In American suburban communities, McMansion is a pejorative for a type of large, new luxury house which is judged to be oversized for the parcel or incongruous and out-of-place for its neighborhood. Alternatively, a McMansion can be a large, new house in a subdivision of similarly large houses, which all seem mass-produced and lacking in distinguishing characteristics, as well as appearing at odds with the traditional local architecture.

The neologism seems to have been coined sometime in the early 1980s. It first appeared in print the ‘Los Angeles Times’ in 1990. Related terms include ‘Persian palace,’ ‘garage Mahal,’ ‘starter castle,’ and ‘Hummer house.’ Marketing parlance often uses the term ‘tract mansion’ or ‘executive home.’ An example of a McWord, ‘McMansion’ associates the generic quality of these luxury homes with that of mass-produced fast food by evoking the McDonald’s restaurant chain.

The term is generally used to denote a new, or recent, multi-story house of no clear architectural style, which prizes superficial appearance over quality. It may seem too large for its lot and rarely has windows on the sides due to closely abutting upon the property boundaries, giving the appearance of crowding adjacent homes. A McMansion is either located in a newer, larger subdivision or replaces an existing, smaller structure in an older neighborhood. One real-estate writer explains the successful formula for McMansions: symmetrical structures on clear-cut lots with Palladian windows centered over the main entry and brick or stone enhancing the driveway entrance, plus multiple chimneys, dormers, pilasters, and columns—and inside, the master suite with dressing rooms and bath-spa, great rooms, breakfast and dining rooms, showplace kitchen, and extra high and wide garages for multiple cars and SUVs. Typical attributes also include a floor area of over 3,000 square feet, ceilings 9 to 10 feet high, a two-story portico, and a two-story front door hall with a chandelier hanging from 16 to 20 feet. McMansions are often built in homogeneous communities by a single developer.

Beginning in California in the 1980s, the larger home concept was intended to fill a gap between the more modest suburban tract home and the upscale custom homes found in gated communities. Subdivisions were developed around such communities, as well as in pre-existing neighborhoods, either in empty lots or as replacements for torn-down structures. The larger homes proved popular and demand increased dramatically, particularly in light of new land-management laws that were enacted in the 1980s and ’90s. Efforts to economize may have led to a decline in quality for many of these new homes, prompting the coinage of the disparaging term. Because these homes emphasize instant gratification, they are rarely designed with energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, maintainability, and longevity in mind. In a development that runs counter to the previous boom in construction of McMansions, recent reports suggest that the Great Recession (2008–2012) has caused new house sizes in the US to stabilize.

A traditional upscale custom home is found in one of the city’s most affluent residential neighborhoods (commonly regarded as ‘Millionaires’ Mile’), which are typically gated, waterfront or ravine, or golf course communities, all of which have some of the highest residential property taxes in the city. Most of these communities are usually well-established, being inhabited by traditional blue-blood families, and the real estate prices tend to be high but stable. The houses themselves feature architectural preferences in general accordance with the neighborhood. By contrast, the McMansion larger home is typically constructed on the outskirts of the city, often further out from the city center than suburban tract homes. They are often on land that is zoned as (or recently rezoned from) agricultural instead of residential, and often outside of the city proper limits, as both result in lower property taxes. These areas are in demand by Nouveau riche families who desire a bigger house than a tract home but do not have the wealth or status to afford the city’s traditional upscale neighbourhoods. Due to this demographic which is more susceptible to boom and bust economic cycles, prices are volatile and often fueled by speculation.

Another reason why McMansions are generally found in outlying suburban areas is that lot sizes in older neighborhoods usually are not conducive to residences of this large scale. McMansions usually are constructed among other large homes by a subdivider on speculation; they are built en-masse by a development company to be marketed as premium real estate, but do not offer custom features. The construction of what seems to be too large a house on an existing lot will often draw the ire of neighbors and other local residents. In 2006, for example, a recently built house in Kirkland, Washington—an affluent suburb on Seattle’s Eastside—stood so close to an adjoining property that, in the words of the chair of the city’s Neighborhood Association, ‘you can read the lettering on the canned vegetables in the house next door.’

McMansions often mix a bewildering variety of architectural styles and elements, combining quoins (masonry blocks at the corner of a wall), steeply sloped roofs, multiple roof lines, complicated massing and pronounced dormers, all producing what some consider an unpleasant jumbled appearance. The builder may have attempted to achieve expensive effects with cheap materials, skimped on details, or hidden defects with cladding. Though construction quality may be subpar and materials shoddy (from faux stucco to styrofoam crown molding and travertine compounded from epoxied marble dust), McMansion buyers are eager; the real-estate writer locates them in the generation of my angst-ridden Boston University students: ‘mostly young, mobile, career-oriented, high-salaried 30- and 40-something individuals’ who are too time-squeezed to hire an architect but seek ‘a luxury home’ that they might soon (and easily) sell whenever ‘it’s time to move on.’

Another unflattering observation is that some McMansions have been designed from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. Because priority has been given to the interior, a house’s exterior appearance suffers, with oddly placed windows and an amorphous or bloated quality. The widespread disdain for the McMansion stems from perceptions that these houses look and feel inappropriate for a given neighborhood, are wasteful in terms of space (too much room for too few people) and resources (building materials, electricity, gas), project the pretentiousness (or lack of taste or refinement) of their owners, and a general discordance in architectural preferences. They have received especially sharp criticism in Australia because they do not blend in with the archetypal Australian home (generally single story red brick or bungalow homes) and because they use render materials that give an ugly, over the top and exaggerated appearance. Australians often buy older, modest houses as tear downs and build McMansions on the vacant land, leading to one observer noting that in the country ‘a poor house stands side by side with a good house.’

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