An additional reason to dislike Chicago McMansions: contributing to lower population density

One Chicago observer suggests teardown McMansions impoverish the city in three ways: they suburbanize neighborhoods, they are poorly built and do not fit in with the architectural context of the city, and help lower the population density of neighborhoods. More on this third point:

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But Chicago’s density is declining, and some of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods have actually started to lose residents. Lincoln Par, once home to 102,000 people, barely housed 70,000 in 2020. Lakeview, once holding 124,000, was at 103,050 around the same time. North Center had decreased from 48,000 to 35,114, and nearby community such as West Town and Bucktown had similar fallen in scale.

These neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, and much of this de-densification may be due to a “spreading out” of sorts; wealthier people are moving in and are able to afford more space.

But there’s more to it than that. Previously, when a neighborhood in Chicago was in demand, builders capitalized, and the housing stock swelled. Chicago’s zoning laws, however, have changed, and while they allow for high-rise development in various downtown areas, they prohibit this same approach in neighborhoods. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how strict the zoning ode is in residential areas, single-family homes are pretty much always allowed.

One theory, termed “The homevoter hypothesis,” speculates that this is due to the control that homeowners have on urban development. Their interests have the most influence on local aldermen and, therefore, residential development. The good of the community and the city is not a factor in their agenda, which instead focuses on home value growth, and how to wield zoning changes in order to achieve it.

The argument seems to make sense: those who want to live in more well-off Chicago neighborhoods bring resources and an interest in larger homes. This could mean converting structures to single-family homes or tearing down older structures and starting over from scratch. If there is indeed an increase in larger single-family homes in Chicago, there should be data to support this. Anecdotally, my occasional travels in some of these neighborhoods suggests a good number of new homes nestled between two-flats and three-flats.

Additionally, there may be other forces at work that could also be leading to de-densification in Chicago neighborhoods:

  1. Chicago residents are leaving neighborhoods faster than people want to come in, regardless of what housing stock is available. The population is down in a number of neighborhoods across the city.
  2. The demand for new housing is higher in locations in and around the Loop because of the concentration of jobs and cultural opportunities plus the activity of developers. While Chicago has been known as a city of neighborhoods for a long time, the neighborhoods might not be as hot as the center.
  3. Developers and builders also want these new single-family homes because they can make a lot of money on each property.

Put all of this together and the new Chicago McMansions represent a change to numerous streets and neighborhoods.

Rare McMansion mention on HGTV

For a network focused on single-family homes, the term McMansion is rarely uttered on HGTV. Here is one example I ran into a few weeks back on My Lottery Dream Home:

On the top left of the image, you can faintly see some of the narration over the image: “Willow Park Way that almost looked like a McMansion.”

Almost a McMansion. The exterior here has some interesting features that might place it in McMansion territory: multiple roof lines, interesting window placement, a large house, in a sprawling Texas community.

Even as the couple did not select this home at the end, it is interesting the term was applied to this home and not the others which also could have been viewed as McMansions. Present a large suburban home with a front meant to impress yet some questionable architectural choices and McMansions may just come to mind.

Why the term McMansion is not used much on HGTV is probably very straight forward: it is not a positive term and does not connote the kind of quality of home the network would like to depict. Whether the McMansion is too large, a teardown, aesthetically unappealing, or connected to sprawl or excessive consumption, few people would likely loudly say they like such a home or live in such a dwelling.

At the same time, this episode was set in suburban Texas where housing tastes are different than in more sophisticated markets. In my comparison of the use of the word McMansion in the New York and Dallas regions, there was more openness in Dallas to such homes and what they represent. Surely, some McMansion dwellers and afficionados watch HGTV and they might be in markets where McMansions are not so disliked.

I will keep checking for more mentions of McMansions on HGTV. As I do, I am much more likely to hear terms like mid-century modern or country farmhouse much more than the term McMansion.

The importance of a house’s roof to its longevity

In thinking of houses in light of both recent tornado activity in the Chicago area and reading the book The World Without Us, I was reminded of the importance of the roof for a building. Here is how author Alan Weisman puts it when discussing an abandoned home:

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The resin in your cost-conscious choice of a woodchip roof, a waterproof goo of formaldehyde and phenol polymer, was also applied along the board’s exposed edges, but it fails anyway because moisture enters around the nails. Soon they’re rusting, and their grip begins to loosen. That presently leads not only to interior leaks, but to structural mayhem. Besides underlying the roofing, the wooden sheathing secures trusses to each other. The trusses – premanufactured braces held together with metal connection plates – are there to keep the roof from splaying. But when the sheathing goes, structural integrity goes with it.

As gravity increases tension on the trusses, the 1/4-inch pins securing their now-rusting connector plates pull free from the wet wood, which now sports a fuzzy coating of greenish mold. Beneath the mold, threadlike filaments called hyphae are secreting enzymes that break cellulose and lingin down into fungi food. The same thing is happening to the floors inside. When the heat went off, pipes burst if you lived where it freezes, and rain is blowing in where windows have cracked from bird collisions and the stress of sagging walls. Even where the glass is still intact, rain and snow mysteriously, inexorably work their way under sills. As the wood continues to rot, trusses start to collapse against each other. Eventually the walls lean to one side, and finally the roof falls in. That bard roof with the 18-by-18-inch hole was likely gone inside of 10 years. Your house’s lasts maybe 50 years; 100, tops. (19)

The roof helps connect all of the walls and hold the house together and it also serves to keep the elements out from above. Once a hole begins and air, sun, rain, snow, and creatures can get in through the roof, it is just a matter of time before it all starts falling apart. Without a functioning roof, a house may not last long.

Granted, the scenario above discusses when homes are abandoned, an unlikely outcome in many communities. At the same time, this provides a reminder of the need to stay vigilant about roofs. For many homeowners, this is not an easy task: it might be hard to view all of the roof from the ground or from inside the house, accessing the roof might be difficult, and not everyone regularly looks at the underside of the roof depending on the layout of the home and the access.

So when people complain about the build quality of homes or McMansions, I wonder how much they consider the roof. If a mass produced McMansion truly is inferior in quality, would the roof go first or the siding or the walls or the foundation or something else? All could be problematic for the longevity of a home but the roof in particular presents important problems.

Would city residents rather live next to a 6,000 sq foot teardown McMansion or a fourplex?

With one proposal in San Francisco to tear down a 1,200 square foot older home and replace it with a 6,000 square foot home, the neighbors say they would rather have a fourplex in its place:

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The even crazier part? One super-rich family can live in 6,000 square feet, but the same-size box in Noe Valley and the majority of San Francisco could not include homes of 1,500 square feet apiece for four families. (This proposal would include an in-law unit, but the city doesn’t check whether they’re occupied, and it’s believed there are thousands of vacant units around the city.)…

“We would 100% support this if it was four families,” said Schwarz, who bought his own home in 2004.

So would his neighbor Steve Boeddeker, who said he’s irked developers are scooping up homes all over the neighborhood to turn them into McMansions and resell them for many millions…

The current rules for McMansions aren’t working. They’re allowed, though neighbors can file a discretionary review application, arguing there are “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” that require more analysis. Five families have done that for the Noe Valley home, including Shannon Hughes and her husband, Schwarz.

This is an interesting case as San Francisco is often considered ground-zero for issues of overpriced housing, the need for affordable housing, and NIMBY responses to new development.

At least in public comment, few people would say they want to live next to a teardown McMansion. The extra-large size of the new home in comparison to the existing older homes plus the new and poorly regarded architectural design mean that plenty of neighbors do not like the new land use. The teardown is a threat to the existing character of the neighborhood.

At the same time, relatively few residents want to have a single-family neighborhood convert land into higher density residential units. Even as one fourplex is not that many more units, Americans often have negative ideas about renters in apartments or feel that increased density will threaten their property values and neighborhood feel.

My guess is that plenty of urban homeowners would prefer that neither option arrive next door: keep the teardowns and the conversions into multiple units somewhere else. But, if the choice is between the two, the McMansion may be the worst option.

In the past year, Americans moved to less expensive but bigger homes

A new report from Zillow shows what kinds of homes Americans chose in the last year:

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By and large, Americans chose bigger — and less expensive — homes, particularly if they moved across state lines. Zillow’s analysis looked at data from North American Van Lines, a trucking company based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This was “a notable reversal of trends from prior years,” Zillow economist Jeff Tucker said in the report.

The average home value in the ZIP codes that movers left was $419,344, versus $392,381 for the ZIP codes they relocated to. That represents a difference of roughly $27,000.

But a cheaper home doesn’t mean a smaller one. While the average size of the homes movers left behind was the largest since Zillow began tracking this data in 2016, the average size of the new homes people chose was even larger. The average difference in size, according to the analysis, was 33 square feet…

This is allowing Americans to get the most bang for their buck in the housing market, rather than needing to sacrifice affordability or space in the name of living closer to urban centers.

Is this a perfect distillation of the American Dream at this period of history? “The biggest house for the least amount of money.”

I wonder how this might affect broader patterns regarding the size of American homes. The size of new houses grew steadily from 1950 on but has leveled off in recent years. At the same time, I could imagine a scenario where small shifts as described above help keep inching up the size of American homes. Here is how this might work:

  • From the summary, it sounds like people moved, on average, to slightly bigger houses. Having 33 more square feet is not that much – imagine a 5.5 x 6 foot space (bathroom? mudroom? closet?) – but it is an increase.
  • There does seem to be some interest in not living in McMansions or extra-large houses (see a recent example). Some have suggested prior generations wanted crazy amounts of space while younger adults today want more reasonably sized homes.
  • So imagine the standard size of a “small house” keeps inching up – there are fewer starter homes so people go to bigger houses, new or old, to start – while there is less interest in homes 4,000 square feet and up (which relatively few Americans owned in the first place). In other words, the size of American homes move more because truly small homes are phased out and truly large homes fall more out of favor.

A purchased home does not need to be a McMansion to be a bigger home compared to past standards or even smaller units today.

A McMansion with a real McDonald’s/fast food theme inside?

A home in suburban New York has an interior devoted to McDonald’s and fast food:

There is a New York house for sale that was decorated as a love affair with fast food and it’s crazy. The kitchen looks like a modern McDonald’s complete with a kids section with old playland furniture. There are also tons of old fast food memorabilia like Ronald McDonald statues and stained glass that was used in McDonald’s restaurants in the 70s.

The fast-food theme doesn’t just start and end with McDonald’s. It includes Burger King, Wendys, and White Castle too…

This is the actual kitchen in this house. Does that not look like a modern McDonalds? Just about the only things missing are cash registers and a drive-thru window…

I swear I didn’t just run down to my local McDonalds and snap a picture of their bathroom. I mean really, how creepy would that be? This one of the bathrooms off the kitchen and it looks just like one you’d find in a typical fast food joint.

According to Zillow, the home is over 3,400 square feet and has seven bedrooms:

The term McMansion is linked to McDonald’s in that the “Mc-” prefix implies something mass produced with relatively poor quality. Does this home fit? The home is big, roughly 1,000 more square feet than the average new home. The exterior is interesting: the proportions are off as the top windows which look like they are symmetrical do not line up with the bottom features where the entryway (completely with columned portico) and garage are offset. The gables over the top windows are unncessary though the siding looks consistent.

Is the house a bit odd looking? Yes. Is the McDonald’s and fast food interior unique? Yes. But, I wonder if something else is going on here that does not quite line up with the McMansion moniker. When I first saw the home and location, I wondered if this was a postwar house. Indeed, the Zillow listing says the home was constructed in 1947. My guess is that this home had at least one addition or major change since its initial construction and these add-ons contributed to the odd facade. When people use the term McMansion, they tend to refer to a home built since the 1980s that was constructed with the poor features and quality. This home is not that. When looking on Google Street View, many of the nearby homes look to be older homes as well.

Perhaps this home is more like a McMansion because the interior specifically references fast food. Is it ironic? Nostalgic? Does all of it come the property? Put a Golden Arches in front of the house and this might be accurately termed a McDonald’s House, not a McMansion.

Out with vacation McMansions but keep going with pricey, exclusive, luxurious homes

An article about a popular new development in Park City, Utah suggests millennials do not want McMansions but the rest of the text suggests they are not giving up on having nice homes:

https://www.benlochranch.com/

What Benloch Ranch represents is a collision of trends in real estate and demographics. Millennials of homebuying age are rejecting the sizes of their parents’ homes, so-called cookie-cutter McMansions. And the second-home market, hastened by COVID and the same millennial-buying population, is booming. The pandemic has forced buyers to value outdoor spaces and activities more than ever before. Benloch Ranch currently has a waitlist of 175 for its single-family lots…

The development’s amenities include more than 20 miles of trails, a ski hill, a skeet shooting range, an ice skating pond and 900 acres of open space…

A lot of millenials don’t want these big houses anymore. We’re redefining the size and scale of the house and altering the price point so it’s more affordable.”

According to data released by the Park City Board of REALTORS, the median price  single-family home rose roughly 26% year-over-year to $2.5 million. Benloch Ranch offers single-family homes starting at $695,000.

The pitch is an attractive one: lean into the terrain and the idea of sustainability, feature interesting architecture, provide amenities, be close to an exciting scene and in at the start of a new development. This is a shift to new preferences of millennial buyers. The vacation homes of today and the future may look different and there is money to be made.

At the same time, this is about vacation homes in a wealthy community. This development has potential because millennials with resources can afford a vacation home starting at $700k. Sure, there are no more McMansions with all of that wasted space and tacky design but this kind of life is only available to those who can buy into it. The price for these homes would be beyond the reach of many residents of the Salt Lake City region, let alone many residents of the United States.

Does this mean the McMansion vacation homes of an older generation will not find buyers? This will be worth watching, both for vacation homes and regular homes. If McMansions go out of style, this could be reflected in lower prices or modifications – imagine multiple units – or even redevelopment.

McMansions as a symbol of excessive consumption, end of life satisfaction edition

One of the more interesting definitions of McMansions I encountered in my 2012 study involved the homes serving as a symbol of excessive consumption. Here is a recent example:

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The survey shows—and it’s not even close—that the No. 1 way in which people define a good life is “having family and friends that love me.” The answer was nearly universal, cited by 94% of respondents. After this came “making a positive impact on society (75%). Having a high-powered job or bunking down each night in a McMansion might be nice, but in the end such things don’t mean that you’re loved or respected or that you’ve made your community a better place.

This finding is a common one: people at the end of life say relationships matter more than what they bought or consumed. For example, see the results of the Grant Study:

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” Vaillant says. Close relationships, the data indicates, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. The study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction, and better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, wealth, fame, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.

Yet, the comparisons made to what really matters – relationships – are interesting as they target key markers of success in the United States. The first is a high-status job. Adults often define their worth and status by their job. Second is the home. In a country that idealizes owning a single-family home, this makes for a striking alternative to prioritizing people.

Why pick a McMansion here as opposed to a typical suburban single-family home? There could be several reasons. A McMansion is a particular symbol of success, a home whose facade tries to exude status. A McMansion is larger than a typical single-family home, usually coming in between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. And, perhaps most important here, the McMansion is a symbol of the wrong kind of consumption. Owners are trying too hard with their home to show off. The home is poorly designed. Compared to life-giving relationships, the McMansion pales in comparison. Rather than think of people who are McMansion-rich but house poor, think of people who own a McMansion but have poor relationships…a furthering of a long-standing suburban plot where people look like they have achieved the American Dream but their lives are falling apart.

Looking at creepy abandoned McMansions on TikTok

Empty McMansions that were intended to be part of a resort in Missouri have caught the attention of TikTok users:

As @carriejernigan1 explains in her video, the Indian Ridge Resort was meant to be a $1.6 billion development, complete with a wild amount of luxurious amenities. According to Missouri’s KYTV-TV, developers wanted Indian Ridge Resort to feature a shopping mall, a marina, a golf course, a 390-room hotel, a museum and the world’s second-largest indoor water park.

Many of those projects never got off the ground, as @carriejernigan1’s video shows. TikTok users were naturally creeped out by her clip, which shows decaying McMansions amid a sea of overgrown plants. Some called the ghost town “scary” or “nightmare-inducing.”…

This is not the first time I have run across creepy McMansions in Missouri. I recall the presence of McMansions in Gone Girl. Perhaps McMansions make some sense here: it is a conservative state in the middle of the country where people might be more willing to purchase such homes.

At the same time, the connection to a resort near Branson is an interesting twist. This is not just a normal suburban neighborhood of McMansions occupied by crass suburbanites in the Midwest. These homes were part of a larger luxurious project. From the TikTok video, the homes themselves seem to be larger than a typical suburban McMansion. The McMansions themselves are not meant to on their own impress people visiting or driving by; the whole resort community would help do that.

This also offers intriguing possibilities for how these McMansions might be reused. It may not be worth it for another developer to come in and finish off these homes. Could the materials be repurposed? Could the homes be completed but subdivided to create smaller units? Could this be some sort of weird theme park involving these homes (think Halloween where abandoned McMansions become haunted houses)?

Who exactly designs “zany McMansions”?

Are architects capable of designing McMansions?

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Pro tip: One of the more fun ways to hunt for real estate is to go to your favorite site and search the keyword “architect.” You’ll end up with a lot of zany McMansions, but among the chaff are some well-pedigreed gems.

While this sounds like an interesting exercise, it brings up an important question. Who exactly is designing the McMansions that critics revile?

One of the biggest critiques of McMansions is that they are poorly designed and their architectural quality is suspect. This might come in the form of odd proportions or a mish-mash of styles or a blending of features. Instead of a pleasing aesthetic, the McMansion presents a mass produced version of something that tries to nod to established homes but only succeeds in aping such residences.

Typically left unsaid in these critiques is who exactly put together these unpleasing designs. Often the designs for homes come from builders or developers. What they have in mind when designing a home may not be the same as architects.

I would guess that architects would prefer that more single-family homes are designed by architects. Not only would this supply more work, it would have likely lead to more architecturally coherent homes. The emphasis might be less on providing space, an impressive front, and the most bang-for-your-buck, and instead focus on beauty plus functionality. Of course, some homes could l look great in the eyes of some and not be very desirable (see some modernist structures).

Perhaps more of the focus should come back to builders and developers: what could they do to provide the features American buyers want while also designing more architecturally pleasing homes? The same McMansions might not be so bad for many if they had a better design or fit the neighborhood better. Some would still object to the size of the home – is it really necessary to have 3,000-10,000 square feet? – but at least it would not be in danger of easy attacks. The architectural coherence could affect the price point but might also help the long-term reputation of the neighborhood and builder.