McMansion literary tales: a proposed teardown leads to local dysfunction

The McMansion continues to feature in literary works. A new book from a Washington D.C. area author uses a proposed teardown McMansion to highlight suburban issues:

Coincidence or not, Langsdorf’s success comes after leaving her longtime suburban existence. Following her 2012 divorce, Langsdorf moved to Adams Morgan in the District and devoted herself to writing while teaching yoga on the side. And yet, the book takes her back to that former life: “White Elephant” seems to channel all of the frustrations she felt juggling her identities as a mother and creator in a stifling suburb. The novel follows the residents of the fictional enclave of Willard Park — inspired, in part, by Langsdorf’s hometown of Kensington, Md. — where an interloper’s plans to build a McMansion amid the cozy bungalows leads to angry town halls, scandalous romantic dalliances and shady high jinks.

Like Langsdorf, two of the main characters in her ensemble are mothers grappling with their identities beyond being wives and mothers. Allison Miller, who has lived (mostly) happily in Willard Park for more than a decade, wonders what to do with her photography — more than a hobby, less than a career. Her new next-door neighbor, Kaye Cox, can’t figure out who to be, caught between her role as a fixture in her husband’s behemoth of a house and her own interest in interior decoration. These women and their author are well-acquainted with the eternal dilemma for parents, the pull between caregiving duties and other interests, professional and personal…

Almost every neighborhood in the D.C. region has experienced a version of the changes in “White Elephant.” Even Adams Morgan: The Line hotel, for example, occupies a building that was once a church. Langsdorf laughs about some of the struggles she’s seen in her own building, hastening to add that her fellow co-op residents are all great neighbors.

The residents of Willard Park come to realize that houses matter less than their inhabitants — and that the suburbs aren’t for everyone. Langsdorf understands this, too; in her current existence she feels more herself. “My life is much more vibrant,” she says. “I love being able to walk everywhere, and I do have more time to write.”

That a proposed McMansion could lead to “dalliances” and “high jinks” is intriguing to consider…the angry public meetings are much easier to verify.

While it would not have been possible to discuss McMansions before the 1980s since the term did not exist, it sounds like this new work draws on several common suburban critiques featured in novels, films, television shows, and other cultural products. Suburban residents, particularly women and mothers, feel trapped by suburban expectations and a landscape that does not easily lead to human connection or diverse experiences. They then look for ways to break free of the suburban mold and explore different outlets.

These works tend to emphasize those that feel “the suburbs aren’t for everyone.” At the same time, many Americans live in the suburbs by choice and I assume a good number of suburbanites feel their existence is at least okay. Is it because cultural works need crises to overcome (the hero on their journey must overcome something) or are the suburbs are a unique target because they are so common in the United States (over 50% of residents live there) and so reviled?

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.

Boulder looks to limit McMansions

The Boulder, Colorado city council recently discussed how to limit large houses and teardown McMansions:

Members were mostly in agreement with a goal of discouraging larger homes, including allowing landowners to subdivide large lots and build second, third or fourth housing structures — provided the new homes were permanently affordable. All members save one felt that encouraging subdivision in Boulder’s lowest-density districts was a good idea: Mirabai Nagle was the lone voice of dissent…

The surfeit of scrape-and-replace builds has already transformed the once-rural neighborhoods, councilwoman Lisa Morzel said in a rebuttal of Nagle’s position, with huge homes that take up every allowable inch of space.

“What was once very rural and very lovely and very open, it’s gone,” Morzel said. “With these giant fences, you can’t have the foxes, the deer, the mountain lions. You’re creating an impermeable” compound.”

Nagle was in favor of pursuing regulations to discourage larger homes, as were most other members. Councilman Bob Yates said he would need “a ton of data or a ton of discussion” before he took a firm position.

Many communities have made similar plans in recent decades. The Boulder leader will not have definite guidelines for a while and the devil might always be in the details of what exactly they allow and rule out.

1. What is the maximum size for new homes? This may seem like the obvious place to start but homes can be built in different ways that either emphasize or hide their large square footage.

2. How should the home sit on the lot? Similarly, a smaller house could appear problematic if it is really close to lot lines.

3. What architecture and design should the home feature? Some communities ask that new homes attempt to fit into the existing neighborhood design. Others might suggest that leading with a large garage in the front is a negative feature.

4. Related to the architecture and design is a question of how the new home should compare to nearby homes in height and width. A new home that is significantly taller can block light. A wider home could break up the streetscape.

More worry over McMansions than LeBron’s teardown that replaced a midcentury modern

Are McMansions in Los Angeles disliked because of who might live in them or because of their architecture?

Newly signed Laker LeBron James’ $23 million digs on Tigertail Road in L.A.’s Brentwood come with a deep roster of industry neighbors, from stars (Jim Carrey) and execs (ABC’s Ben Sherwood, Scooter Braun) to reps (CAA’s Fred Specktor, Lighthouse’s Margaret Riley), writers (John Sacret Young) and movie royalty (or at least movie royalty-adjacent: John Goldwyn’s ex Colleen Camp)…

The tony community is taking well to its new neighbor, says one homeowner, who adds that there’s more concern about the explosion of “McMansions” in an area that boasts so many architecturally significant houses, like the William Krisel-built midcentury modern that was torn down in 2014 on the lot where James’ new home sits.

While James’ new-build eight-bedroom home has been under renovation since May as he adds a basketball court and indoor wine tap, the construction hasn’t been particularly disruptive, says the resident, given the large number of homes being built and updated throughout the neighborhood. “[His house] is set on the hillside, very tasteful and pretty, and it’s been low-key so far,” says the neighbor. “People were a lot more upset when Justin Bieber was looking around here.”

Even though James now lives in a large house that replaced an “architecturally significant house,” at least one neighbor does not think it is a problem for three reasons:

  1. The new house is “very tasteful and pretty.”
  2. LeBron James is not Justin Bieber. Not only is Bieber less popular than James, he has a Los Angeles reputation for parties and fast driving.
  3. The construction “hasn’t been particularly disruptive.”

So because Lebron James is simply a better-liked neighbor than Bieber, the construction of a mansion (or McMansion) can be overlooked? According to some, midcentury moderns are worth celebrating compared to McMansions.

Invasion of McMansions in Kirkwood, Missouri

Teardown McMansions have infiltrated an older neighborhood in a well-off St. Louis suburb:

Residents said not only are smaller historic homes getting wiped out in the process, but the large houses are causing problems for some of their next-door neighbors…

The one next door to her on Cleveland Avenue was erected last year and is nearly twice the size of the original home. It’s a four-bedroom home on the market for more than $800,000.

She said it’s created a real problem for her. The new home’s rain runoff has turned her driveway into a lake…

The city says the builders have followed all the community’s guidelines:

“…The new house on this site sits closer to the neighbor’s driveway, which may explain the confusion. Yes, the new home was built per permit specifications. The City requires the contractor to have the top of the foundation surveyed prior to beginning framing. The floor system is then verified to determine that the finished floor height is as allowed.

A follow-up story from several days later says the new McMansions are affecting more houses:

Since the homes were built around 2015, Reed said her mother’s basement has constantly been flooded and her backyard has turned into a swamp…

The ITeam recently discovered a Kirkwood ordinance that said new developments cannot cause water run-off problems for surrounding properties.

But attorney Paul G. Henry said getting the city to enforce it could be difficult…

We repeatedly asked Kirkwood officials about why they don’t appear to be enforcing their own ordinance but they declined to answer. Instead, they recommended that we file an information request.

Such issues could put a suburb in a sticky situation: should it protect the properties of elderly citizens who have lived in the community for a long time or allow new property owners to construct homes to their liking? Whose property rights prevail? There is probably some middle ground here where the teardowns can be regulated in such a way to provide a little protection to neighbors (whether this involves water issues or residents are concerned about the changing character of their neighborhoods) but these regulations could take some time to discuss and enact.

Comparing the costs of tearing down versus renovating a home

Could it cost less money to buy and teardown a home than to renovate it? Here is one data point from a 2015 story about teardowns in the Chicago area:

The teardown candidates aren’t just tiny bungalows this time. Developers are targeting larger houses as well, particularly if they sit on coveted property. Antiquated plumbing, the absence of upscale amenities such as media rooms, and the high cost of gut rehabbing (roughly $300 a square foot, versus $200 for new construction) are pushing homes on North Shore lots near the lake into early retirement. Two properties that sold for around $4 million each in 2014—one in Wilmette and one in Winnetka—are on their way to the scrap yard, says Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices KoenigRubloff agent Joseph Nash. Both were on three-quarter-acre lots with private beaches, and the Winnetka house had seven bedrooms—big and nice, but apparently not nice enough.

At various points, I’ve thought about what might happen to much of the aging suburban housing stock in the United States. Many of those homes, small or large, will be slowly renovated over time. Depending on the neighborhood as well as the desirability of the individual homes, renovation could take place at faster or slower rates. Yet, will there be a point when many of the older suburban homes will be demolished? How long can they be maintained or renovated? If they need to be demolished, who has the money to replace them and if they are replaced, will the residents be able to stay?

From an economic perspective, presumably the money spent renovating the older homes will at some point surpass the cost of building new ones (that may also be of better quality and more up to code) and living in those. Yet, this ignores a lot of features of homes and their construction:

  1. They are part of neighborhoods and communities. People often enjoy having a certain character when they purchase in a particular place. This character is often related to the homes present as well as to a unified character on streets.
  2. Some will want to keep renovating them. (Clearly, however, others will not – hence, we have teardowns.)
  3. They may be able to last a lot longer than critics gave them credit for. (One of the common complaints about mass produced suburban homes is that they are of poor quality. While this may be true, it does not necessarily mean that they are uninhabitable or cannot be improved over the decades.)
  4. Replacing large swaths of suburban housing requires both foresight and funds. Who is willing to look that far into the future? Who has the resources to undertake large projects in this domain rather than working with the occasional house here and there?

For now, most of the news we hear about replacing suburban homes tends to be in wealthier communities where teardowns are desirable. This may change in the near future.

Could a community be green and have a lot of McMansions?

An Australian community is moving to become a garden city even as there is a demand for teardown McMansions:

The Monash Urban Landscape and Canopy Vegetation Draft Strategy suggests increasing canopy cover in Monash from 22 to 30 per cent by 2040.

Councillor Geoff Lake, who submitted amendments to the plan, said the people of Monash felt strongly about vegetation protection overlays…

“In particular, concerns related to overdevelopment on blocks where the site is razed to build a ‘McMansion’ and vegetation is not retained or replaced,” Cr Paterson said.

She said the council acknowledged that people valued the green character of Monash.

While it sounds like the vegetation plan is partly in response to teardowns, it could lead to an interesting scenario: a community that is both green and has a number of McMansions. The two are often assumed to not be compatible. McMansions are viewed as wasteful, whether because they are part of sprawling settings or provide unnecessary amounts of private space or use mass-produced materials. Garden cities, in contrast, feature plenty of green space alongside greener housing.

I have hinted at this in earlier posts: could we reach a point where McMansions are compatible with green settings? Imagine big homes with garish architecture that are built with eco-friendly materials and in settings that limit some of the worst features of sprawl. I suspect it may be difficult to convince McMansion critics that such homes could ever be green but given the public’s interest in such homes plus the ability to brand numerous products as green, the day where we have green McMansions may indeed come.