There’s an ongoing gag in the TV show “Arrested Development” about the home of the Bluths, the family around which the screwball comedy revolves. The Bluth patriarch, George, is a real estate developer, and his dysfunctional adult children move into a house he built. It is the model – and only – home in an Orange County, California, subdivision that was started but abandoned on George’s arrest for fraud.
A fake chateau, the house stands forlorn on a muddy plot. Its construction is shoddy: Viewers see cracks spiderweb across the interior walls, and pieces of trim fall off at random. Michael, the responsible Bluth sibling, tries in vain to finish the development. He asks his teenage son about choosing a name for it.
“What do you think of when you hear the words ‘Sudden Valley?’ “
“Salad dressing, I think.” (Pause.) “But for some reason I don’t want to eat it.”
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“It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s garish”
The Bluths’ house is what people call a McMansion. Bigger than the average home and nodding in style to the homes of the nobility – whether French chateaus, Spanish villas or early American plantation houses – it gets its unkind prefix for being built to a generic plan with mass-produced materials, not unlike the hamburgers at a certain fast-food chain.
McMansions are concentrated in the “sudden valleys” of fast-rising suburban housing tracts. They’ve become a familiar sight across the country, embodying our quest for that all-American paradox of affordable luxury, yet also frequently criticized for unsound construction and tacky design.
“It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s garish,” is how Chris Landis, an architect and custom builder in Washington, D.C., sums up the classic McMansion. “It tends to use cheaper materials. Sometimes the front will be brick, but you go right around the side, and it’s aluminum siding.”
After 25 years of spreading unchecked across the landscape, there are signs that the McMansion is losing its luster. In August, researchers for the real estate website Trulia published data suggesting that supersize houses are not appreciating at the same rate as smaller homes in many places in the country. Articles heralding their demise followed.
“McMansions Define Ugly in a New Way: They’re a Bad Investment,” proclaimed Bloomberg. “As demographics change, McMansions don’t look quite so appealing,” declared a headline in The Washington Post.
Is the McMansion really dying? And if these houses are so terrible, why did millions of us buy them in the first place?
Not long after Trulia released its findings, a blog called Welcome to McMansion Hell went viral. The concept behind it is simple. Blogger Kate Wagner takes photos of McMansions in the wild (or finds them online), then annotates them in Photoshop, pointing out flaws with ruthless snark.
“I thought there was a vaccine for smallpox?” she quips of a ceiling cratered with recessed lights. A mock turret is dubbed a “Pringles can of shame.”
Wagner’s “Certified Dank” McMansions are the architectural equivalent of celebrity mug shots: so gruesome you can’t look away. Windows of every shape and size jostle together and random roofs proliferate. Oversize doorways gape as if they’re screaming. Inside, rooms drip with “brass and glass” and are beige, beige, beige.
The “McMansion 101” series on McMansion Hell offers insights into why the houses are off-putting.
As opposed to the symmetry of, say, a classic Colonial-style house - with the front door in the middle and windows placed evenly on either side - McMansions have irregular features that confuse the eye. Their entrances tend to be bombastic, with stretched columns or oversize pediments (or both). They mash up disparate architectural styles with little regard for geography or history.
Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist, points out key design features that aren’t amenable to human comfort. The typical foyer and “great room” are not cozy, but quite formal, due to the high ceilings. Non-rectangular rooms, another McMansion staple, “can be stress-inducing,” Augustin says. “Where do you put the furniture?”
Adherence to principles of good architecture, though, is not the right way to understand these houses. The McMansion is more like a bricolage of elements chosen to impress visitors. Those elements may not form a coherent whole, but each connotes money and grandeur. With chandeliers, columns and de facto lobbies, McMansions draw on the architecture of banks.
It is no surprise that they do not take their cues from the world of high architecture. Architects turned their backs on suburbia long ago, and suburbia responded by designing for itself. The scorn of upper-middle-class urbanites for McMansions is a marker of social status that McMansion buyers often don’t possess (yet). And the McMansion’s architectural shorthand may come across differently to someone raised in China or Brazil. What says “successful American” better than an ersatz Monticello?
Term born in the 1990s
If you want to feel the tug of McMansion living, go to Olney, Maryland, where new cul-de-sacs are curling over the terrain of a former golf course. The model home at Trotters Glen, a Toll Brothers subdivision, teems with luxury features. A double-height foyer with curving double stairs. A kitchen island topped with creamy granite long enough to lie down and nap on. A 26-foot-long walk-in closet.
“There aren’t many areas where buyers don’t say ‘Wow,’ “ says Joanne Stokes, a Toll Brothers sales manager.
Houses here start at $1.1 million and 4,000 square feet.
Ten miles northeast in Howard County, Maryland, Aaron Vernon, a pharmaceutical executive in his 40s, lives in a five-bedroom, roughly 4,000-square-foot house built by Trinity Homes in 2011 in a 45-lot subdivision called Castleberry at Ten Oaks (”a horrible name, but they all are,” he says). The decision to buy came down to a few factors: the one-acre lot. A location convenient to his job, then based in Frederick and Gaithersburg, and to his wife’s job in Baltimore. Good schools. Ample room for a family of five and hosting relatives.
He’s happy with the house. His favorite rooms are the basement theater and the family room with large windows looking onto the woods: “When it’s snowing, it’s spectacular,” he says.
Vernon complicates the stereotype of McMansion dwellers as showoffs who don’t care about the environment. His house is large, but so is his family, and he has covered the roof in solar panels. The location makes sense for a couple with three commuting destinations.
And yet, he won’t refer to his house as a McMansion, even though he concedes it has McMansion-like traits. No one ever admits to living in one – it’s invariably a bigger, gaudier house that belongs to someone else. But why is that?
The term “McMansion” dates to the early 1990s, says sociologist Brian Miller, at Wheaton College in Illinois. Analyzing hundreds of articles, he found that use of the word surged after 1998, spiking in 2005 and in early 2008, at the pinnacle of the housing boom and on the verge of the bust.
The term spread as the average American house got larger. The median size of a new home in 2015 was 2,467 square feet, 61 percent larger than in 1975 even as the number of people in an average household declined over the same period.
The definition of a McMansion can be subjective. Trulia puts the threshold at 3,000 square feet – about 1 1/2 times the size of the average new home built in 2000.
Miller found the word most often applied to a very large house, or to a house that’s big relative to those around it – i.e., a tear-down in an older neighborhood. The third connotation was a lack of architectural quality.
The McMansion got its reputation for flimsiness in the ’90s, when building codes were looser. Landis recalls that large homes then were difficult to heat or cool: “All the hot air goes up through the [entry] atrium.” Today, new houses are better insulated. Construction quality still varies, but materials favored by some McMansion builders like fake stucco can lead to problems. A bigger knock against these houses is their location: auto-centric and environmentally unfriendly suburbs.
That aura of excess
But perhaps the real reason we love to hate McMansions is they are emblematic of our addiction to living beyond our means. That aura of excess – the granite countertops, the his-’n’-hers sinks, the Hummer in the three-car garage – took on a darker tinge during the recession. “A lot of the disdain [for them] comes from what happened with the 2008 crash,” argues Wagner. “All you saw on TV was empty subdivisions.”
Foreclosed McMansions are the eeriest reminders of how fleeting paper wealth can be.
Despite those painful associations, Miller doubts McMansions are going away.
“Since the housing bubble, it sort of goes in cycles. Every year or two, you’ll see a collection of stories that says the death of the McMansion is finally here,” he says. “But I don’t suspect Americans are interested all that much in smaller homes.”
Few know this better than Omar Botero-Paramo, a former government official in Colombia with a PhD in economics who is the president of Botero Homes, a small builder in Reston, Virginia.
Botero’s houses are huge - up to 11,000 square feet - and ostentatious, with Corinthian columns and balustrades galore. Models have names like Tuscan Villa I and Jeffersonian III.
Wearing a tweed jacket and pink silk tie in a conference room full of floor plans, Botero-Paramo says a McMansion is a house too big for its lot, whereas he typically builds on three acres or more. His homes are mansions “with a reasonable budget.” And he prides himself on his fusion of classical and contemporary elements, a style he describes as international. Botero-Paramo designs the houses himself with input from his wife, then has an architect draw the plans.
Most of his customers are immigrants from Asia with high-paying jobs in information technology. He tailors designs to their needs, such as adding a suite for their elderly parents or a “spicy kitchen” - a small second kitchen with separate ventilation where richly spiced foods can be cooked.
His clients aren’t interested in small houses or apartments, he says. “When they were immigrants, arriving, they saw these mansions, these houses, and that was the dream.”
At Trotters Glen in Olney, Toll Brothers has sold 17 of the 58 planned homes. Stokes and her colleague, Sharon Nugent, say the development attracts affluent buyers in their 40s and 50s, with many drawn by Our Lady of Good Counsel, a nearby private school. Some add multi-generational suites or first-floor master bedrooms to accommodate elderly relatives or themselves in the future. “They’re building the dream home that they can stay in forever,” Nugent says.
Asked if they’d call the homes McMansions, Nugent and Stokes don’t bristle at the term and say their buyers probably wouldn’t either. “I don’t think they’d mind having it called a McMansion,” says Stokes.
“When you read [it in] an article, you think it’s derogatory,” Nugent says. “But in my mind, I chuckle and laugh, because we’re selling them. And they’re selling well.”