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…

New publication – More than 300 Teardowns Later: Patterns in Architecture and Location among Teardowns in Naperville, Illinois, 2008-2017

I recently published an article in the Journal of Urban Design (online first) analyzing several hundred teardowns in Naperville, Illinois. Here is the abstract (and several of the pictures I took for the study depicting recent teardowns):

Analyzing before and after images of 349 teardowns between 2008 and 2017 in the wealthy and sprawling suburb of Naperville, Illinois, shows patterns in aesthetic choices and their fit in older neighbourhoods. First, the teardowns are significantly larger and have different features including larger garages and more windows. Second, over 60% of the teardowns feature Victorian styling. Third, the teardowns are often next to other teardowns in desirable neighbourhoods near the suburb’s vibrant downtown. These visual findings show how teardowns that add to the housing stock often imitate common architectural styles yet exhibit disparate features compared to older neighbouring homes.

This project had several starting points.

First, I started studying the phenomenon of McMansions back in graduate school and eventually published a study looking at how the term was used in the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News. The idea of a McMansion has multiple dimensions – size, relative size, poor architecture and design, and a symbol for other issues including sprawl and conspicuous consumption – and the word can be used differently across locations.

Second, I started studying Naperville in graduate school as part of a larger project examining suburban growth and development. I published some of this research in two places: (1) examining consequential character moments in different suburbs, including Naperville, and (2) analyzing the surprising population growth in Naperville that helped take it from a small suburb to a thriving boomburb. Naperville is a unique suburban community with lots of teardown activity in recent decades.

Third, I am broadly interested in housing. This is particularly important for suburbs where owning and protecting single-family homes – and all that comes with it – are primary goals. Additionally, residential segregation based on housing is a powerful force in American society.

All three of these streams helped lead to this project. And there is a lot more that could be done in this area as teardowns affect numerous neighborhoods and communities in the United States.

McMansions and Beanie Babies

A new documentary suggests the Beanie Baby craze began among big houses in Naperville:

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The Gist: It all started with a few white ladies in Naperville, Illinois – because of course it did. In the mid-1990s in the culs-de-sac of the affluent suburban Midwest, where triple-wide driveways flank brick McMansions, Joni, Becky and Mary Beth decided they liked cute little hand-sized stuffies produced by modestly sized toy company Ty Inc., and wanted to collect them all. An inauspicious beginning, yes, but one that would find Ty founder, future billionaire and eventual criminal tax evader H. Ty Warner ignoring how Mary Beth helped stir nationwide consumer frenzies for his products, and suing her for copyright infringement. So this story has its heroes and villains, a couple who fall somewhere in-between, and a nation of millions who caused a subsequent consumer demand for plastic totes so they can shove their hundreds of worthless Beanie Babies beneath the basement steps. (The real winner here? Probably Rubbermaid.)

Based on this short snippet, I am thinking of several possible connections between McMansions and Beanie Babies:

  1. These homes offer lots of space for storing and displaying the toys. All those bonus rooms and square footage mean the owners can have hundreds, no, thousands, of Beanie Babies.
  2. The people who can afford McMansions can afford a lot of Beanie Babies.
  3. Related to #2, those who live in McMansions, homes often criticized for their architecture and design, want to own lots of toys that became a fad.
  4. Perhaps the simplest explanation: roughly 50% of Americans lived in the suburbs by the 1990s, most McMansions are in the suburbs, Naperville’s population was booming at this time, and Ty Warner is from the Chicago area…meaning all of these spaces happened to collide in this toy boom.

Passed down McMansion an albatross or a financial windfall?

One money advice column recently addressed a question regarding what to do with an unwanted McMansion passed down from family:

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My husband and I have been struggling to find a house to buy. Despite having a down payment saved, we still pay rent, and the market is insane where we live. My in-laws have several homes and decided to turn their vacation home into their retirement one. After their last renter moved, they offered their old suburban house to my husband and myself for free. It is very generous—unpromptedly so!—but I hate the idea. It was built in the mid-1990s and never updated. It is huge, designed in echo-y open concept style, with half the space barely useable for everyday life. Other than the downstairs master’s, the utility room, and the upstairs bedrooms and baths, there are no doors. You can overhear a normal conversation in any part of the house. The back and front yard are huge (did I mention my husband and I have black thumbs?) The commute would be horrible enough, with the house over an hour away from where we work, but given traffic and the never-ending road construction, that time can almost triple. And the local culture here is barren—no theater, no art, no nightlife unless you want to go to a chain restaurant.

There is no question that my in-laws will be insulted and offended if we reject moving into the house and chose to sell it and use the funds to buy something better for our lifestyle. They will call us ungrateful. My husband thinks we need to take the offer and wait a year or two before selling it. I don’t know—the market can’t stay like this forever, and I do not want to get dragged into a house flip. The commute will kill my mental health. Right now I can walk to work. My husband bikes when he isn’t working from home. There is some sentimentality at play, since my husband spent his last year of high school in this house, and his sister grew up in it. And my in-laws are thin-skinned and very proud. Is this the golden goose or a white elephant?

—House Hunters

Dear House Hunters,I wouldn’t say it’s a golden goose or a white elephant, I’d say it’s more of a “hold your horses” situation. Here’s why. You want to offload the house while the real estate market is hot, and for good reason. It sounds like you’ll be miserable there. No one wants to be miserable, nor should they be made to feel so.  Life’s too short! But I am hearing a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t be living there, not why your husband shouldn’t be living there. It actually sounds like he’d be okay staying there, and stacking some cash. Depending on how much you’re currently paying in rent, you could easily save over five figures. This cash can be put towards the down payment that you currently have saved, but that isn’t enough to get you a competitive offer in your desired area. It could also go towards repairs, to make the house more comfortable, so you could use it as a rental and secure cash flow for your future mortgage payment in the house you actually want.

Also, if you sell the house before living in it for two years, you’re at risk of paying up to 20% of your profit to the IRS. A capital gains tax is a levy on a profit of an investment after it’s sold. One of the items on the list of investments subject to a capital gains tax is real estate. Not to mention, you’d probably make your husband’s life a living hell with his parents if you take the money and run. Who wants that?

You can handle a shitty commute and no museums for a year or two. Offer your husband a compromise, and put a time limit on living in your new digs. Stack the money for over two years. Make enough upgrades to the home that you can charge market value if you sell it—or get a renter, and a cash flow to subsidize your life in your dream house.

Short summary of the advice: you can survive a McMansion for a short time if you can financially benefit from it (and family relationships remain positive).

Two points of this exchange interest me:

  1. The letter writer defines the home in such a way that seems to fit with the moniker “McMansion” applied in the headline. What McMansion traits does this home have? Three are clear here: it is large home with an unpleasant layout located in a suburban area. The relative size of the home is not discussed. The potential homeowner is not fond of such a home.
  2. This is a situation that many younger adults might face in the future. As people age, they may be interested in passing along their suburban McMansions. Do the younger adults want to live in McMansions or would they rather have nothing to do with the actual homes and what they represent? The answer above tries to take an approach in the middle: the home could prove beneficial in the long run even if the younger adults do not wish to stay there long. The McMansion is not shunned but it does have value.

If the younger adults are willing to use the term McMansion to describe the homes of their parents, this could send a particular message about what they think of the house.

Does Ben Simmons live in a McMansion or a mansion?

Basketball all-star Ben Simmons has his house on the market and one publication calls it, in the final paragraph, a McMansion:

Now his McMansion, replete with dedicated “Simmo the Savage” room, has popped up on the market for five big ones. It’s almost too perfect to believe.

Is his suburban home a McMansion? Here are more details about the house from the first two paragraphs of the story:

9 Miller Court, Moorestown, New Jersey. Five beds, six baths. 10,477 square feet of high-end appliances, Cambria quartz countertops, and floor-to-ceiling wine walls blooming from an awe-inspiring grand foyer with a spiral staircase climbing up from its center. All of this and more could be yours for just $4,999,999.

Now at this point, you may find yourself wondering: What sort of small-time CEO or TV actor would occupy such an extravagant abode in southwest New Jersey?

I have seen similar stories before: any big recently-built house of a wealthy person could be labeled a McMansion. And this one is owned by a star in the news! But, some of the details above do not line up with the idea of a McMansion:

  1. The size. This is a large house. I would put the upper cut-off for a McMansion more at like 8,000 or 10,000 square feet. This is not a run-of-the-mill large suburban home.
  2. The price. This is a $5 million home. This is out of the reach of even many wealthy people.
  3. The architecture is a bit strange – the facade mixes styles, features a two story entry, and has modern windows – but the interior finishes seem high-end, not necessarily mass-produced. The home overall does not appear gaudy.

While the home may not look like a traditional mansion or one associated with old money, I would argue it is not a McMansion. This is a big expensive home with a lot of finishes that puts it beyond the typical suburban McMansion.

Redfin – and America – selling an unattainable American Dream of homeownership?

The CEO of Redfin recounts how he has viewed who can and should be able to purchase homes:

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Rampant speculation and skyrocketing property values have left Kelman feeling almost nostalgic for those years leading up to 2008, which, in retrospect, were the last time the working poor could reasonably aspire to home ownership in America. “I used to read stories about strawberry pickers buying McMansions in central California, and everybody viewed that as just the absolute apex of insanity,” Kelman told me. “But reading Piketty five years later, is it so bad that the strawberry picker had a nice house?”

Conceding that the picker probably could not afford his McMansion, and that the loans that put him in it were untenable, Kelman nevertheless liked this gaudy permutation of the American Dream. More than that, he disliked the level of “elitist judgment” surrounding these types of homes, which he views as nothing more sinister than the market’s attempt to grapple with problems politicians are content to ignore. In Kelman’s view, the left is eager to help the poor rent homes but not own them, while the right tends to ignore their plight altogether. Meanwhile, rampant NIMBYism prevents the kind of building that might help bring home prices back down to earth.

It had put him in a mood to reflect somewhat darkly on the future of housing in America. “The original premise of my stint at Redfin was that we’re selling the American Dream and the idea that everyone can afford a house sooner or later if they work hard and play by the rules,” he said. “Recently, I’ve had this feeling that there are so many people who are never going to become Redfin customers — that maybe the product we’ve been selling just isn’t a middle-class product anymore but an affluent product.” In February, anticipating a future in which homeownership is out of reach for more and more people, Redfin spent $608 million to acquire RentPath and its portfolio of apartment-leasing sites.

The story as written suggests that Kelman originally subscribed to the idea that Americans who work hard and follow the rules would be able to purchase a home. This has been at least an implicit idea for decades, particularly in the postwar era. He did not like commentary that suggested some were less deserving to own homes or political positions that limited homeownership. But, after the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, he realized homeownership was not available to all.

If this is correct, the Redfin pivot to apartment-leasing is an interesting choice. This could be a good business decision as rental housing is needed in many communities. At the same time, this does not necessarily line what up with what Kelman expressed. Apartments can provide housing but they do not provide the same kinds of opportunities as housing – such as building wealth – nor are apartment dwellers viewed the same way as homeowners. Americans continue to say that they would prefer to own a home.

Redfin and similar sites could play important roles in what homeownership looks like in the future. Exactly what influence they will have is less clear.