Pity the poor McMansion. Everyone seems to snipe at it, even if no one can agree what it really is. For some, it's just a big, big tract house--some say 5,000 square feet, while others hold out for 10,000. For other critics, it's not the size but the overblown proportions--the towering foyer, the two-story family room.
Yet others stipulate that the problem is the cookie-cutter nature of McMansions. Calling these 5,000-square-foot, million-dollar houses "production-builder mansions," Great Falls developer, architect and Realtor John Colby points out that "there's some customizing, but each house has essentially the same chassis. There's the 'Grand This' and 'Grand That.' You can buy the 'Grand Piranesi' with Elevation 3-C."
The critics rarely address the seductive quality of these behemoths--all that space! But it can be fun to listen to them rave on.
For District architect Norman Smith, McMansion is synonymous with pretension. "McMansions are great big tract-built houses trying to imitate grand country houses of the late 19th and early 20th century," he says. These recent arrivals on the suburban scene are replete with "ersatz traditional embellishments and wildly oversized rooms that lack the proportions that give Georgian and Colonial period architecture its enduring charm."
Tom Bozzuto, president of the Bozzuto Group in Greenbelt, agrees that the definition of a McMansion is not very precise, "but you know it when you see it--any house that is larger than the lot it sits on. For example, a 7,000-square-foot house on one-tenth of an acre [about 4,350 square feet]. The house is far too big for the lot it's on, with turrets and geegaws. In an effort to be different, the house becomes overdone, with 12 pitches to the roof--and seven are gratuitous--a widow's walk in a place with no justification for it, and a three- to four-car garage. The houses don't all look alike, but they feel alike."
One of the first to use the word "McMansion" was Andres Duany, the Miami-based urban planner who designed Kentlands, the critically successful neotraditional development near Gaithersburg.
Duany calls the McMansion "the equivalent in housing to fast food. It does its job in terms of shelter and cultural pretension, but it's desiccated, drained of emotional and intellectual vitality, dried up, and dumbed down." It frequently uses imitative, cheap materials, he says. "Instead of properly building one gable with a cornice and copper flashing, you get seven cheap gables made with Styrofoam."
Though "McMansion" might also imply "commonplace," such large houses are, as yet, far from the norm in the Washington area. The Potomac area of Montgomery County and the Great Falls area of Fairfax County have many very large houses, but the average size of a newly built single-family house in the Washington area is only 2,546 square feet, said Anna Pitheon, an executive with the Meyers Group, a national real estate research firm that tracks local housing trends.
National Association of Home Builders senior economist Gopal Ahluwalia agrees the McMansion is not a trend. "People are buying bigger houses," he said, "but the 10,000-square-foot, 20,000-square-foot, 40,000-square-foot houses--there are not a lot of them."
Bethesda architect Sami Kirkdil points out that buyers of McMansions "don't always take into account the baggage that comes with a very big house. As far as maintenance goes, a 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot house can still be reasonable. But beyond 6,000 to 7,000 square feet, the house becomes an institutional facility. The landscaping and cleaning-up charge will be higher than most people's annual mortgage.
"Historically, very large houses in the 18th and 19th centuries had a staff of 10 to 14 people to keep up a 10,000-square-foot house," he said. "Despite today's conveniences such as vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, a house that size would still require several people full time to keep clean."
With a big house, there is also a tension between craftsmanship and quality of materials and size, Kirkdil said. "You can have a 5,000-square-foot house that can look gorgeous and live well or, with the same budget, you can build a house twice as big, but it's cheaply built. The quality of the windows, molding, energy efficiency, finishes suffers. Buyers don't seem to grasp that sheer volume and sheer size don't ensure a great house."
Another thing they don't grasp, Andres Duany says, is how the very layout of suburbia forces homeowners to allocate their dollars. "According to the American Automobile Association," he said, "the private cost to own and maintain a car is $6,000 a year." At current mortgage rates, "this could buy $60,000 more of house.
"The reason [our society] can't build properly is that we have to allocate more discretionary income to cars, not the house," he said. And not just two cars per household. "After you're 16 years old, life is not livable without a car."
While Duany is sometimes quick to blame things on the American automobile--his neotraditional style of neighborhood is, in part, a repudiation of the car--his thesis is certainly provocative. But there's no guarantee that buyers would put more money into their house if they could put less into their automobiles.
"Our grandparents put a high percentage of their discretionary income into building, but we spend more on travel and leisure," observed Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Kelbaugh's problem with the McMansion was rather the mishmash of ill-proportioned amenities--the high entryway, the glitzy, brass-plated chandeliers, the unnecessarily high ceilings--"all tucked under a pile of inflated French Provincial roofs. Much of the money is poured into the facade and the side and rear views are forlorn."
"At the University of Michigan," Kelbaugh continued, "we don't teach [big houses] well. It's considered beneath the dignity and the radar of any architectural school. Big spec houses are just considered energy hogs and land hogs, attached to auto-dependent lifestyles."
But academics' emphasis on building houses that are environmentally correct overlooks human frailties: Size can be seductive, observed Sandy Isenstadt, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Architecture. "An educated taste may value fine materials and craftsmanship over the maximum-sized house, but a huge house for the same money--it's very seductive. Plus there's the whole notion of the 'privatization' of the house--home theaters, home exercise rooms, there's no shortage of activities. I can easily see how a person would choose to go for the space."
Isenstadt, who has studied American houses built in the earlier part of this century, also observed that the very meaning of the word "spacious" has changed. "In the 1920s and 1930s, 'spacious' was used by architects to mean 'it feels big, but it's not big.' In the 1950s, it meant incorporating views to make a smaller house feel bigger. Today, 'spaciousness' means having a lot of space."
A lot of space can sometimes be a "jaw-dropping experience," said Rita Baumberger, vice president of Holladay Property Services in the District, as she described visiting a 21,000-square-foot house with a "fireplace as big as half my house."
Is it possible that all these critics swiping at McMansions are missing something here? Architect and home builder Steve Porten, chairman of the Porten Companies in Rockville, thinks so.
When looking at large houses and large houses on small lots, "it would be easy to be critical, but that would miss the point. Houses speak a language and send a message; they embody the aspirations of the people who buy them. If people didn't want it, builders wouldn't built it.
"As an architect, I might want to blame builders because the houses are not historically accurate. But they do speak to social and economic realities--the houses are what people want and what they can afford."
In short, McMansions are us.