Quick Review: “Square-Footed Monster” episode of King of the Hill

Few television episodes tackle the topic of McMansions. Thus, here is a review of Season 13 Episode 3 of King of the Hill titled “Square-Footed Monster.”

First, a quick synopsis of the plot and relevant dialogue from the main characters. The issues begin when an older neighbor lady dies and her nephew comes to fix up the ranch home to sell it. The men, led by Hank, help fix up the house. It sells in one day. The next day, the house is torn down by a large excavator and the local developer says he is breaking ground on a “dream home.”

SquareFootedMonster1Amid scenes of constructing a large balloon frame, the builder brings the guys peach chardonnay (clearly indicating his different status) and shows them a rendering of the new home. Hank’s response: “Looks like a bank. No, a church. Wait, A casino? I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at.” The developer says it is a speculation house.

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Hank and the guys decide to fight back. They go to City Hall and show images of the modest homes in their neighborhood compared to the new home with “4,600 square feet of obnoxiousness” (Hank’s description). The leaders say the home is by the books so construction continues. The guys consult the local legal loophole expert as Hank says, “someone is building a jackass McMansion that’s going to destroy our neighborhood.” There are no loopholes to help them.

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The next scenes show a massive McMansion blocking out the sun and going right up to its property lines. Hank notes, “Ted’s using cheap building materials too. It’s all spackle and chicken-wire.” In the subsequent big wind, the house starts falling apart. Wanting to protect their own homes, the neighbors take chainsaws, axes, and other implements to help the home collapse.

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The next day, the developer looks at the damage done by the neighbors and accuses them taking down the home. Hank responds: “We don’t have anything to hide. The only one who did something wrong here was you. Your shoddy McMansion was going to destroy our homes. We only took it down in self-defense.”

The case goes in front of a local judge who with some prompting by the local legal loophole expert rules in favor of the neighbors. The developer tries to get the last laugh by selling the property to the city to use as a power substation.

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After lamenting the new land use, the men construct a fake house around the substation. Hank says, “I’ll take a fake house over a big ugly one any day.”

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This episode contains several themes common to narratives about McMansions:

  1. The developer simply wants to make money without regard for the existing character of the community.
  2. A teardown McMansion can be very invasive: it looks out of place compared to nearby homes, it encroaches on lot lines and the street, it blocks the sun, and its construction is disruptive to neighbors.
  3. The new large home is poorly constructed – it starts falling apart in heavy winds – and has dubious architectural features including turrets, pillars, and balconies.
  4. Neighbors resent the intrusion of the new home but there is little they can do to stop it (hence the need to find obscure legal loopholes and attack the homes themselves). There is one neighbor who appreciates the new home for what it could bring to the neighborhood but he is in the minority.

In the end, the neighbors do win out: instead of a dilapidated ranch home next door, they have a substation that looks like a well-maintained ranch home.

In twenty-two minutes, this is a decent summary of how teardown McMansions could go. The episode does not provide much perspective from the view of the developer of the home or local officials outside of quick references to making money and an interest in large new homes. Some lingering questions remain including why construct such a large new home on a street of ranch homes of working-class residents. The neighborhood may have been saved but the episode also hints at how fragile a set of homes and the associated community might be if just one property falls into the hands of a developer.

(All screenshots of the episode are from Hulu.)

Buying and demolishing expensive suburban homes to expand I-294

Acquiring property for right-of-ways for highways and other uses can get expensive. Here are a few examples of the Illinois Tollway purchasing homes in Elmhurst and Hinsdale:

A two-story, 3,145-square-foot house in Elmhurst that was built in 2005 and that the Illinois Tollway bought for $710,000 has a date with a wrecking ball later this year. It’s one of the more unusual aspects of the upcoming $4 billion widening of Interstate Highway 294…

The house due to be razed, at 505 E. Crescent Ave. in Elmhurst, abuts a noise wall that parallels a ramp linking Interstate Highway 290 to I-294. The Illinois Toll Highway Authority needs the house’s 0.3-acre parcel to provide room for an interchange ramp, said tollway spokesman Dan Rozek. It’s the only house in Elmhurst that the toll authority intends to acquire…

While the tollway’s plans call for just that one house acquisition in Elmhurst, the tollway intends to acquire and demolish some 11 homes farther south in Hinsdale for the project, many of which are on Harding Road and Mills Street. In a reflection of the relatively high cost of homes in Hinsdale, the tollway paid even more for two Hinsdale homes than it did for the Elmhurst acquisition, shelling out $870,000 for a house at 621 Harding Road and $825,000 for a home at 645 Harding Road.

However, most of those pending Hinsdale demolitions are of homes that are much older than the one in Elmhurst. Of the Hinsdale acquisitions, the house that was most recently built is a four-bedroom, 2,346-square-foot, neo-eclectic-style house at 417 Mills Street, which was built in 1996. The tollway acquired that house in December for $700,000.

Suburban areas have lots of homes adjacent to highways and relatively few meet this fate. And such homes can be worth quite a bit even with all that noise if located in the right community and with the right features (such as plenty of square footage and a recent build).

This is a reminder that perhaps the best lesson to take from all of this is for leaders and planners to do these sorts of things earlier rather than later to save money. If the plan is always to add lanes – which probably just encourages traffic rather than relieving congestion – then do it earlier. These more recent homes might never have been built and communities could plan earlier for such major changes to residential areas.

Seattle enacts “McMansion ban”

Earlier this week Seattle moved to approve accessory dwelling units and also limit the size of McMansions:

While loosening restrictions on accessory units, the new rules will tighten restrictions on the construction of single-family houses by outlawing certain large homes, based on their floor area and lot size.

The aboveground living space for a single family in a new house will be limited to half the square footage of the home’s lot. For example, a new house on a 6,000-square-foot lot will be limited to 3,000 square feet of aboveground living space, not counting space devoted to an accessory unit.

O’Brien has said the “McMansion” ban will discourage people from replacing modest older houses with more expensive new houses and will encourage them to add accessory units….

The city’s most recent environmental analysis estimated the new rules would result in 4,430 accessory units built and 1,580 houses torn down over 10 years, versus 1,970 accessory units built and 2,030 houses razed under the status quo.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The restriction on floor size based on lot size is a common one. This not only keeps the overall size down but also can help keep the new home from crowding up against the edge of the lot. Fitting a large home on a small lot is a common issue with those opposed to teardown McMansions.
  2. The story above says there is a restriction on aboveground square footage based on the lot. Does this mean some new homes will go underground instead (a la London)?
  3. The numbers cited at the end of the article are interesting in a city of over 700,000 people. The “McMansion ban” would not appear to have much effect: over the course of ten years, roughly 25% fewer teardowns would occur according to projections. Even with the restrictions, it will still be an option for those with wealth who want a single-family home (as opposed to the new option of an accessory dwelling unit on the lot of someone else). If the city really wanted to go after McMansions, could they have done more?

The rise of beach McMansions in New Jersey, Florida

Large homes are not just for suburban locations. Two recent pieces highlighted their role in changing beach communities. First, from New Jersey:

Decades ago, when I was a teenager, I rented a surf shack in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. Four of us crammed into a squat cinder-block hut tucked behind a bungalow. We worked as lifeguards for $2.50 an hour. Still, our rent was only $187.50 each for the summer. We had a place to sleep, shower, and create memories. We didn’t need more…

But there is another less visible cost that rarely gets mentioned when Americans talk about coastal development and risks. Since the modern coast emerged after the Second World War, a series of land bubbles have wildly inflated land values, to the point that many ordinary families can no longer afford to live at the coast, or even afford a weekly summer rental. On Long Beach Island, a popular resort in Ocean County, where I worked as a lifeguard, $15 billion worth of property now crowds a narrow, 18-mile-long shoreline. The average price of a new home is about $1.1 million, with many costing millions more. Rentals run as high as $5,000 a week. Yet, paradoxically, the island was conceived by Morris Shapiro and other developers as an enclave for middle-class and blue-collar families – teachers, plumbers, electricians, and so forth…

I suppose it is unsurprising there are few, if any, surf shacks left. Most beach towns have been supersized. But unanticipated costs have come with that growth. High school and college students have few places to live and the labor pool for lifeguards, waitresses, hotel workers, amusement-ride operators, and so on has shrunk dramatically. Many shore towns now rely on a special federal visa program to supply summer help. Workers come from Eastern Europe, Ireland, even Australia. Even so, some businesses have been forced to cut hours or even close.

The change over multiple decades is drastic.

And from the Gulf Coast of Florida:

Anna Maria Island may be largely built-out, but that hasn’t stopped developers from buying older existing homes, tearing them down and replacing them with new high-end homes…

Officials in the cities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach say it is a worrisome long-term trend and that they are doing their best to maintain the island’s unique character and sense of place…

Stephen Gilbert, building official for the city of Bradenton Beach, said the land is often much more valuable than the existing older home that sits on the lot.

Of the new homes built in the last decade in Bradenton Beach, only a couple were intended as homes for the owners. The others were intended as investments to be quickly turned over for more cash, he said.

While the change here has come more recently, it sounds like a similar process: people with money and/or an interest in investments come in, tear down older homes, and construct beach McMansions. This has happens over a sustained period of time and the feel of neighborhoods and communities changes.

These changes certainly have local effects on hundreds of beach communities across the United States but there are larger processes at work. Are the big homes the cause or the symptom of bigger issues? The nature of real estate capital today plus the rapid rise in real estate values puts even small communities at the mercy of global markets. Communities can respond but turning down big amounts of new money is not easy and often requires significant opposition from local residents and leaders.

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.