Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

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He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

Debating the connection between larger houses and fewer children present

A working paper from an Australian researcher investigates what happens to children who grow up in large homes with relatively few people inside. Here is some of the debate thus far:

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“My working hypothesis is that children now grow up too isolated within their own homes,” he said. “Too often, they have separate bedrooms and living spaces when they would instead benefit from more interaction with other siblings and adults.”…

Australians builds the second biggest houses in the world after the US, according to a report by CommSec and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which also found the average floor size of an Australian home (houses and apartments) was 189 square metres in 2018-19.

About 4 per cent of Australian households are considered overcrowded, or require additional bedrooms for the number of occupants, Professor Dockery said. “The vast majority of children simply do not grow up in homes that are crowded,” he said. “It appears they grow up in homes that are too empty.”…

Paul Burton, director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University, said overcrowding was a problem when it was a product of economic necessity rather than a choice.

I wonder if this possible issue extends to both countries with big houses – with the United States and Australia leading the way – and countries with lower birth rates where the homes may be smaller but there are fewer children. In the latter case, other features of social life might mitigate the problem of fewer people at home including more social ties and and more participation in public spaces. It may not just be the homes are larger in certain places; the emphasis on private space and private lives could be influential.

How much of this issue might be related to technology? I am thinking of Jean Twenge’s argument regarding the introduction of the iPhone and its affects on teenagers and young adults. It is not just about private space; it is using that space to interact virtually or in a technologically mediated way rather than having face-to-face interaction. (Or, for a previous generation, having a television in the kid’s bedroom limited interaction around the family television.)

And another thought: these large homes may have fewer people but they could be filled with a lot of stuff. It may not be just fewer people to interact with but more objects, material items a child sees and interacts with. This could include screens but also toys, clothes, decorations, and clutter. Does all of this decrease sociability?

The rise of SUV nation(s)

A look at the impact of increased SUV sales on the environment includes a short history of the rise of the vehicle category:

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SUVs raced to a new milestone in 2019, surpassing 40 percent of all car sales worldwide for the first time. The world’s roads, parking lots, and garages now contain more than 200 million SUVs, eight times the number from a decade ago. SUVs’ share of car sales in the U.K. has tripled over the past 10 years; in Germany last year, 1 in 3 cars sold was an SUV…

This global phenomenon has its roots and impetus in the U.S., where in the 1980s the car industry carved out a new category called the “sport-utility vehicle”, a sort of mashup between a truck, a minivan, and the traditional American family car. After successfully lobbying lawmakers to class these vehicles as light trucks rather than cars, binding SUVs to less stringent fuel efficiency standards, the industry set aboutslotting them into almost every arena of American life…

The industry found that American drivers enjoy the lofty seating position of SUVs as well as the capacity and the comforting feel of security their bulk provides, even if half of all journeys taken in the U.S. are mundane trips of under 3 miles to run errands rather than high-octane adventures in the Rocky Mountains. For many Americans, SUVs invoke alluring qualities of fortitude and independence…

As Bloomberg’s Nat Bullard noted in a recent tweet: “We don’t buy cars here. We buy big cars built on truck bodies, and we buy trucks and drive them like cars.” The U.S. is now indisputably an SUV nation, a transformation that has had profound consequences for American cities as well as the global climate.

A few thoughts:

  1. This timeline roughly lines up with connection I have found in my years of studying McMansions: SUVs and McMansions can be viewed as related phenomena. They are both large and represent increases in size from typical earlier versions. The 1980s appears to be a key decade with a bigger economy, plenty of spending, and a growing emphasis on larger consumer goods. And those SUVs may need a three car McMansion garage to fit.
  2. There are hints here but there are also links to a suburban lifestyle that is largely structured around driving and short trips. Granted, just because Americans live in a sprawling landscape does not necessarily mean they need large vehicles to get around; they could use smaller cars. Yet, all that driving – even for relatively short distances – means Americans get lots of time to think about vehicles and what they want to have (and need to have to access many places).
  3. It is interesting to note that SUV sales and use are up in other countries as well. SUVs are often tied to American interests in driving and size; what explains increased sales in Germany and the UK? Car makers could be pushing these vehicles more and why are drivers more itnerested now than earlier?

No correcting the problems of McMansions with the word “stately”

One long-time copy editor uses the example of a McMansion to suggest adding the adjective “stately” cannot make something good:

Stately You cannot turn some monstrous McMansion’s farrago of discordant architectural elements into Blenheim Palace with an adjective.

This sentence has a lot to consider. First, the writer picks on the McMansion’s lack of architectural integrity. This is one of the key traits of a McMansion: the architectural elements do not go together or they are out of proportion or the quality of the home is not good.

Second, Blenheim Palace is a World Heritage Site. Even though it is really large – another defining feature of McMansions – it is has more architectural integrity being built in the English Baroque style. And it has the benefit of being old, unique, and recognized as important (in contrast to the mass-produced McMansions).

Third, the writer hints that the certain descriptors fit with certain kinds of homes. McMansions cannot be called stately. What would be more accurate descriptors? Garish? Vapid? Incoherent? Striving? The implication of any of these antonyms is that the McMansion is not worth paying attention to and will not last.

After such a description, one wonder what might redeem a McMansion.

Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes

Large homes and McMansions do not just take up land and resources at construction; according to a new study, they have larger carbon footprints. Here is the abstract:

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Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Using data on 93 million individual households, we estimate these GHGs across the contiguous United States and clarify the respective influence of climate, affluence, energy infrastructure, urban form, and building attributes (age, housing type, heating fuel) in driving these emissions. A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

More from the study linking energy use, wealth, and housing size:

We find that both household energy use and emissions per square meter vary widely across the country, driven primarily by thermal energy demand and the fuel used in electricity production (“grid mix”). ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together. City and neighborhood analyses underscore the environmental benefits of denser settlement patterns and the degree to which carbon-intensive electrical grids counteract these benefits.

Bigger homes require more energy to heat, cool, and light. Wealthier people can afford these expenses. Indeed, being able to shoulder all of these costs with a larger home may be a form of conspicuous consumption: “I have enough resources to live in a larger home and maintain it.” Critics of McMansions argue that such homes are meant to impress those who see them, not necessarily great spaces for residents to inhabit.

The study also connects the findings to possibilities for making single-family homes more green. The models work with two options: (1) retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient and (2) reducing power generated with fossil fuels (“grid decarbonization”). Yet, there are other options to pursue that could help with the situation:

1. Promoting the construction of or the inhabiting of smaller homes. This could range from tiny houses to the “not-so-big home” to smart-sizing or down-sizing. This may require more significant lifestyle changes – cutting on consumption would be difficult – that are too hard for many people.

2. Promoting fewer single-family homes. While they are the basis of suburban life and popular in many other American communities, multi-family housing is more energy efficient. Given the rhetoric surrounding suburbs (such as President Trump claiming Democrats want to abolish suburb), this may not be easy.

3. Promoting less energy use within homes. What if residents used less heat, air conditioning, and lighting? What if they watched less TV and used their phones and computers less? Again, this might require large lifestyle changes that many would find difficult.

4. Constructing newer homes with much stricter energy guidelines, perhaps even net-zero-energy homes or passive houses. Even if these are restricted to wealthier homeowners who can afford the changes, this could help limit the energy use of larger homes. Also, if such homes are viewed by the public as cool or desirable, perhaps these features trickle down.

5. Could wealthier homeowners purchase carbon offsets for their homes? This would allow them to keep their bigger structures while providing funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

The scenarios in the paper as well as the ones I proposed all require working multiple sectors of society to get to a place where homes, particularly large ones, use less energy.

McMansions, SUVs, and megachurches

I recently reviewed the book The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry by sociologists Mark Mulder and Gerardo Martí. As the authors describe Schuller’s emphasis on growth, they include this line on page four:

TheGlassChurchP4

As I studied the use of the term McMansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I found people regularly linked McMansions to SUVs. As the cited passage above suggests, McMansions and SUVs came about at the same time. Perhaps some would go even further and say McMansion owners are likely to be SUV owners or the two consumer goods are likely to be found in the same communities or kinds of places. And, like the passage above, the comparisons could go further than SUVs to include large food items.

Rarely have I seen the growth of McMansions and the growth of single-family homes in the United States connected to megachurches. A similar argument could be made: in a period of growth as Americans liked to consume bigger items in bigger settings with providers happy to produce larger goods, McMansions and megachurches came about or became widely recognized at roughly the same time (McMansions built in the closing decades of the 1900s and as a term widely used by the early 2000s; megachurch as a phenomenon known by the 1980s). As everything grew and appetites expanded, so did churches. And maybe megachurches were likely to spring up in or near McMansion filled suburban communities flush with money, family life, and access to highways.

At least in this study, Robert Schuller was enamored with growth decades before McMansions became a thing. Mulder and Martí suggest Schuller pushed for growth in order to encourage more growth; previous accomplishments became evidence for pursuing and fulfilling future accomplishments (until it could no longer hold together). Yet, Schuller was well-positioned in a booming suburban area: he arrived in Orange County in the 1950s and capitalized on the growing population and appetite for large churches in a way that few other religious leaders could match.

Now, linking these multiple phenomena together would take some more work. Were Orange County McMansion owners more likely to attend a megachurch? Is this a pattern throughout the United States? Did an ideology of growth pervade many sectors at the same time and mutually reinforce each other or explicitly intersect at points?

Attaching McMansions to baby boomers

Are McMansions a a defining feature of baby boomers?

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This year has highlighted America’s generation gaps, especially between the two largest generations. Both have been stereotyped as being self-absorbed — millennials as selfie-obsessed avocado toast addicts, boomers for their oversized “mcmansions” and self-indulgence. And both are feeling pandemic pain, though in different ways.

The piece does acknowledge that this is a stereotype. Yet, some of the stereotypical pieces do go together:

  1. The term “McMansion” arose in the late 1990s and the homes have been in the United States at least two decades. The baby boomers were adults with careers and money when McMansions became a thing. Baby boomers also came of age in the era of consumerism and “greed is good.” They had the money and resources to buy the new big houses. This argument has been made before.
  2. McMansions are known for their tackiness and quest to impress; baby boomers are also stereotyped for their indulgent behavior.
  3. Commentators have suggested baby boomers will have difficulty selling their McMansions. Additionally, baby boomers will try to pass their homes to their children.
  4. If McMansions are often viewed negatively, perhaps it is easier or convenient to attach them to a group – here a generational cohort – that receives its own share of criticism. If McMansions are bad, it can be handy to blame someone for them.

Whether McMansions get passed along to millennials and future generations remains to be seen. But, based on what I have seen, there is a good chance that baby boomers and McMansions may be tied together for decades.

Linking storage facilities and McMansions

One billionaire made money on storage facilities and now he hope to profit from McMansions:

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In the depths of the last housing crisis, self-storage billionaire B. Wayne Hughes flew to Las Vegas and Phoenix to lay the groundwork for a new bet. His plan: Buy foreclosed homes, spruce them up and rent them out. He tested his ideas on three houses in each market and then dispatched deputies to buy tends of thousands more across the U.S.

Nine years later the land grab is paying off…

And the rest is behind the paywall. But, the possible connection between these two investments is intriguing:

  1. Both self-storage units and McMansions are relatively recent phenomenon in terms of their scale and regular use.
  2. Americans have a lot of stuff. One answer to having a lot of stuff is to put things in storage. Another solution is to buy a bigger house to put everything in.
  3. Both have architectural quirks. As a kid, I remember more single-story, sprawling self-storage facilities. Now, I see more two to three story buildings – I can think of at least three within 10 miles of my house in built-up suburbia – that look a bit nicer (though are still boxy).
  4. With their architectural quirks, are both of these kinds of structures naked ploys for making money? The McMansion tries to impress and offer as much space as possible for a reasonable price. The self-storage unit facility maximizes the number of storage units and space that can be rented.

Providing a fully designed and furnished home

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

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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).

 

The McMansions and their wealthy owners who do not need house numbers

As one writer walked every street of zip code of 22207 to look at house numbers, they noticed something about some of the larger homes:

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Some exorbitant McMansions featured no address numbers at all, only very pointed security-company signs. (The cars parked at those homes often sport diplomatic plates.) Many of the richest houses in Arlington—for example, the mansions overlooking the Potomac near Chain Bridge—were not visible from the street at all, and so the only address numbers ascertainable were on mailboxes or security gates at the foot of long, winding driveways.

One of the purposes of McMansions, particularly according to critics, is to broadcast the status and money of the owners. Through the garish architecture and an imposing facade, McMansion owners show what they have.

So, if a homeowner does not have a street address visible, does this mean their home is not a McMansion? Perhaps the home still shows off even if it more difficult to connect the home to its particular owners.

The story might be a little different here. Might these be less of McMansion owners – those who want to project their success – and more of people with real money and status who want to stay quiet about their success? One of the advantages of being elite and/or having resources in insulating yourself from the public. This may be why it is harder for sociologists, journalists, and others to get access to the elite as they can better control access to themselves. Not having easily visible house numbers is just a start.

Coming back to the McMansion status of such homes. I wonder if this could turn into a minor addendum to defining McMansions: how does the visibility of the home to the street affect whether it is a McMansion? Let’s say the McMansion is shielded from the road by trees and a gate; does this render the home less offensive since it is not broadcasting its architecture so much?