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What is McMansion

"A modern house built on a large and imposing scale, but regarded as ostentatious and lacking architectural integrity" - Oxford English Dictionary

"McMansion is a pejorative term for a particular style of housing of that, as its name suggests, is both large like a mansion and relatively cheap and ubiquitous like McDonald's fast food restaurants. McMansion is used as a pejorative term because they are seen to be characterized by traditional features without an understanding of those styles' underlying logic and purpose..." - Wikipedia

What we now call McMansion came about in the 90’s when builders struck on a winning formula – give the buyer at an affordable price, the biggest possible house reminiscent of old-world mansion archetypes (English manor, French chateau, Italian villa). Essentially bringing elitism to the masses.

The formula has been a big hit ever since. Practically every new suburb is a McPlantation. More Americans than ever get to feel they’re upper-class. And why not, happy home owners make for better communities.

This type of house, however, is problematic when built in a neighborhood of smaller older prewar homes where the levels of customization and craft (which used to be less expensive) are higher than today's builders can economically match.  

What's economical today is building larger since building materials are less expensive thanks to mass production/global trade, and to use mostly ready-made products with little if any custom fabrication (that's why custom homes these days often look mass produced and their architectural components don't go exactly well together).

So instead of being grand and inspiring like the true blue mansions of old, the mansion-sized yet poorly detailed new McMansions seem grandiose on the cheap among older homes, like a grand declaration of status that went awry. 

Instead of adding to the collective charm and character of the older houses, McMansions detract from them. No wonder communities are upset (Google 'McMansion' and see). 

But to be fair, not every big new house built in an older neighborhood is a dreaded McMansion.  A well-designed and well-built big house can just as well be a welcomed addition. Nothing wrong with bigness when it's done right.

If you have the budget, go for it, buy a big lot, hire really good architects and craftsmen to build you a bona fide mansion, something you and the neighborhood can be proud of.

If you don’t, instead of trying to impress, try to delight. Forgo the mansion-ish grand house styles that require more land and money to do correctly. Build a welcoming, friendly house restrained in size. Choose understated elegance over grandiosity to add to the streetscape instead of overtaking it in a bad way.

Building with restraint and modesty was easier in the old days when conspicuous consumption was frowned upon. It takes will power to do it today when bling is in. But we should do it still to save the character of the older neighborhoods; and more importantly, not having to wonder down the line "is my house too fat?" :-).

McMansion proofing University Park.

If you plan to build in my neck of the woods, University Park, here are some suggestions to avoid building yet another UP McMansion:  

  • Reduce house footprint and overall bulk by mining living space in the attic, which is a good economical building idea underutilized in University Park. I.e., instead of having a gameroom above an attached garage, have it in the attic and detach the garage. Also, consider building a basement which wasn't a good idea in the past but a good choice now that construction techniques have solved the troublesome clay soils we have.


  • Don't automatically go for the highest possible ceiling height which contributes significantly to the bloated look of the exterior.  University Park building ordinances do keep McMansions from going beyond 10-11' ceilings. But does every new house need ceilings that high? A 10 foot high ceiling in the smaller rooms of the house such as a study or kid's bedroom actually makes those rooms' floor space seem smaller. Make your architect work harder to achieve a sense of spaciousness without resorting to the cheap trick of increasing ceiling height. I like having 2-story ceiling at the foyer, then for the rest of the house having 8-9' ceilings according on room use, proportions, sightlines. My Lovers Lane house feels plenty spacious with that approach. There's more to make a space delightful, not just mindless volume.


  • Be thoughtful in incorporating architectural elements. Stay away from faux gable, faux balcony, faux porch, faux anything.  Use architectural elements for their functionality as well as aesthetic (i.e., a column should structurally support something not just for ornamentation, a porch should be deep enough for actual use, a gable should represent a wing of the house, etc). 


  • Be extra careful being eclectic. Mixing architectural elements from different periods/styles, more often than not, ends up looking more convoluted than sophisticated.  Just look at the postmodernism trend of  the 80's where traditional and modern elements are whimsically mixed. Very few examples have fared well over time, and their plunging resale is painful to watch. Have eclecticism fun with furniture, not so much with architecture.


  • Lastly, go against the grain, build a high-quality small house instead of a cheap-looking big one. There is virtue in living small, you know. Jay Shafer couldn't have said it better -"Several years ago I moved into a tiny home that I designed for environmental and economical reasons - but mostly because I didn't have time or patience to maintain a large house anymore. Simplifying my living space has made my whole existence simpler and more manageable. My best advice for people looking to pare down is to get rid of everything that's not contributing to your happiness. Think of it this way: A small house is a big house with all the unnecessary parts removed".