall Street Journal reports on big builders offering custom big homes:

A number of big home builders are now getting into the custom-home game — an area that was once almost entirely the province of boutique builders. Companies such as John Laing Homes, Toll Brothers Inc. and K. Hovnanian Homes are all venturing into a field that takes more time, patience and hand-holding than production building.

The reason is simple: Custom-home building is more profitable for builders. And — in this tough market — it also carries less risk: Builders avoid the carrying costs of land, taxes and other monthly expenses that can come with speculative building. Because custom building caters to the upper end of the market, it’s doing better than production building right now, says Steve Melman, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders. Although home building of all types is stagnating, he says that the custom share of the market tends to go up during down times, while production building peaks during boom times. In 2007, the custom share of the market was 24%. In 2005, during the peak of the boom, the custom share was 19%.

The big attraction for home buyers is the price: Consumers usually pay less when they buy a home from a big builder than they do from a small one. Big builders benefit from economies of scale in buying materials and have developed efficient systems for negotiating with and scheduling contractors. So even though they charge more per square foot for a custom home than they do for a mass-produced one, big builders can usually undercut the price of their smaller competitors.

Custom homes come in two forms, though both are built on an owner’s lot rather than a builder’s. True custom homes are built to an owner’s specifications; so-called “semicustom” homes evolve from a builder’s predrawn plans. Though big builders have long built “semi-custom” homes on their own lots, most only recently began to seek out customers who want to build on lots they already own.

Three thoughts:

1. While these may be custom homes, can’t these run into the issue of still being viewed as mass-produced? Where is the line between economies of scale and something truly custom?

2. Money is a big factor here: the homeowner can get a cheaper custom house and the builder can make more money with less risk. What is there to lose (except perhaps #1)?

3. I bet architects would want in on this. Architects don’t design most new houses in the United States, but they might argue builders even at the custom level still can’t quite create interesting homes (meaning truly custom) or ones that are truly built around the interests of the homeowners.