McMansions as misplaced societal priorities

An obituary of a notable architect turned architectural critic concludes with a passage linking McMansions to larger societal ills:

Michael Sorkin, a fiery champion of social justice and sustainability in architecture and urban planning, who emerged as one of his profession’s most incisive public intellectuals over a multifaceted career as a critic, author, teacher and designer, died March 26 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 71…

“Civilizations are marked by their priorities,” he wrote, “and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture — that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”

This would fit well into the fourth dimension of the term “McMansion” I discuss in analyzing hundreds of articles in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that use the term. Here, McMansions are symbols of larger issues. In this case, Sorkin argues that society has the wrong priorities; instead of McMansions, we should look at “good housing for all.”

In this kind of argument, the McMansion is a symptom of larger issues. Fight against McMansions, as some critics and communities have done, and the larger issues still remain. If McMansions are part of larger issues, addressing the design and construction of McMansions may do relatively little to change conditions or address important social problems. Indeed, addressing architecture and local regulations might be much easier to do that considering systemic concerns. What about building large houses in general, not just McMansions? What about incentivizing or requiring the construction of affordable housing? What about sustainability? What about building communities with fewer private spaces and more attractive public spaces? McMansions might be particularly noteworthy – hence McMansion Hell – but they are products of particular conditions and processes.

Perhaps flipping the question around makes for a more provocative conversation: instead of thinking of how McMansions symbolize larger social problems in American society, we could think of whether a more just or equal or good society would or could have as many McMansions. Are they mutually exclusive? Must the McMansions decrease so that better outcomes would result?

From self-help advice to living in a McMansion

Two authors looking at patterns in self-help books suggest they provide readers with aspirations and dreams of living in McMansions:

Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer are dedicated to finding answers to those questions. They are the authors of “How to be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books” and the hosts of the “By the Book,” a podcast in which they both follow the rules of one self-help book for two weeks...

On the aspirational nature of self-help books and their authors

Meinzer: A lot of these books are setting themselves up, or setting the authors up to be who we should aspire to be. We should be as exciting, as entrepreneurial, as organized, as worldly as this person selling dietary supplements and living in a McMansion.

Maybe some of us don’t want that. Maybe there are a lot of other ways we can be, and we can all be very content living what works for us.

And unfortunately, a lot of the self help books we’ve lived by do somehow create a world view that this is the one single way to be.

From The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 to today, Americans seem to enjoy looking for reinforcement regarding getting ahead and becoming successful in life. And it is not an accident that this often connects back to the suburbs. I take the reference above to “living in a McMansion” to be a reference to achieving the American Dream, often defined as living with a nuclear family in a suburban single-family home in a attractive neighborhood or community. This is a powerful ideology reinforced by decades of government policy, American values, race, and religion.

A lot of this came together in the 1950s: with postwar prosperity and change, numerous social forces – including self-help books – promoted a suburban lifestyle. This was not without its critics attacking the suburban good life from numerous angles, ranging from urbanists promoting city life to clergy decrying the abandonment of cities, but they could do little to stem the tide. (See James Hudnut-Beumler’s book Looking for God in the Suburbs has the best academic treatment of this subject.) After this, the American Dream was sealed: it was not just about getting ahead or making a better life but rather involved a successful suburban life.

It is also interesting to consider why a McMansion is a potent symbol of this suburban good life through self-help. Is it because it is a relatively new home? Is it because the external features of the McMansion – architecture, square footage, impressive facade – are meant to impress? (Critics of McMansions would argue that these are exactly the problems with McMansions: they appeal to particular tastes and hide all sorts of deficiencies.) Are there people who follow self-help principles, become successful, and buy tasteful older homes or live in mid-century modern suburban homes?

The advantages McMansions may offer for working from home

With coronavirus pushing more people to work from home, I have seen more advice about setting up a home workspace. I found one example that suggests workers in all kinds of homes face similar challenges:

First things first: As we’re learning, there’s no “normal” with the coronavirus. But that also applies to where you live. “Home workers” now include apartment dwellers, Millennials who share a house, Midwesterners with basements, suburbanites in McMansions, and more. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, within your own unique environment. Still, some rules apply to just about everyone.

Is this true? Do McMansion-dwellers have any advantages in working out of their large homes? A few ideas:

  1. All that space means McMansion occupants have plenty of options to choose from regarding where to work. They could even rotate (though these articles tend to emphasize making one space a clearly delineated work space).
  2. All that space also means they can keep their distance from all other occupants.
  3. Although the McMansion might have a lot of open common space, there are likely parts of the house that can be pretty quiet and separate from other activities.
  4. Related to #1-3, who likes open office plans?
  5. If a worker needs to bring lots of materials home, the McMansion likely has a lot of storage space. A temporary home office might barely be noticed.
  6. Because of the size of the home, the walk from the office space to the kitchen or bathroom could be a sufficient break or help the worker acquire their needed steps.
  7. The McMansion home worker pressed for cash could rent out a room or create a coworking space (while attending to local zoning codes, of course).
  8. There could be enough space to recreate the spaces in a large office building, ranging from a workout room to a large eating area to spacious bathroom to room to spread out one’s work.

Americans like their private spaces but being confined to one’s home for a few weeks may just reinforce the desire of some to have plenty of space.

Fox Business defines a McMansion, misses teardowns and broader social patterns

McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:

McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.

According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…

The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.

The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:

The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:

  1. Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
  2. McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.

McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.

McMansions intrude on supersized ski resort

A look at a busy ski resort in Vermont references the supersized houses along the slopes:

Stratton’s 11 lifts move 33,928 skiers upward per hour, up from 21,078 in 1995—far more efficient than the child-eating, circa-’70s rope tow at Snow Valley. Quicker than expected, I was aloft, cozily wedged into the six-person chair, thrust into exhilaration. Evoking the rare weeks my family had skied in the Rocky Mountains, it all seemed blissfully familiar until our chair zipped past McMansions scattered up the hill—jarring, very 2020, real estate intrusions.

Add ski resort to the collection of consumer goods and experiences that have become supersized. While I do not think linking McMansions and skiing will have the same resonance or reach as McMansions and SUVs, the general idea is the same: Americans want to consume and bigger is better.

At the same time, does the view of a McMansion disturb a ski lift ride or a trip down a hill? In general, skiing aims to put people back into nature. The soundscape should be peaceful. The slopes can be challenging but enjoyable. The atmosphere should be relaxed. The focus of the article is on the larger crowds – but this also hints at the increased level of development. If skiing is so popular, what developer would pass up the opportunity to plant McMansions nearby?

Racialized McMansions

When I examined the complexity of the term McMansion in New York City and Dallas newspapers, I did not run into this dimension from the San Gabriel Valley as detailed by Wendy Cheng in The Changs Next Door to the Díazes:

In early twenty-first-century multiethnic suburbs with a significant immigrant Chinese presence such as the West SGV, struggles over the landscape are still racially coded in terms of values and territory. For instance (as mentioned in Chapter 2), public discourse around McMansions or “monster homes” – a practice associated with wealthy ethnic Chinese immigrants of tearing down a newly purchased house in order to build a larger house, usually resulting in significant reduction of yard space – is one way in which Asian immigrants are depicted as being unable to conform to American values and ideals. Such practices render them unfit as neighbors and, by extension, as members of American civil society. In short, places coded as Chinese or Asian, like the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinatowns before them, continue to be seen either as threats encroaching on implicitly white, American suburban space or as autonomous foreign spaces that serve particular functions but are not to exceed their prescribed bounds. The prescription and negotiation of these bounds is a conflictual process, with both symbolic and material consequences. (133-134)

Here, the term McMansion is fulfilling two dimensions of the term McMansion I discussed: it is meant as a pejorative term and it applies to a situation where a property owner tears down a home and constructs a larger home. Both are common uses for the term.

Typically, McMansion concerns involve wealthier and white residents. The term can have classist connotations: the nouveau riche may purchase a McMansion to show off their wealth while those with more taste would purchase a modernist home or go a custom architect-designed home. In this particular context, McMansion is applied to a particular group of owners as well as their position in the community and the country. This is not just about a newcomer coming in with resources and disrupting a particular neighborhood character. This usage links McMansions to a broader history of race and ethnicity plus ongoing conflicts in many American communities, suburbs included, about who is welcome. Single-family homes are not the only feature of the suburban American Dream; this ideal also includes exclusion by race and ethnicity. And to welcome a new resident with the term McMansion is not intended to be a kind beginning.

I will look for further connections of McMansions to race and ethnicity. Are there other communities in the Los Angeles area where McMansion is used in similar ways? Is the term applied to other racial or ethnic groups in other places?

Contrasting tiny weddings to reduced interest in McMansions and SUVs

I first read about “tiny weddings” yesterday – and the lede suggested they are the opposite of consuming big items:

Big SUVs, McMansions and the term “bigger is better” are all things that used to connote living your best life. Now, consumers are shifting to the opposite end of that spectrum, including those who want to tie the knot.

Tiny weddings (aka microweddings) are a growing trend for couples who want to have their special day with less worry and spend less money (think $2,000 to $3,000) at a time when annual reports like those from The Knot state that the national average cost of a wedding is $33,931. The smaller ideal also comes at a time when families are picking up less of the tab for the big day and student-loan debt is infringing on wedding dreams and goals. The tiny wedding limits the numbers of attendees. The average wedding in the U.S. has 126 guests, according to the WeddingWire 2019 Newlywed Report.

To some degree, McMansions and SUVs are back. And linking the two might be in vogue for a long time.

But there is a bigger question at play here: is the suggestion correct that Americans are now less interested in purchasing big items? I have heard this for years: Americans are past the garishness and ostentatious purchases of the 1980s through the early 2000s. They learned their lessons about too much debt, too much emphasis on material objects, and the impact on social life. They are now more interested in consuming experiences than items. They want to live simpler, less cluttered lives. Tiny houses are in, McMansions out.

At the same time, with an economy that slowly recovered after the housing bubble of the late 2000s is this true in regards to SUVs and McMansions? Both are expensive, particularly compared to other options in their categories. They both have their critics and these criticisms have dogged them for decades. Yet, both seem to be thriving among the sectors of the buying public that like them. Both appear to have a future. If Americans continue to desire single-family homes and there are still forces arranged to push them toward large homes, McMansions will continue.