The McMansion phenomenon

People who are interested in architecture and the follies of the fashion might be amused by this commentary on ostentatious houses. H/t Tom Champion.

Sometimes people ask, why is xyz house bad? Asking this question does not imply that the asker has bad taste or no taste whatsoever – it means that they are simply not educated in basic architectural concepts. In this post, I will introduce basic architectural concepts and explain why not all suburban/exurban/residential houses are McMansions, as well as what makes a McMansion especially hideous.

Disclaimer: These same principles do not always apply to Modernist or even canonically Postmodern architecture. These principles are for the classical or traditional architecture most residential homes are modeled after.

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51 Responses to The McMansion phenomenon

  1. Entropy

    Interesting definitions of McMansions. Basically, it is any large house where the author reckons they have thrown symmetry out the window. He would hate three or four gable Queenslanders, for example.

    He started off OK. Anything where the entrance and associated facade is totally huge in proportion to the rest of the house, and too many ‘features’ that make it look too busy. Then he went a bit off the rails in spectrum level focus on symmetry.

    But it isn’t the traditional, at least in the Australian context, blocky, high ceilinged monsters with mega bathrooms that completely cover a tiny block I associate with McMansions.

  2. John Brumble

    Yes Entropy. He starts off with a good intent, but like all pretentious wankers proceeds to hijack the definitions of words so that he can demand everyone else follow his own design prejudices.

    Bet he votes Green.

  3. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    Not a bad introduction to some principles of traditional architectural design, most of which can be if not ignored then at least played with somewhat by a good architect especially in modernist buildings (he does exclude them btw). It is very US oriented in its exampling and the examples are generally quite good at demonstrating his points. There are a lot of not particularly eye-friendly American houses of the ‘rich’.

    Entropy above makes the point though. These houses aren’t the sort we associate with McMansions here. In Australia we tend to use the term for over-large buildings dominating a smaller block, often cheaply built in boxlike form with no eaves or limited eaves, no passive solar design, and fronted with columns to impress (Americans if you look at the examples, do even worse things with columns). All that said, if Ozzies want a bigger house with lotsa room and a smaller backyard than the old suburban quarter acre block, then that’s their money and their choice.

    I have noticed recently project builders are offering a more ‘refined’ style of project home that has lost the Palladian columns fronting the box with aluminium windows, and some time ago they moved on from those fake Federation finials. They now inflect an Anglo-French Georgian style which is reasonably classic. And ‘Hamptons’ interiors are now being purchased by people who have no idea of that provenance – and why should they indeed? Style is a fickle mistress. Enjoy what you have as long as you like it, I say. Sell it when you don’t for someone else to change or to love.

    Note too that Mr. Architect above gets all ‘vironmental and sustainable in the screed on the front garden, and would have you walking up a muddy path with nowhere to park your car in front of the garage which he probably also wouldn’t give you. Not using plants that become runaway weeds is a good idea anywhere, but building more dams would allow you to still water your lawn, mate. Also, he’s the type who would legislate to stop you cutting down a tree, and we know how that has worked out for Australians who have legislatively lost the beautiful vistas we once used to have from our public lookouts as well as from our now view-blocked homes, sending sky high the prices of any view-properties that are left. Green envy deepens when it comes to water views. Greenies also don’t care about killer trees as people don’t count in their book. This guy seems like a nice fella but he’s got the green disease, so watch out.

    Not a bad architectural lecture on principles, thanks, Rafe, although the whole idea of this sort of critique smacks of a certain kind of dismissive envy. 🙂

  4. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    Bet he votes Green.

    Yep. Seems you and I are on the same page picking that, John B.

    Friends of ours in a now-multi million dollar ‘cottage’ in Queens Park improved their property’s value tremendously by having the luck to get approval (hard to obtain) to put a drive-in parking spot in the front of it, all architecturally styled of course. The Council insisted though that they couldn’t pave it, they had to have two silly little strips of paving along which they had to park the vehicle, and the rest had to be planted out to be ‘green’ and absorb run-off. What happens is that when they miss the strips they get a muddy bog which the kids then traipse through the house. Thanks, Council.

  5. mareeS

    Aesthetics. It’s that intangible thing, like the rule of three, that does in a lot of building design, or lack of it.

    You just know when a building or an interior or a piece of art , or even a colour mix or a text looks right. Or you don’t.

    Sounds elitist, probably. Sorry about that. I have seen too many post-modern houses replacing nice, culturally historic and well-proportioned knockdowns in our locality just because they’re the current must-have.

  6. duncanm

    Fortunately (*), we have a completely different type of McMansion in Oz.

    (* – tongue-in-cheek).

  7. lotocoti

    where the author reckons they have thrown symmetry out the window

    Drilling down further through the blog, it’s not the absence of symmetry (understandable, considering we are bilaterally symmetrical) but a lack of coherency and/or balance which is the author’s bugbear.
    Queensland vernacular designs may not be symmetrical, but they do have balance.

  8. calli

    Oh dear. I quite like the houses he despises. They’re out and proud and say “I worked hard for this”.

    😄

  9. Percy Popinjay

    The author of the blog is a lezzo, which explains quite a bit, such as the pretentiousness, envy and environmental wankery.

    That said, some of the examples cited are indeed, absolutely hideous and in an ideal world would be howitzered into oblivion – preferably with the tasteless idiots responsible inside at the time.

  10. Percy Popinjay

    I also read the entire thing and had a sneaking suspicion the author wasn’t male. The photo is on the bottom of the home page.

  11. calli

    The landscaping section is a hoot. Simply a re-hash of the sniffery at landscape design class in the 90’s.

    No gardenias, no murrayas, no box hedges and definitely no specimen trees. Regardless of what the owner wanted. No wonder they were “teaching” because their businesses had failed. Chortle.

    And I loved the bit about the lawns being tended by “immigrants”.

  12. mareeS

    Yeah, calli, people sure do work hard for these houses, but I have been writing about architecture and design since 1980s, particularly from a building and aesthetics perspective, and believe me, the houses being built now are low common denominator construction.

    I have lots of friends on both the design and construction sides, and they all admit privately that a house built today to current buyer tastes, is more about fashion than structure. Some of my builder friends say they won’t guarantee a lifespan beyond 25yrs.

    Now my own house turned 100 this year, is in a coastal situation which is very bad for wear and tear on newer houses, has survived 3 earthquakes since 1918, will likely go another 100yrs. Houses built at present, with thin softwood studs and thin cladding, requiring heating/aircon year-round, are just money pits.

  13. lotocoti

    Oh dear. I quite like the houses he despises.

    Aesthetics, as mareeS said, is an intangible thing.
    It’s also personal, which is why I’d call in an airstrike on most of them.
    I really, really like these but it’s perfectly understandable that you might think they are nothing but hideous moth catchers.

  14. Rafe Champion

    I like them too loto but not enough to have many!

  15. calli

    Some of my builder friends say they won’t guarantee a lifespan beyond 25yrs.

    Years ago I was told by someone to enjoy the designs I did while they lasted as the average lifespan was 25 years. That was high quality stonework, structural blockwork and all sorts of hard structures. I didn’t believe him.

    To date, I have watched on horrified as block after block is bulldozed ready to start again.

    And that’s not just in new subdivisions, but in old, established suburbs. We live in a disposable age.

  16. lotocoti

    But they are a matched pair Rafe, space can always be found.
    But not a way to get them safely to rural Qld.

  17. Rafe Champion

    Thanks for the critical comments, I appreciate that our McMansions are quite different from most of those. I didn’t read enough to get critical, it looked interesting in an opinionated and somewhat cranky way.

    As a young person with no taste at all I found some value in The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd and also Australia’s Home.

  18. calli

    And I get the big, jerry built argument. In most cases it’s true.

    Ever tried to renovate a genuine Federation or Cali bungalow? Poor building quality is not confined to the McMansion.

    My recommendation for a new house would be steel frame, face bricks, fully insulated walls including internal walls, Colourbond roof with insulated sarking plus insulated roof space. On design, zoned open plan with the ability to shut off discrete areas for cooling/heating, with passive solar elements like skylights with retractable venetians and wide eaves.

    Aesthetically, I loathe multi garages grinning at you from the street. Much better if the block allows to have a driveway with garages to the “dead” or service side. And for pity’s sake, isolate the driveway from the front yard. It isn’t that hard. Also loathed – double storey entrance porticos, and dormer windows, and great big slabs of solid, unbroken wall. And mean, measley, squinting windows.

    🙂

  19. stackja

    My old place was a 1920s California Bungalow on 30 perches. My new place is a 1980s strata 3 room unit.

  20. chrisl

    Calli Houses nowadays are dominated by the double garage which is 6 metres from the street and take up 40% of the facade of the house.The rest of the house is then designed around that. Try making that look attractive!

  21. candy

    Some really lovely homes pictured, and very interestingly described. Something you can’t read all at once, but very entertaining.

    I agree about the garages. It’s not “balanced” or good karma to have a garage that dominates, I reckon. Why can’t a car be located separately and discreetly at the back, so what if there’s a longer driveway.

  22. chrisl

    Candy Because it takes up too much space to have a driveway beside the house.And there is always an internal door in the garage so that you never have to actually meet you neighbour.

  23. Snoopy

    Candy Because it takes up too much space to have a driveway beside the house.And there is always an internal door in the garage so that you never have to actually meet you neighbour.

    And also because most people can’t reverse to save their life, the back yard necessarily becomes a paved turnaround area.

  24. Bruce of Newcastle

    I blame global warming.

    Really.

    It works like this. Global warming made local councils freak out. To do their bit they relaxed building density bylaws. Instead of a small house on a large block, people were allowed to subdivide into small blocks and build right to the boundary.

    And build granny flats, as one of the people near me is planning, which will wipe out the whole back yard.

    So because of this people now can knock down a fibro 3 bedroom fifties house and build a big flashy tasteless two story monster on the same block.

    Thus McMansions are due to global warming.

  25. Snoopy

    And mean, measley, squinting windows.

    Are you a bay window girl, Calli?

  26. calli

    Plate glass for me. And lots of it. 😀

  27. I divide my life between two modest residences, spending most of my time in a 100 year old weatherboard farmhouse with verandah, & less time in a small modernist home with much glass in the city.

    It really is “horses for courses”, which crudely means design for conditions. I love them both.

    I suspect all the families who buy McMansions in the outer suburbs of the major cities also love them. It is what they can afford & what satisfies their needs.

  28. Ellen of Tasmania

    So because of this people now can knock down a fibro 3 bedroom fifties house and build a big flashy tasteless two story monster on the same block.

    Oh, I don’t know, Bruce. In the Melbourne working class suburb where I grew up, quite a number of small houses were pulled down to make way for large, orange brick homes with thick white columns and balustrades.

    Of course, now the fashion pendulum is swinging the other way, with the rage for tiny houses.

    I still have an ad from a newspaper we found from the mid 1950’s extolling the virtues of a spacious 13 sq. family home. And people actually had kids back then. Probably even shared living spaces with them – wow!

  29. A Lurker

    Now my own house turned 100 this year, is in a coastal situation which is very bad for wear and tear on newer houses, has survived 3 earthquakes since 1918, will likely go another 100yrs. Houses built at present, with thin softwood studs and thin cladding, requiring heating/aircon year-round, are just money pits.

    Ours is 88yrs old – Californian bungalow with ten-foot ceilings, two fireplaces, tongue and groove walls and hardwood floors. One we get the tin-roof fixed we expect it to last another 88+years.

    Wouldn’t touch a modern, soulless house with a twenty-foot barge pole.

  30. Chris

    Its just not a home without columns and a pair of constipated concrete lions balanced on the gateposts.

  31. RacerX

    We’ve got a triple gable Queenslander with the same amount of timber as your average street these days.

    We replaced the tin roof when we bought it 20 years ago, it’s money well spent Lurker and didn’t end up as expensive as I thought it would. These old houses have so much character and after living under 12 foot ceilings houses with low ceilings feel like little boxes.

  32. Rafe Champion

    Welcome to new threadsters who have come out of the woodwork (to coin a phrase)!
    Shame on the person who had to spoil it by mentioning global warming:)

  33. Roger

    Aesthetics, as mareeS said, is an intangible thing.

    We may be confusing aesthetics with taste, a topic worthy of a thread of its own.

    McMansions are objectively ugly for the reasons he outlines and their owners have poor taste.

    Not that that’s a crime, each to their own, etc. etc..

    Most modern buildings are objectively ugly. If you want to know why, Roger Scruton has written a lot on the topic.

  34. calli

    Its just not a home without columns and a pair of constipated concrete lions balanced on the gateposts.

    I should get a couple of tyre swans just to annoy the neighbours. 😀

    There’s a house not far from me that has concrete aboriginals (a whole family of them) in the front yard. They are very spruce and always freshly painted. At Christmas they all wear Santa hats.

    I suspect the only reason they haven’t been defaced is that the owner is probably indigenous. And with an excellent sense of humour.

  35. Dr Fred Lenin

    Spent my working life in the building trade nearly fifty years , have watched the trends and approve of the new designs in many ways ,I was involved in renovations and restorations so have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of styles and materials . My hobbies now are painting pictures and photographing the lates architectural styles and materials . Some of the Mac mansions are quite good in style others are glorified boxes , still in the fifties many yellow brick veneers of no imagination were the norm , streets and streets of them and used to cost 3,00 pounds ! These days a little more imagination is shown . My prediction is more precast slab homes will be built as bricklayers price themselves out of a job , and the speed of erection saving lots of money, also more use of renewable timber even approved of by the gangrenes , plus \more imaginative design . The building industry has always been an interesting one filled with innovation .

  36. Ruthm

    A friend in real estate in the 70s, who always resided with his family in gracious old Queenslanders in established suburbs, did a parody of real estate ads, of which I can remember “triple fronted brick veneer vomiting over the lawns of Aspley….”

  37. JohnJJJ

    There is nothing as beautiful as the Block House. Sawubona. No messing with widow frames, lintels blah blah. All windows are vertical slits, with wall tapering outwards, so the rifle gets a good shot and they can’t get in with their assegais. Clear the front yard for a ‘kill zone’ . Walls must be at least 12 feet high and security everywhere. Garage is an integral part of house, for quick arrival with plenty of cover and getaway if too many attack. There can be no decoration, finials and the like that can be used as weapons. Roof must be flat with one access and battlements. Yar, yar the Block House.
    Essential living in Dover Heights and St Ives.

  38. Chris M

    I believe shoehorning city people into apartments (AKA flats) with little or no yard will increasingly curtail both the birthrate and consumerism going forward. There simply isn’t room to fit many children or for much stuff in these little places. And anything larger is much more expensive, by government design.

    But this guy most likely loves those little dogbox flats.

  39. johanna

    Ever tried to renovate a genuine Federation or Cali bungalow? Poor building quality is not confined to the McMansion.

    Oh, yeah. Plenty of corners cut by builders through the ages. My previous shack, for which I had the original plans, had ceilings lower than what was approved, built in the 1960s. Who’d a thunk it?

    I found the article to be a mixture of pretentious nonsense and things that everyone knows anyway.

    Watching the House Hunters TV series is a revelation. They pull up to a house which in my view should be detonated without delay, and say that they love it. OK, it’s their money.

    As a species, architects who claim to lay down the law are to be despised. They are closely aligned to the ‘urban planners’ who know what is best for us. A pox on them.

    The loathers of ‘McMansions’ probably haven’t met many of their inhabitants. If they did, they might (but I wouldn’t take any bets) change their views.

    These are the people who just adore Victorian terrace houses, but hate big houses in suburbia with close boundaries.

    Snobs, all of them. There is an approved way for the proletariat to live, and damn them for not conforming.

  40. johanna

    Chris M
    #2750911, posted on June 30, 2018 at 4:36 pm

    I believe shoehorning city people into apartments (AKA flats) with little or no yard will increasingly curtail both the birthrate and consumerism going forward. There simply isn’t room to fit many children or for much stuff in these little places. And anything larger is much more expensive, by government design.

    So, how come when homes were much smaller people had more kids?

    Lift your game.

  41. JC

    As a species, architects who claim to lay down the law are to be despised.

    Not totally true. Have you ever worked with a good architect? Not a designer, but an architect, as they are a different species. A good architect won’t draw what you want, but what he believes his brief is to your style of living. He will defend his ideas and most times refuse to change. That’s what a good architect is like.

    In your opinion, you seem to be confusing architects with urban planners, which is obviously not the same thing.

  42. H B Bear

    Eurotrash have been living in apartments for centuries. Sure their birthrates are now all below replacement and they are being over-run with muzzies but that isn’t a function of their housing. They have lost faith in the future and their governments are just accelerating the process.

    Small houses didn’t matter in the 60s and 70s because there was always remnant bushland, a creek or vacant land within a short bike ride. And everyone didn’t demand their own bedroom and bathroom.

  43. calli

    A good architect won’t draw what you want, but what he believes his brief is to your style of living. He will defend his ideas and most times refuse to change. That’s what a good architect is like.

    The best architects I have worked with are the humble ones. They stick until you prove it won’t work, then they modify to something even better. I love those kind of guys.

    Then there are the ones building their fiefdoms of fame on their client’s chequebooks. I don’t like them quite so much.

  44. johanna

    H B Bear
    #2750975, posted on June 30, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    Eurotrash have been living in apartments for centuries. Sure their birthrates are now all below replacement and they are being over-run with muzzies but that isn’t a function of their housing. They have lost faith in the future and their governments are just accelerating the process.

    Small houses didn’t matter in the 60s and 70s because there was always remnant bushland, a creek or vacant land within a short bike ride. And everyone didn’t demand their own bedroom and bathroom.

    The first part of your comment is not consistent with the second, Bear.

    When I was growing up, my Catholic neighbours had seven children in a three bedroom house.

    Today, that would be

    (a) implausible and

    (b) child abuse.

  45. Tim Neilson

    There is an approved way for the proletariat to live, and damn them for not conforming.

    Absolutely. E.g. a Greens voter living in a detached large block house with front and back yard in Canberra was once waxing lyrical to me about how much the proles would love medium density housing if only it were available, and when I pointed out that if the proles wanted medium density housing the market would be meeting the demand, the response was basically that the proles didn’t know what was good for them and should be forced to find out.

    The driving motive of Greens voting is basically snobbery (intellectual and social) based hatred of lower middle class and working class Australians, and incandescent fury that Howard and Costello enabled them to get lifestyles that they like.

  46. JC

    The best architects I have worked with are the humble ones. They stick until you prove it won’t work, then they modify to something even better. I love those kind of guys.

    We’ve used only one guy like this. He’s really great and became a close pal.

    Then there are the ones building their fiefdoms of fame on their client’s chequebooks. I don’t like them quite so much.

    I call them celebrity architects and if you’re not a celeb or very rich well known type stay well away as they will treat you like shit and give the brief to someone below him. Never use these dicks.

  47. Chris M

    So, how come when homes were much smaller people had more kids?

    The average multi-level two bedroom apartment / tiny house of today is smaller than the suburban houses of the past and generally has no yard vs a quarter acre block.

  48. JohnA

    Rafe Champion #2750737, posted on June 30, 2018, at 11:19 am

    Thanks for the critical comments, I appreciate that our McMansions are quite different from most of those. I didn’t read enough to get critical, it looked interesting in an opinionated and somewhat cranky way.

    Actually, I found it TL;DR to the end. The blog site itself is hideous and tiresome to work through. It seemed to me to be the website version of the rant it (barely) contained. And the language. Ye gods, such atrocious grammar!

    The architectural principles seemed OK to get through, but the rest as examples? Sorry but no thanks.

  49. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    The author of the blog is a lezzo, which explains quite a bit, such as the pretentiousness, envy and environmental wankery.

    Gosh, she looks like one of her crazy unbalanced houses. Who on earth would want to dress like that? She does for fashion what those collapsey curly curvy modern fallim-down buildings do for architecture.

    UTS in Sydney has gone for that sort of thing in a big way.

  50. Percy Popinjay

    Lizzie – UTS is home to a pair of this country’s most hideously ugly monstrosities, quite an achievement.

    Example B.

  51. Dr Fred Lenin

    I had a look at apartments in Melbourne cbd nicely laid out but small rooms .claustrophobic .and the building service charges were out of order ,ended up with a villa unit further out ,half the price and twice the size with very reasonable service charges.

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