A vote against urban McMansions in 2018

One design and architecture writer takes aim at urban McMansions as a tired trend from 2018:

Allison Arieff (columnist, New York Times):

Urban McMansions. I gotta ask these folks—was it always your dream to live in the Apple store? And if you want to live in 10,000 square feet, maybe you should move to the suburbs?”

Arieff draws attention to three traits of McMansions which she sees as negative:

  1. Their large size. She pegs the size at 10,000 square feet though I would argue that once you are at 10,000 square feet and above, this is more of a mansion than a McMansion.
  2. Their poor or low quality architecture. The comparison here is to an Apple store, presumably a structure of a lot of glass and silver metal. This may be appropriate if you are selling trendy phones and tablets but perhaps not so much in a new residence.
  3. A connection to the suburbs. Whereas McMansions are expected to arise from empty fields, plopping a large McMansion in an urban neighborhood, particularly an older one, could be viewed more negatively. How exactly does a big and poorly-designed single-family home contribute to a vibrant and cosmopolitan city scene?

Together, these homes are an inappropriate size, do not look good, and are meant for a different kind of streetscape and lifestyle. For more, refer to my four traits that can define a McMansion.

Natural disasters provide opportunity to build even bigger homes

In the spirit of “never let a good crisis go to waste,” homeowners in five areas that experienced natural disasters in recent years ended up with larger homes:

To estimate the mean change in real estate, Lazarus and his team gathered satellite data, from sources like Google Earth, of five hurricane-prone places: Mantoloking, New Jersey; Hatteras and Frisco, North Carolina; Santa Rosa Island, Florida; Dauphin Island, Alabama; and Bolivar, Texas. They looked at images taken before the most recent hurricane and compared them to satellite data gathered post-recovery.

Even with conservative study inclusion criteria (any structure that experienced a 15 percent or smaller change in size was excluded, Lazarus says, because with “satellite imagery, there’s tilt, the sun can glare in places, and you have to be careful with what you’re digitizing”), the results were striking. The study found that rebuilds were between 19 and 50 percent larger than the original structure. New construction increased in mean size between 14 percent and 55 percent compared to the buildings that stood before a given storm…

“This is where the moral hazard comes in: the risk of some choice you make is not entirely yours, it’s distributed to other people,” he says. In the United States, for example, taxpayers fund the National Flood Insurance Program, a financially-beleaguered federal entity that insures many of these enormous beach constructions. As a result, every taxpayer is inadvertently “supporting development in risky places,” he says.

There’s also concern that such disasters may be displacing poor and middle-class homeowners, allowing developers to swoop in after a catastrophe and build a wealthy renter or buyer’s dream McMansion from the ashes. In a blog post accompanying the study, Lazarus cited several such events, documented by newspapers around the country. “The one that really continues to hold my attention is the New York Times piece on the Jersey shore,” he says, citing a story about developers who were able to buy bigger lots at depressed prices, permanently changing the community.

I can see why this seems odd. An argument can be made that homes constructed in disaster-prone areas should be more modest. Perhaps homes should not be rebuilt in these locations at all. Building even bigger homes may appear to be throwing caution to the wind.

At the same time, the trend in the United States for a long time has been toward bigger and bigger homes. Regardless of the reason a home is destroyed, would a majority of Americans respond by building a larger home? And this might be especially true in this areas near the beach where homes and land can have a high value (even if there is a threat of disasters).

If a bigger home equals a better home for many Americans, it will be difficult to argue otherwise, regardless of the situation.

Would suburban neighbors rather live next to a McMansion or a home made from shipping containers?

A couple in St. Charles, Illinois has built a 3,200 square foot home constructed out of four shipping containers. What did the neighbors think?

“In the beginning, people just didn’t understand it, and no one 100 percent supported it. But as it progressed, a lot of those people who were hesitant about it started to come on board and see it for what it was, and not just an extravagant trash can,” said Stephanie, the mother of two…

“It’s a custom home. These aren’t cookie-cutter homes. So even if we build another one next week, it will not be the same, and no one else has this home. Even though there are people that say, ‘I don’t know if I’d ever live in one,’ they say, ‘I like what you’ve done.’”…

Clark said his wife didn’t want to mask the unique aesthetics of the containers. The city and the Evans went back and forth with suggestions, requests and recommendations until they arrived at the current design…

One hang-up: Not all associations and subdivisions allow container homes, according to Clark. But the couple hopes that the more common alternative housing becomes, the better received container homes will be.

The home as depicted in the Chicago Tribune:

https://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/ct-re-alternative-home-styles-20181129-story.html

The home is certainly unique. The article leads with this idea: “Goodbye cookie-cutter. So long McMansion. Out with formulaic, in with customization.”

Teardown McMansions are often criticized for not fitting in with the architecture of the neighborhood in which they are built. This container home also does not fit with what is visible of the surrounding architecture. Would the typical suburbanite rather live next to an oversized and architecturally dubious teardown McMansion or an architecturally unique home made of shipping containers?

I would guess the McMansion would be more palatable to a number of suburban residents. Even though McMansions may not match the architecture of the styles they are trying to imitate or they may be a mishmash of styles, they are often (not always) built in somewhat traditional styles. The container home goes for a modern look: boxy, clean lines, different colors, a completely different shape than many suburban homes. Some uniqueness in suburban homes might be okay but this is something totally different. I have argued before Americans prefer McMansions to modernist homes. Perhaps the fact that this modernist home is built of recycled shipping containers helps since the home can be considered greener.

I do not think this housing design is one that will spread like wildfire through suburban residential neighborhoods.

Escaping to a tiny house/anti-McMansion for a getaway

The business Getaway offers tiny houses as an escape from the typical urban area, smartphone dominated life:

The “tiny houses,” or cabins, measure 8 by 20 feet, or about the size of a living room. They cost about $30,000 each to build and are shuttled on truck beds from a factory in Massachusetts to their destination.

McMansions they ain’t. In fact, these two are the anti-McMansion crowd, too.

They cluster the tiny houses in groups of 20 or so on leased woodland, just outside major cities. Each outpost has a long-term lease on private land. Cabins are spaced 200 feet from one another, allowing sufficient privacy. And you can drive right up to the door…

They share a love for community, neighborliness and a skepticism toward social media. They also share “old-fashioned values” that were affirmed with a course they took from Robert Putnam, who authored “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

While this business can be pitched as offering a return to nature and in-person experiences, I wonder who it is selling to. Two quick thoughts:

  1. This really is another lifestyle option for people to pursue. Work hard for weeks on end, get buried in your smartphone, and then detox for up to two weeks in a tiny house in the woods. Perhaps everything is a commodity these days but this is just another hotel option.
  2. This could reinforce the idea that tiny houses are unusual (there are still just a small number of them) and primarily for people with money (especially when they have nicer features or are priced nightly like a decent hotel). How many Americans could access this? How many would want to?

This is very different than tiny houses for affordable housing. This is tiny houses for profit (and perhaps some good time away from “normal” life).

McMansion owners giving thanks for their homes on Thanksgiving

I recently watched Kate Wagner, of McMansionHell.com fame, deliver a TED Talk titled “I hate McMansions – and you should too.”

Yet, with Thanksgiving here, I thought about all the Americans who live in such homes. How many of them are giving thanks today for their McMansion?

On one hand, the McMansion is viewed as a monstrosity, a destroyer of neighborhoods and land, a caricature of quality architecture, and perhaps the ultimate symbol of American turn-of-the-21st-century greed and consumerism. On the other hand, the McMansion is a shelter and genuine home for millions of Americans. This is a tension that is not easy to resolve. There are numerous critics of McMansions and a variety of reasons to dislike the homes (and prefer other kinds of dwellings). And numerous Americans might enjoy their McMansion (and perhaps for the same reasons critics dislike them).

Perhaps we can be thankful for the free discussion about McMansions and having the resources that would make a McMansion purchase possible (even if we personally would not make such a choice). On a related note, with all of the advice this year about how to avoid turning Thanksgiving dinner into a political battle, I would recommend that everyone celebrating Thanksgiving in a home that could be considered a McMansion would be better off not commenting on the faults they see in such a home while they are there. Of course, if while they find themselves later in the day traveling somewhere in a SUV to acquire Black Friday items, making a connection between McMansions, shopping, and American acquisitiveness might be apropos…

Shrinking new homes, fewer McMansions in Australia

A few years back, Australia passed the United States for largest new homes in the world. Now, new homes in Australia are trending smaller, Australian new are firmly the second largest in the world, and fewer McMansions are under construction:

Australian homes have shrunk to 22-year lows as the “McMansion” fades in popularity and more apartments are built, Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals.

The average floor size of a new home is now 186.3 square metres, down 1.6 per cent over the past 12 months and the smallest since 1996, according to CommSec’s Home Size Trends Report released on Monday.

More on the longer trends:

The average size of freestanding houses peaked in 2011-12 and has stabilised over the past five years. The average house is 8 per cent bigger than 20 years ago and nearly 30 per cent bigger than 30 years ago in 1987-88.

The standard fit-out is also superior, with higher quality kitchens, bathrooms, floor coverings and inclusions such as air-conditioners.

It is good to have a reminder that new homes can both increase and decrease in size over time. On one hand, smaller new homes would be praised by some as a good move. On the other hand, the long-term shift is still toward larger homes with more expensive features.

It is tempting to consider whether a similar shift could take place in the United States. Could the ever-growing new home in the United States start shrinking as smaller kinds of new housing increase in number? This could happen either two ways: fewer large homes are constructed or more smaller units are constructed (in comparison to each other). I am skeptical this would happen for multiple reasons. Americans still seem to believe in the virtues of having more space and are still willing, to some degree, to tackle the issues that can come with larger houses (i.e., longer commutes, higher taxes, higher maintenance and upkeep costs). Smaller units may be popular in some circles but reasonably-priced apartments, tiny houses, and accessory dwelling units have yet to take off in large numbers. This, of course, could change as households and communities change over the decades, but I do not envision a major reduction in the size new American homes in the near future.

Fighting against McMansion apartment buildings

One commentator suggests apartments enabled by transit oriented development regulations in Los Angeles will be like McMansions in residential neighborhoods:

The development in question is on the 1500 block of South Orange Grove Avenue, a modest residential neighborhood one block east of Fairfax and two blocks south of Pico. The proposed structure is a five story, twenty-eight unit apartment building, replacing a single-family home and a duplex. It would be the tallest building in the neighborhood by two stories. The artist’s rendering above shows how it would impact the neighbors on the abutting block of Ogden.

Yet this particular building is only the first of many to come in Picfair Village and other areas throughout Los Angeles, transforming the character of our neighborhoods and adding boxy, out-of-scale buildings to a city already plagued by terrible traffic and failing infrastructure. Though the planning commission turns up its nose at the unappealing designs, they never fail to move the projects forward…

The bulk of this development is being done under the auspices of Measure JJJ, transformed by the City Planning Commission into Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Guidelines. Shrugging their shoulders of any responsibility, the City Planning Commission’s members, along with City Planning Department staff (also busy with the equally pernicious Purple Line extension upzoning plan), fondly refer to the TOC Guidelines as “the will of the people,” washing their hands of responsibility…

For whatever reason, City Hall and City Planning Commission members are embracing the TOC Guidelines and fully abetting developers’ plans to move full steam ahead with real estate projects that will drastically alter the character of our neighborhood and many others throughout Los Angeles.

The term McMansion refers to a single-family home. The headline for this commentary – the text of the piece itself does not use the term McMansion – uses the term to describe a certain kind of apartment building: ones that will tower over blocks of single-family homes. While these apartments are not oversized single-family homes, they may have a similar effect to many McMansions with significant size and a change in scale. The commentator suggests this will alter how these blocks are experienced, particularly for those in homes adjacent to the apartment buildings.

The broader use of the term McMansion could be applied to a number of items. For example, I recall seeing articles in the early 2000s comparing boats and other consumer goods to McMansions. Generally, this use would refer to a supersized and/or extra luxurious model. Applying the idea to other kinds of housing could prove trickier. Could you have a McMansion tiny house? A McMansion accessory dwelling unit? A McMansion condo high-rise? Broadening the term to more housing could make a fairly complex idea – with at least four traits – even more complicated.