Why we love to hate McMansions, but still buy them

  • Botero Custom Home’s French Manor IV. Botero Custom Homes via Washington Post

  • The Tuscan Villa I model built by Botero Homes. Omar Botero-Paramo, president of the company, says many of his customers are well-to-do immigrants who see mansions as a sign of success. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Botero Homes Botero Homes

Washington Post
Published: 2/7/2017 10:33:53 AM

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, Calif., 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.”

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 said. “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.

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