Separating McMansions from luxury homes

What is the difference between a McMansion and a luxury home? Here is one viewpoint:

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So, what exactly is a luxury home, Michael, you ask? Some people classify it by the style of the house, or perhaps by its finishes, or by the product brands in the home. So, how do we define a luxury home from a price standpoint? I know different brokerages and different real estate firms define luxury real estate differently. Many define a “luxury home” as a property that is priced at $1,000,000 or higher.  For the purposes of this article, we’re going to define a luxury home as a home that is listed for sale at at least three times the average sales price for that market. (There are four primary price points in most markets: starter-/entry-level, average, high-end and luxury pricing. I define high-end homes as homes that are two times the average sales price for that given area.)

Luxury is relative to that specific market. Most markets have luxury homes based on our definition; it’s all relative, however, because when people think of luxury, they often think of McMansions or estate homes, and that’s not always the case. To take action, you need to develop graphs and other visuals that can articulate the data for luxury and high-end real estate for/in your marketplace: Are you in a buyer’s market or a seller’s market? High-end and luxury homes start at what price point for your market?

I am interested in the ways the dimensions of a luxury home are different than those of McMansions. This is based on my four traits of McMansions.

  1. The absolute square feet of the home is not mentioned above. Presumably, both McMansions and luxury homes are large.
  2. The relative square footage is also not mentioned above. Perhaps luxury homes are generally larger than McMansions?
  3. The architecture and design is mentioned as luxury homes may have particular features and/or finishes. While McMansions are often criticized for mass produced features and/or poor architectural choices, luxury homes stand apart from this.
  4. The luxury home is more expensive, whether over $1,000,000 in price or some multiplier above the market or in a tier above others. McMansions are more expensive than small homes or starter homes but they are not as pricey as luxury homes. The luxury home is then a true luxury good available only to a few while McMansions are meant to appeal to a broader audience.

If the description above is correct, luxury homes are mostly different because of their price at the top end of the market. McMansions are not that; they may aspire to be luxury homes but they are for a different price point and have different features that have less to do with square feet and more to do with design elements or features.

(The next step might then be to provide advice for real estate agents and others who want to appeal to McMansion buyers and owners. How to stay away from luxury home territory and above more typical homes?)

Preserve a Brutalist courthouse in the suburbs, can McMansions be far behind?

Landmark Illinois recently released its list of the most endangered historic places and it includes several places in the suburbs of Chicago. This is the largest suburban building on the list:

This is indeed a unique structure. Suburbanites are unlikely to see many large Brutalist buildings in suburban communities as they are traditionally associated with big cities (think Boston City Hall or the FBI Building in Washington, D.C.).

I have asked before whether Americans would prefer modernist structures more broadly or McMansions. Both kinds of buildings have their detractors who critique the materials, the style, and the prevalence of such structures.

If some of the goals of preservation are to protect notable buildings and help show important architecture of the past, both such styles deserve to be recognized. Brutalism is not likely the preferred style in suburbs. McMansions are not favored by many. At the least, both kinds of buildings represent a particular era. At their best, they present a particular approach to buildings and spaces.

Even if certain kinds of structures or certain styles are not appealing to all, there is still value in preserving examples of this work. If Brutalist buildings are in, we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine protecting the subdivision McMansion of the North Shore or the teardown McMansion of Naperville to show how Americans thought about suburban housing at the turn of the twenty-first century.

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.

Preserve a McMansion to help combat climate change

As part of an argument against demolishing buildings, McMansions should also be preserved to help address ecological challenges:

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Anyone interested in mediating the worst ongoing outcomes of the present climate catastrophe must also disconnect the idea of development from our notion that it proceeds only in cycles of demolition and new construction—a pattern that prevails because it is maximally legible to our existing structures of debt, financialization, and speculation. About 80 percent or more of a typical new house’s lifetime ecological and energetic impact comes through the operations of initial material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction; and then of eventual demolition, further transportation, and decay. Sustainable buildings are therefore not new buildings—however fuel-efficient their machines and materials. Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained. Merely by being seventy-five years old and in working order, Geller I was radically sustainable. For that matter, any dumb 1990s McMansion down the block is almost as ecologically precious as Geller I. That McMansion’s judicious conservation, too, is part of ecological stewardship.

This kind of conservation comes not by preserving any one house exactly as it is, but by shifting from a fantasy of perpetual newness or untouchable oldness to the best practices that Gropius and Breuer cherished in old New England farmhouses: renovation, addition, retrofitting, and all manner of adaptive reuse that allows ever more lively and dignified density. The model of development becomes less one of the sudden appearance and disappearance of structures, and more one of continuous emendation and repair. Not incidentally, this affords ever more innovative ways of living intergenerationally and integratively—rather than dwelling in the built residue of past generations’ conventions about how families and communities ought to live.

Demolition and rebuilding takes a lot of resources. Additionally, rehabbing existing homes can help keep the character of a neighborhood or community consistent.

The twist above is that this might be the preferred course for McMansions. Such homes are not usually renowned for their architectural quality. Critics are not fans of the ways in which they were constructed, their drain on resources, and their ongoing presence.

I have argued before that at least a few McMansions will be preserved, at the least to mark a particular era and design. Preserving them to help combat climate change moving forward might be a unique feature of this decade.

What happens to an athlete’s McMansion when they go to a new team?

Quarterback Matt Ryan is now a member of the Indianapolis Colts after a trade from the Atlanta Falcons. What happens now to Ryan’s suburban McMansion outside Atlanta?

At the least, Ryan can enjoy lounging outside his large dwelling by a ping-pong table and think about handing it off to Jonathan Taylor?

I wonder what the market is for large houses of former athletes. I know of some high profile houses in the Chicago region where pro athletes sell their homes to other athletes who are coming to town. Some big houses, such as Michael Jordan’s mansion, languish for years.

From what I saw, Ryan’s home is not a mansion or a megamansion. Because it is more of a McMansion, it likely will find a buyer in a growing metropolitan region among those with resources to purchase such homes and who like such homes. Perhaps it might depend on how much football the house reflects; for example, see former Bears coach Matt Nagy’s house listing.

Of course, it will also be interesting to see where Ryan settles in the Indianapolis region. Will he settle in the wealthy suburban communities of Carmel or Fishers where I would guess some McMansions can be found?

Save the farm from turning into McMansions by writing a song

Tennessee’s 11th state song – “I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” – was inspired by a threat of McMansions in a Nashville suburb. According to the writer of the song:

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So, I sold the farm and horses and moved into the beautiful suburb of Brentwood where I was on only an acre of land. It was great but not me, as I grew up in a rural area and loved the farm. I so missed walking the land.

In 2004, when I wrote the song, the only bucolic land in Brentwood was a 250-acre farm called Green Pastures on the corner of Franklin Road and Concord, owned by the Turner family (Dollar General/etc). They boarded horses there and a friend ended up bequeathing me a gorgeous six-year -old paint mare and said he would pay for its care if I got it ready to ride for his daughter someday. It was a beautiful compromise to living in the suburb yet having a masterpiece of a farm three miles down the road. Everyone there just loved it, and it was a close group of people who boarded there. Many said it was what kept them sane going through divorces or cancer, etc. Horses really are healing creatures…. especially when you don’t have to pay for them! It was such a gift to go out there and ride on the property or just hang out there with the horses and boarders. It was a family.

Well, at one point, developers (‘damn those developers they’re cold and heartless’) got the ear of the Turners and they were going to sell it off to put up what we called McMansions…. the LAST thing Brentwood needed. It went so far as to have a huge sign with the plans and everything. The barn family was of course heartbroken. So, I said, ‘Let’s at least try and see if we can have them save at least part of the property.’ I suggested we put a digital scrapbook together with each boarder having two pages of pictures and what the place meant to them. Underneath I put the song I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee. We gave it to the Turners and were told they cried when they watched it. I’m not saying my idea was the only reason they decided to stop the development, but I do think it may have been the catalyst/last straw to validate what a unique place they had.

They helped SO many people PLUS just driving by and looking at the property was uplifting to anyone with eyes! It staved off the development for over 10 years. A few years ago, they decided to stop the boarding business, but the property still remains today. I don’t know what their plans are for it. I worked with a grass roots group called Save The Brentwood Green Space for a while who put up an idea for the city of Brentwood to buy the property, but the citizens took a look at the $50 million price tag and got spooked. I would assume the price NOW would be over $100 million so they lost a deal!”

Today I learned Tennessee has 11 state songs (!!).

At the same time, this could be a story from many states and metropolitan regions: the farmland once common is quickly turning into houses. Not just any houses; big houses with dubious architectural quality (i.e. McMansions). The farm will be gone and replaced with supposedly impressive yet private homes.

How often does such a scenario lead to writing a popular song? Not often. Instead, neighbors and residents might quietly seethe. They could show up at local meetings and make their displeasure known. Some might even move away to find a different plot of land still near farms or open space.

As far as I can tell in watching performances of the song on Youtube, the song decries “progress” and sprawl but does not specifically call out McMansions…

McMansions as part of a world ruined by climate change

A new art exhibit includes McMansions in the imagery of a world after the negative effects of climate change:

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When Josh Kline debuted his “Climate Change” series at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the slick sci-fi work looked a little smug. The New York-based artist, who at 43 has pieces in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, is known as a political fantasist with a dyspeptic view of life under capitalism. A recent series of dirty, resin-soaked American flags shaped into televisions, for example, is meant to critique Fox News.

Even so, Kline’s apocalyptic vision of warming seas for the biennial had outdone itself for corporate-chic confidence: a series of 12 greyscale photos of emblems of U.S. power — San Francisco skyscrapers, the front desk of Twitter’s headquarters, a statue of Ronald Reagan — partly submerged in water in plexiglass cases and lit with medicinal ambers and greens. Pumps recirculated the water over the prints, erasing them slowly, like the washer in a darkroom or a hotel water feature or, maybe, liberal tears. The message was propagandistically clear: climate change is real; the water is rising; turn back the tide while you still can.

Now, three of these flooded works appear at LAXART, a nonprofit project space in Los Angeles, as part of Kline’s new exhibition, “Adaptation.” In this setting, they seem less declarative, more hunkered down. The relentless combination of time and trickling water soaks the photographs with an aura of romantic decline. A Silicon Valley McMansion’s peaked roof peers through a curtain of cloudy fluid in “Luxury Home, Los Altos Hills.” A white patch of blight creeps up from the bottom of “Deck, Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, Menlo Park.” In “432 Park Avenue, Manhattan,” which depicts a supertall residential tower that may be more an investment storehouse than an actual home, a little scummy foam jiggles on the water’s surface.

Kline’s earnest warnings about the effects of climate change are still blunt — the immediate greed of energy and tech and lifestyle companies will still doom our civilization, if not the world, to a watery end. (In fact, the artist doubles down: the back room also features “Consumer Fragility Meltdown,” 2019, a soy wax model of two commercial buildings slumping and sweating on a heated steel table.) But as each image breaks apart, Kline’s message also erodes. Ambivalence creeps through the gaps. Then, when the emulsion has been rinsed away, the print is replaced and the cycle begins again.

McMansions are often connected to climate change and concerns about the environment. This can happen in two ways. McMansions themselves are the problem: they take up a lot of land, they require a lot of resources to build and maintain, and they exist in part due to a sprawling, car-dependent social arrangement.

The second way of linking McMansions and climate change is to use the symbol of McMansions as indicating larger concerns about sprawl, pollution, land use, and environmental destruction. McMansions are an easy target for an era in the United States revolving around consumption, the use of resources, and limited action regarding consequences. It is less about the individual dwellings than it is about an ethos or an era without regard for environmental consequences.

Put that McMansion in Silicon Valley and perhaps the symbol is even more potent: in a time of technological and lifestyle changes, people lived in these environmentally destructive homes in one of the wealthiest and most influential parts of the United States.

Explaining why there is not a flood of McMansion construction

Houses are in short supply, housing prices are up, there is money to be made. Why are more McMansions not under construction?

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With houses selling for so much, you’d think there would be a big incentive for developers to throw up new units, which they can do quite quickly. I still remember driving around New Jersey during the McMansion boom and being amazed at how quickly houses went up. Why aren’t the developers rushing in now?

In correspondence, my old M.I.T. classmate and economist Charles Steindel pointed me to the likely answer: It’s the supply chain, stupid.

This makes sense given current conditions: an increased cost in materials plus difficulty acquiring materials might translate into fewer profits in building McMansions.

I do wonder if there are additional factors at work. A few quick ideas:

  1. McMansions have an established reputation. There are still plenty of people who will buy one but there is also a clear connotation about the home when this specific term is used. Hence, “luxury homes” instead.
  2. How much land is available and how many communities would welcome them? It is one thing to have teardown McMansions in desirable communities and neighborhoods and another to build McMansions on the sprawling edges of suburbia.
  3. There is more money to be made in even larger houses. Why build McMansions when there are enough customers for even larger and/or more opulent homes? Perhaps the money in McMansions comes at a sizable building scale while the per lot/house profits on even more expensive homes is preferred.

McMansions are not going away as they are an established part of the American housing stock. But, it will be worth watching how many new ones are constructed, where, and by whom.

Too many teardown McMansions in the Washington, D.C. region?

One writer complains of the spread of “infill McMansions” in the Washington D.C. region:

An example of a teardown McMansion – Naperville, Illinois

The modus operandi is always the same: Take a totally usable older house that is the same style and size as neighboring dwellings, though perhaps needing a rehab, and knock it flat, along with every mature tree on the property—there will be no room for them, owing to the enormous footprint of the planned structure. Then construct a particle-board chateau that has at least 75 percent more square footage than the neighbors, complete with a quarter-acre driveway for the obligatory Range Rover…

While the sheer size of the structure guarantees disharmony with the local houses, the eye-lacerating incongruity of its style brings it to a new level. The structures resemble the architecture of the Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany—as imagined by Walt Disney, or perhaps Liberace. As with McMansions everywhere, the new owners could have obtained a sounder design for less, but they prefer the turrets, portes-cochères, and ill-proportioned Palladian windows that they bought.

The basic proportions are unfailingly clumsy. The roofs aren’t symmetrical, so that one more giant walk-in closet could be shoehorned in. From the side, this asymmetry and the too-small windows make the construct look like an old sawmill in the Pacific Northwest, or a three-story wooden barracks hurriedly thrown up during World War II. Some manage to look imposing from the front, mimicking George Mason’s brick mansion. But closer inspection reveals the fraud: The front is a brick veneer; the sides and back consist of vinyl siding. Often enough, the brick is a shocking uremic yellow…

The infill McMansion spectacle is a warning and a symptom, like political polarization, of the rising income inequality and concomitant decline of community feeling in the United States. It is not something that fell out of the sky, but a phenomenon that was carefully engineered by financial management.

Having just published an article on suburban teardowns outside Chicago, it is interesting to see similar processes at work in wealthier communities in another region.

Even as the focus of this piece is on a particular kind of McMansion – the teardown McMansion – the critique of McMansions hits multiple aspects of such homes I identified in a 2012 article. Here is what I see above:

-Teardowns are a problem in multiple ways. They often do not fit the architecture of neighborhood. They take up too much of the lot on which they are built.

-The size of the teardown and the incongruity with the existing homes are not the only problems: the architecture of the home is subpar. A McMansion can take multiple architectural features and styles and try to mash them together in an imposing array of size and newness.

-McMansions are problematic houses but also symbols of other significant societal problems. The article notes income inequality and a lack of community plus financial intrusion in housing.

So, yes, critics argue teardowns or infill McMansions have some unique disadvantages. But, these concerns about teardowns are connected to concerns about McMansions as a whole.

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…