McMansions 101 Revisited: Aesthetics Aside, Why McMansions Are Bad Architecture

I get a lot of emails. The vast majority of them are good, but every once in a while I get those mainly consisting of “You’re making aesthetic judgements aka That’s just like, your opinion, man.” (A subset of these are “HOW DARE YOU INSULT RONALD REAGAN!”) 

As a response to these emails, I would like to provide an objective list of reasons why McMansions are bad architecture that ignores aesthetics. 

(house tip courtesy of my dank Twitter follower @keowmb) 

What are these mysterious reasons the McMansion is bad? 

Imma sum it up for you:

Why McMansions Are Bad Architecture Aesthetics-Free Remix

1.) BAD craftsmanship!
2.) BAD investment! (This one’s for you, Wall St.)
3.) BAD for the environment! (That’s right, I said the e word)
4.) BAD for the spirit! (That’s right, architecture affects how we feel!

Before I begin, I would like to take the time to say that this post is about the McMansion itself. It is not about the suburbs, urban planning, sprawl, etc. There are literally ten million really super awesome books about this subject. (Admittedly, I have a whole row on my bookshelf devoted to the subject and also no life whatsoever.) 

McMansion Pitfall No. 1: BAD CRAFTSMANSHIP!

The signs of shoddy construction aren’t always easy to identify. 

However, when big building corporations such as Toll Brothers and Pulte Homes, consistently push the “More House for Your Money!” angle, it’s a safe bet that corners are being cut somewhere, and you know they ain’t messing with that double-sink in the master bath! 

At face value, building materials are a good primary indicator as to whether or not a house was built cheaply. Houses built from brick, stone, wood, or real stucco are generally more reliable than those built with cheap trendy materials commonly marketed as being “no-maintenance.” (All houses require maintenance. Sorry to burst your [housing] bubble!) 

That’s not to say that all new building materials are bad - often, they are very energy efficient, and can look rather wonderful with proper maintenance. However, McMansions tend to use the cheapest materials possible, installed in dubious ways (EIFS lawsuit anyone?) in order to satisfy their builder’s profit margins. 

The thing about good design, is that it’s well-thought out - it shows that care has been put into the details and quality of what is being designed. If builders skimp so much on the external design (literally how a house looks) of a home, it’s usually indicative of other problems: it shows that the house wasn’t carefully planned, and often this is revealed not only in inefficient (try re-roofing one of these houses) exterior form, but interior form as well. 

The inside of McMansions are designed in order to cram the most “features” inside for the lowest costs. Often this is done inefficiently, resulting in odd rooflines, room shapes, and hastily covered up contractor errors. These lead to major upsets years down the road such as leaky roofs, draft problems, and structural deficiencies leading to mold, mildew, and other problems costing thousands of dollars to repair. 

Because we started treating our houses as disposable during the mortgage booms of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, we ended up with houses built to last not even 25 years. This leads us to our next point: McMansions are a seriously bad investment. 

McMansion Pitfall No. 2: BAD Investments! 

Newsflash, fam: McMansions ain’t selling. 

To some, it is definitely a newsflash. After decades of rhetoric about what makes a home valuable (spurred in part by HGTV and other media outlets claiming that stainless steel and other trivial pursuits LITERALLY add ten gazillion dollars to the value of your home!!1), it’s come to light that SURPRISE, the aesthetic trends of 10 years ago aren’t fairing so well today. 

The fact is, these houses are entering their dark years, where costly repairs such as re-roofing are looming just around the corner, contributing to their market stagnation. In addition, the rich and powerful who desire super-sized houses are building new ones, with all of today’s bells and whistles (warm gray walls and pseudo-mod furniture anyone?) Nobody wants someone else’s outdated, used luxury. 

And so, on the market they sit after thousands and tens of thousands of price cuts. Meanwhile, according to the linked Bloomberg article at the top of this section, small and medium sized homes are appreciating at a rapid rate. This, coupled with the tiny house craze, indicate that, for the first time in a long time, people are starting to see that bigger isn’t always better. 

While this is good news for the environment and for those who desire more affordable housing, it’s pretty bad news for the poor souls who bought 5,000 square-foot houses in 2005. 

McMansion Pitfall No. 3: BAD for the environment!

In case anyone still has their doubts, the environment matters.

Unsurprisingly, having a ginormous house is bad for the environment. Yes, even if you “build it green,” a 9,000 square-foot house is still bad for the environment.

Living in huge houses on the fringes of society consumes massive amounts of resources: from the CO2 emissions from power plants that keep the lights on and heat your Pringles Can of Shame, to the emissions from your car as you sit in gridlocked traffic trying to get to the office park in Edge City, USA, the huge house lifestyle is no doubt impacting climate change in its own, if small, way. 

Building huge houses on the fringes of society consumes massive amounts of resources. 

One of the issues with McMansion design is their relative ignorance of the spaces around them. Often, when these houses are built, their lots are rid of any significant foliage (read: pretty trees) and replaced with a resource-gobbling lawn and a dinky stick tree.

It takes 2600 metric tons of CO2 to generate the concrete necessary for a 2500 square-foot house, and the construction and remodeling of residences takes up three-fourths of the total amount of lumber used each year.

Not to mention the amount of energy spent to extending roads and utility services to new lots and tearing down houses that get in the way of “luxurious progress.” Not to mention the fact that the entire idea and economy of suburbia is reliant upon fossil fuel consumption and the car, a totally unsustainable way of life. 

[I guess none of this matters, unfortunately, to those who believe that climate change and global warming aren’t real, and these people who live lives of conspicuous consumption are exactly the type to buy a giant house in the exurbs and think that the environment only exists to ruin business and extend the arm of the gubment.]

McMansion Pitfall No. 4: BAD for the spirit! 

I know, I’m totally going to come off as one of those hippie types, but architecture does, in fact, have a huge impact on how we feel and live our lives. 

The fact is, big houses can make us feel incredibly isolated. (The McMansion is a small scale version of what critics of sprawl attribute to modern suburbia, which is entirely reliant on the car to do everything from go shopping to visit friends.)

A family of four in a 6,000 square-foot house can go days at a time without having to interact with each other in any real respect. When I was in the sixth grade, I remember visiting a friend who, rather than traverse down the massive, useless staircase, would text her mother, who was making dinner in the kitchen, or her sister who was 4 (mostly empty) rooms away. 

Being able to hide away from the woes of family life hinders our ability to cope with others and learn important skills like conflict resolution, anger management, and empathy. In the house I grew up in, (1800 square feet, one story, 3bed/2ba, four people) my sister had to deal with my practicing the violin, and I had to deal with my sister’s incessant horror movie binges at top volume, and we all had to deal with my dad when he got way too into surround sound

The (mostly BS) accusations older generations make about Millennials is that they are overly-sensitive and mollycoddled; stuck in a perpetual childlike mentality. Those generations’ decision to isolate their children from the comings and goings of everyday life, including exposure to people different than themselves out of a combination of fear and prejudice no doubt has had some adverse effects on their children. 

Diversity is more than just racial quotas and pretty words - it’s an active participation in the world around us, interacting with people who come from backgrounds different than ours. Monocultures benefit no one.

The rise of the gated community and certain financial restrictions (e.g. building a community of houses in a certain price range to deter “riff-raff”) since the 1980s are just two of many ways people used property and planning to keep out undesirables (read: practicing legal racial prejudice), resulting in an echo-chamber NIMBY (”not in my backyard!”) mentality. 

If anyone is interested in further reading, the development of land as a practice of gatekeeping and prejudice is wonderfully covered in the book Privatopia

POINT BEING: SURPRISE! By fostering a culture of loneliness and isolation, the oversized house hurts not only the environment and our wallets, but our psyche as well. 

So there you have it, folks. Four reasons McMansions are bad architecture, aesthetic taste aside.

I plan on doing special posts about each of these facets and how they came to be this way in due time. (I have a long list of things to write about.) 

As for next week, don’t miss the Dank McMansion of the Week which will be in Encino, CA, and next Sunday’s McMansions 101: McMansion Cheat Sheet, which goes down the line of tell-tale signs that yes, in fact, what you’re looking at is probably a McMansion. 


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Copyright Disclaimer: All photographs in this post are from real estate aggregate Redfin.com and are used in this post for the purposes of education, satire, and parody, consistent with 17 USC §107.

10 Steps To Millennial Financial Success

If you’re a millennial who is struggling financially, the following tips can help put you on the right track toward a successful financial future:

1) Make income your priority.

2) Have a plan for the future and take it for a test run.

3) Making some sacrifices to keep your biggest bills as low as possible.

4) Create a strategy for your student loans.

5) Prioritize your interest rates.

6) Invest in your future.

7) Take advantage of perks such as 401(k) match programs, health savings accounts and commuter benefits.

8) Invest in one or two stocks of companies that offer products or services that you think will still be important 20 years from now.

9) Find a mentor.

10) Network online and in person.

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