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.

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.

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:

Photo by Jona on Pexels.com

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.

Chicago as “the nation’s capital of deconversions” from condos to apartments

Henry Grabar suggests Chicago is ground zero for efforts to convert condos to apartments:

Photo by Timur Saglambilek on Pexels.com

Stories like this make Chicago the perfect place to understand how condos usually meet their end—not in a pile of rubble, but in a buyout that leaves some owners feeling lucky and others feeling betrayed. Lauren Kerchill, the owner of a Gold Coast unit overlooking Lake Michigan, was a holdout when investors came to buy out her building. After fighting to toss her condo board, she told Crain’s Chicago Business she was called “petty,” “greedy,” and “uneducated.” She just didn’t think she could find another home like hers nearby. In the end, she didn’t have a choice. Her neighbors voted to sell her building, at 1400 Lake Shore Drive, for $107 million in 2019—another record, this time the most expensive deconversion in the country…

But there’s another side to the story, in which deconversion is the only way out for condo owners stuck in deteriorating properties. In June, the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, drew attention to the challenges that confront condo boards as they assess structural damage and raise money for repairs. Maintenance bills for the Great American Condo Boom of the ’70s and ’80s are starting to come due in areas like South Florida…

While states like Florida, California, and Hawaii saw tons of new condo construction in the decades after the concept was established in the 1960s, Chicago saw a different kind of boom: older buildings becoming condos. Fearing rent control, facing declining profits, or saddled with obsolete prewar commercial space, landlords in Chicago raced to sell off their units in the 1970s. Yuppies and middle-class workers gobbled up these starter apartments, which provided an easy and cheap entry point to homeownership.

Fifty years later, those buildings are among the oldest condominiums in the country. Owners who have not kept on top of maintenance, and even some who have, sometimes find themselves facing massive repair bills.

It would be interesting to read more about the specific aspects of Chicago’s history, real estate market, and local regulations that play into the the number of condo deconversions in Chicago.

More broadly, this gets at two larger housing issues:

  1. How do deconversions fit with a larger American promotion of homeownership? Condos offer opportunities to offer homeownership opportunities in settings where the single-family home is less possible. But, given market conditions right now, is there now increased interest in having more rental units?
  2. While aging and the associated expenses is an issue for condo buildings, it is also an issue for many more housing units in the United States. What happens to older homes and residences when there is limited interest in repairing them or redeveloping the property? In wealthier communities and desirable locations, there are often developers and individuals interested in rehabbing or rebuilding structures. Hence, teardowns or new residences in suburban downtowns. Elsewhere, replacing or changing housing is a more arduous task.

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.

Tearing down a nine year old house to construct an even bigger one

Teardowns often involve demolishing an older home and replacing it with a larger, updated new home. Such development can draw the ire of neighbors. However, teardowns can sometimes involve newer homes. Here is one example from the Chicago suburbs:

The proposed project in Elmhurst, however, involves demolishing an even newer home. Jim Bowen, CEO of Wheaton-based exchange-traded fund sponsor First Trust Portfolios, and his wife, Marisa, plan to knock down a house built in 2012 to create a larger lot for a new house they will build.

In early 2013, Marisa Bowen paid $1 million to buy the newly built, 4,044-square-foot house from its builder. Then, in 2017, the couple paid $440,000 for a vintage, 1,683-square-foot house next door that they subsequently demolished.

In August, the couple received Elmhurst City Council approval for yard setback requirements for a new house they plan to construct on the combined, 0.45-acre property. Elmhurst officials recently told Elite Street the couple has sought a demolition permit for the nine-year-old house. City documents show their plan is to construct a new home with a 5,012-square-foot footprint.

Teardowns require some resources as the purchaser needs to buy the existing home, pay to tear down the home, and then construct a new home. In particular locations, a new, larger home can pay off in significant profits.

This case is a different in several key ways. First, it involves one relatively new home. Teardowns are intended to provide more space and newer features compared to the residence previously on the property. The nine-year old home would appear to have some desirable features: according to several real estate websites, it has roughly 4,000 square feet, it has a three car garage, and is worth more than a million dollars. The proposed new home is even bigger and may have different features.

Second, the teardown involves combining two lots and demolishing an older house in addition to the newer home. This process can sometimes go the other direction: someone takes a larger property, subdivides it, and makes even more money by selling multiple homes. Here, the older home is relatively small by today’s standards: over 1,600 square feet with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. By tearing down two homes, the new larger house will have more space to fit on a larger corner lot.

Because this involves a newer home and two lots, this is going to take some money. Teardowns require some resources as the purchaser needs to buy the existing home(s), pay to tear down the home(s), and then construct a new home. The payoff can be high, either in resale value compared to what was there before or in a more desirable home for the current owner.

Questions a sociologist asks when seeing changes in the housing stock in their community

I try to pay attention to housing changes in the suburban community in which I live. Here are some questions I ask as I observe both existing and new homes:

  1. What existed here before this current residence?
  2. What motivated the property owners to tear down the existing home and build these homes (and in these particular styles)?
  3. How do existing and new homes interact with their surroundings?
  4. What does the inside of the home look and feel like? The outside provides some clues but interiors can be quite different from house to house.
  5. What happened at the community level (decisions, regulations, proposals, discussions, etc.) for these homes to exist in this form?
  6. In the long run, will these changes be viewed positively in the community or negatively?
  7. Who are the people who live in these homes (who is this housing for)? Are they the same or different kinds of people who are in the community?

We can measure features of old and new homes and look at the aggregate data. For example, we could try to look at the “average” home largely based on standardized traits. These figures are helpful but they also leave out other important traits of homes: what is their character? How are they experienced by the owners and the neighborhood and how do they shape social actors? How do they contribute to community life? What do they say about the priorities of the occupants and the community?

In sum, homes are not just part of the housing stock. Each house has the potential to shape and be shaped by people who interact with its material and symbolic presence. And when the housing changes, it can alter existing understandings.

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.

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?

Opposition to five McMansions built by billionaires in England

A proposal from two billionaire brothers for five McMansions in Blackburn prompted concerns from community members:

Mohsin and Zuber Issa, both in their 40s, who own Europe’s biggest independent forecourt firm Euro Garages, will proceed with their buildings, which have been dubbed ‘McMansions’, after overcoming a string of complaints from protesters.

Despite the fierce opposition, which saw the council face 30 letters of complaint, eight old houses on the site in Blackburn, Lancashire, have now been demolished and builders have laid foundations for the five 5,000 sq ft mansions…

The identical builds, which sit just three miles from where the Issa brothers grew up in a two-up two-down terraced house, have been described as ‘not in fitting with the local area’ as the homes stand over over 4.5 metres taller with 1,500 square metres of floor space…

He said: ‘They will look monstrously big – this is totally out of character, as all the other executive houses in this area are individually architect-designed and are laid out with plenty of valuable mature garden space between them.

This is an interesting case of McMansion conflict in England. The pictures show the land in question originally held eight homes, all single-family, with decent-sized lawns and green space around them. The land is in a more secluded area with a small forest on one side of the properties and large lots on the other side.

So these new homes are not changing the single-family nature of the stretch and they are even consolidating the number of homes from eight to five. Yet, this seems similar to many American teardown cases: the new homes are larger than what was previously there, the homes are taking up more of the lot (and reducing the greenery), and the design of the home is more cookie-cutter large home than “individually architect-designed.”

How much effect will these five McMansion homes have on a sparser neighborhood and small village? Checking back after five or ten years could reveal how the presence of these larger homes affects social relations and the feel of the neighborhood.