“10 anti-McMansion design commandments”

Looking to avoid constructing or buying a McMansion? Here are four of “10 anti-McMansion design commandments”:

1. Thou shalt not build a house with turrets, as it is unlikely to be attacked by hostiles or provide shelter for a damsel in distress…

3. Thou shalt not build a house with a three-car garage as the dominant street-facing feature…

7. Thou shalt not build a house with seven gables when two would be more than enough.

8. Thou shalt not build a big, big house on a small, small lot.

There are two related themes in each of these commandments that goes beyond just avoiding features that are now associated with McMansions. Many of these commandments address two key issues: (1) proportionality and (2) unnecessary features. Regarding the first, specific features – windows, gables, garages – should not appear oversized compared to other features. (I supposed you could have a house where everything is outsized but then it could be criticized as cartoonish compared to normal-sized homes.) Additionally, certain features are not required such as turrets, tall columns, and expansive foyers.

The proposed solution to these McMansion sins is this: “good housing design really means keeping it simple, be the house big or small.” If this is followed to the letter, the simple counter to McMansions would be modernist houses or ranch homes. From the outside, these are simply boxes with limited ornamentation. But, for many, these homes may be too simple. They do not invoke traditional styles. Or, these simpler designs may be viewed as lacking character. They were built in large numbers during the postwar era and came to be associated with suburban sprawl. While McMansions are derided for their construction in more traditional neighborhoods, imagine a typical ranch plopped down in a neighborhood of Victorian homes or a modernist home within the typical suburban subdivision. Even with more reasonable sizes compared to McMansions, I would guess the neighbors would still have concerns.

Mid-century modern ranches as the anti-McMansion

If you don’t want a McMansion, one Pinterest user suggests looking into a mid-century modern ranch:







I don’t buy this argument about modern ranch homes winning out against McMansions. Here are a few reasons:

1. I don’t think most Americans would choose a modernist home over a McMansion.

2. These ranch homes look they still have a decent amount of space. How much smaller than a typical McMansion does an anti-McMansion have to be? Others have argued a better opposite end of the spectrum is a micro-apartment: significantly smaller and located in a much denser context.

3. McMansions get criticized for poor architecture but ranches are fairly limited in this arena as well. Of course, there are degrees of modernist homes and a “normal” ranch may not have many of these features such as stark lines and simple designs. Or, ranches may go all in regarding their modern design while McMansions dabble in various styles. But, authentically undesirable architecture may not be that different from inauthentic undesirable architecture.

4. The interiors of these ranches look tastefully decorated. Can’t the same be done for McMansions? I would also guess ranch homes can be made to look bad and those are the ones that don’t make it anywhere near Pinterest.

Seniors don’t want McMansions; they want ranchers and ADA friendly townhouses

A Maryland real estate agent looks at recent figures about the number of aging Americans and what is being built and asks if there is enough of certain kinds of housing:

After I read these facts I thought to myself, why aren’t more builders building what the greatest generation wants – the rancher home or townhouse that is “senior ADA friendly and energy efficient” ?

This is an interesting set of options:

1. The rancher. The legacy of this home dates back to the early to mid-1900s when Americans sought easier to build homes amidst housing shortages and quick-growing suburbs as well as relatively clean and straightforward design. The advantage for older residents is a lack of stairs and all of the house on one level. Of course, there are ways to make ranches more unique – features like vaulted ceilings or wings with master suites or basements – but they are relatively simple homes.

2. Townhouses provide several advantages including newer construction and homeowner’s associations which take care of exterior maintenance as well as yard work. However, townhouses are not necessarily cheap (particularly if they are all ADA friendly and energy efficient) monthly homeowner’s fees might make it less of an option for lots of people.

The aging population will present a unique challenge to the housing industry: who will purchase all of the homes owned by aging Americans and what will the housing options be for their later years?

Comparing the mass-produced ranch to the mass-produced McMansion

I’ve recently seen several articles about the ranch house (I discussed Atomic Ranch magazine a few weeks ago) but this one, “Ranch housing style makes a comeback,” led me to thinking why the mass-produced ranch may be popular and the mass-produced McMansion is not. Here is a brief explanation from the article:

Cicaloni is not alone in her appreciation for the ranch. Though it will never be as popular as the ubiquitous Colonial here in New England, the ranch is making a return. The simple home is being embraced by young people attracted to the mid-century modern vibe; by aging boomers who no longer want to deal with stairs; and, as always, by those looking for an affordable home…

“Popular publications portrayed a confident and easygoing way of life that could be accessible to one and all; of particular interest was the casual California lifestyle, implying prosperity, glamour and optimism as embodied in a sunlit and breezy ranch house where indoors and outdoors blended effortlessly,” Betsy Friedberg of the Massachusetts Historical Commission wrote in a 2003 issue of Preservation Advocate. “In the 1950s, I think, [ranches] were considered fresh,” says Zimmerman. “They were built at the same time as Capes, which looked very traditional. If you were a person who was up to date and interested in the latest thing, then, yes, a ranch is the thing you would have chosen in 1952.”…

BUT EVENTUALLY, thanks to tract housing like in the infamous Levittowns, people didn’t see the charm anymore. The 1962 song “Little Boxes,” inspired by a drive through a postwar development in California, ridiculed the conformity: Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one and a pink one, and a blue one and a yellow one. And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same…

But the other thing is that taste in homes, like fashion, is cyclical. “All building styles go through a period when they are unpopular,” says Zimmerman. “At one point, Victorian houses were thought of as white elephants and hard to heat and not set up for modern living and not in tune with the landscape. So, in the ’60s, we lost a lot of Victorians.” And so, the ranches often derided as “ranch burgers”?—?as in mass-produced by a fast-food chain?—?were replaced with homes that came to be known as “McMansions.’’

So it’s simply a matter that ranch houses are on an up-cycle? It is somewhat amusing to think that these simple houses could be an antidote to an era of supersizing house size and debt.

I’m sure some critics of suburban houses would argue that ranch homes and McMansions share several important characteristics. To start, they are associated with sprawl and tract subdivisions. McMansions may be an easy target today but there were plenty of critics of the Levittowns and similar subdivisions built after World War II. In this sense, the problem may not be with the homes themselves per se but rather with the way of life that promotes building mass-produced houses. Second, both ranches and McMansions are not prized for their design or architecture due to their mass-produced nature as well as their unpleasing aesthetics (though these differ: ranches are meant to be more simple while McMansions are meant to impress or be flashy).

It would be interesting to see figures about how quickly housing stock is replaced in the United States. For example, how many ranch houses were built and how quickly were they replaced? What can this tell us about how quickly McMansions might be replaced?

Atomic Ranch magazine defends American ranch home

In a housing market full of architectural twists (McMansions? Stucco homes?), there are still people defending the humble ranch. One such outlet is Atomic Ranch.

Rambler-bashing was the norm when [Michelle Gringeri-Brown] and her husband, Jim Brown, launched Atomic Ranch magazine (www.atomic-ranch.com) in 2004. At that time, ranch-style houses were dismissed as the ugly ducklings of design, the home of last resort for first-time buyers.

The magazine quickly became a cheerleader for simple postwar homes, advocating for their preservation and helping owners find home-improvement resources.

Now ranch-style homes are finding new fans who appreciate their clean lines and open floor plans. And the Browns have published their second coffeetable book, “Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Interiors” (Gibbs Smith, $40), a detailed look at eight drool-worthy homes and how their owners have reinvented them for 21st-century living. We caught up with writer/editor Gringeri-Brown at home in Portland, Ore., to seek her dos and don’ts for remodeling and decorating “the regular old ranch house.”

Q What’s making ranch houses retro cool?

A It remains generational. People who are attracted to a more retro house, with its original elements, tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s, and it can indicate a whole lifestyle — going to scooter rallies, bowling, “Mad Men” parties. With TV promoting it as cool, it’s not just your Aunt Edna’s crummy rambler. And by and large, they’re still more affordable than bungalows.

Q A few years ago, you were concerned about ranches being torn down to make way for McMansions. Has the real estate meltdown had a silver lining for ranch-house preservation?

A With the economy tanking, and flippers having to take a step back, fewer ranch homes are getting the Home Depot treatment, when everything becomes vanilla. There’s more appreciation of what they can be, less disregard and thinking this is a housing stock that should be cleaned out and Dwell-ified.

A new rallying cry: fight the McMansions to defend the ranch houses?

I wonder if people who dislike McMansions also tend to dislike ranches. Here are some similarities: both can be produced on a mass scale. They are often not aesthetically pleasing, McMansions for being a weird mash-up of styles while ranches are very functional. They both are associated with sprawl. (A more speculative thought: perhaps both are not terribly green?) From the other side, ranches may be functional and more modern but are they modern enough in comparison to houses built in a modernist style?

This seems like a classic example of celebrating American pragmatism (in house form).