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The Biggest Toy – McMansions In The Housing Crater

January 4, 2014

The McMansion was perhaps the Biggest Toy created largely for an era that defined human success as “dying with the most toys”. That manifestation of domestic economic prowess is now become the recent past’s most obvious icon of waste, ungrounded aspiration and ultimately vacuous consumption. Beyond the microeconomics of any family our culture has recently grown acutely aware of finite resources and uncertain environmental endgames.

With its overblown simulation of heritage and unintentional indictment of hubris, the McMansion’s historic precedent is found in megalomaniacal ego-gratification – the very rich building very large homes. The build-out blow-out by the 1% has not abated as the rich have only gotten richer in the crater of an epic economic fail.

Those piles of money in built form are the mansions the McMansion simulates. Their mass produced simulation of extreme wealth in suburban America by the middle class is what has lost lustre. Those who thought wealth was just a decade or two away via exploding home values bought or built homes that made no sense without real estate being in full “irrational exuberance” mode.

It could be said that like any other Bubble Economy – tech, tulip or stock – the 2008 crash into the Great Recession had a poster child. Where 1990’s Dot Bust start-ups, 17th century Dutch flower speculators, or 1929 brokers buying on margin embody the sound bite symbols of those disasters, it’s the Jumbo Mortgage leveraged purchase of a McMansion by the middle class that is what we see when we look into the mirror of Great Recession culpability.

This phenomenon is not as new as it may seem. In 1990 a builder called to say he had purchased a “Reaganesque” style home – started 3 months before the stock crash of 1987 that had laid fallow since the stock market equity black hole that often fuels spending money on houses. His building company was doing well enough he wanted to finish the home and live there.

The home was a classic McMansion: too big, too open and almost nonsensical in its layout. We tightened the plan, made sense of the bizarre kitchen and made other common areas distinct, taming the steroid-enhanced Great Room that ate up the home’s interior.

As the 1990’s progressed to a new Tech Bubble crescendo another client wanted a trophy home in Westport, and after a few months we ended up with a 6,500 square foot design for 2 people, and I called the question: I would, on my dime show them a version at 4,000 square feet.

This was repeated in 2002, for a 5,000 square foot house I designed in New Jersey I trimmed down on paper down to 3,500 for 3, and later, in 2006 I offered up a 4,500 square foot redesign for a 12,000 square foot preliminary scheme. In each case what I did made a difference.

The Westport home was built out at the larger size until the Tech Bubble burst rendered it into a “Clintonesque” version of the “Reaganesque” state of unfinished limbo I encounter a decade earlier. I was vindicated, but sad at the owners realizing too late that I had the better judgment for what was actually bankable for the site, as financing failed given the home’s revised valuation.

The New Jersey house was thankfully not built when the owner paused to see that the house she desired was not what could be built for the money reflected in the 3,500 square feet scheme I drew that she could afford.

And although my 4,500 square foot design was rejected, the 12,000 square feet shrunk to under 10,000 in a built scheme for a family of 4.

Its simplistic to say the world economic collapse of 2008 was created by people overbuilding single family houses in the United States on the basis of unsustainable valuations – but it is essentially accurate. As said, the poster child of that absurd rush to giddy greed-fueled empowerment was the McMansion.

If architects had the street cred to be authoritative when it comes to value, versus being perceived as cheerleaders for excessive spending on their projects we might have helped to blunt the damage. Architects can either risk building less, but building well, by speaking truth to homeowner hubris – or we can go-with-the-flow and get what we can while we can – until we can’t.

Value may always be a subjective truth, based on a purchaser’s desire for equity in a tech company or stocks or tulip bulbs, but the actual cost of anything is an objective reality. When what you want costs too much, professionals should tell you the implications of waste. $80 of truffles shaved onto your pasta in a restaurant may be nuts, and it will not break you, but the server is still irresponsible if he/she just blithely shaves away with the restraint of the pepper grinder.

Architects do design McMansions – I have designed houses that were objectively too big for the immediate needs of my clients. If a family wants what it can afford and knows the implications of their choices, I become the ethically informative truffle shaver.

But the last decade saw designers, developers, brokers and bankers facilitate mindless inflation of homes to sizes that had nothing to do with function, beauty or budget. Huge, profit driven, poorly built homes may fulfill the dreams of those who have never been told the realities of values in home buying, but just as Bernie Madoff made a brief fortune by surfing on his clients’ greed to invent wealth, reality will crash through fantasies….

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2014 12:03 pm

    Good one, Duo. Thanks.

  2. TanRu permalink
    May 2, 2015 7:44 pm

    Hasn’t stopped them from building more more and More, bigger and Bigger McMansions here in Old Tappan, New Jersey. Oh, now they’re building McCastles!
    These people believe in Excess, in Inequality, and in being the biggest Bad Asses around. Try talking to them someday, and they’ll take you out!

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