As architects in Michigan, we have some pet peeves when it comes to design. One of those pet peeves is what is colloquially called “McMansions”. McMansions are large houses with extravagant, grotesque features, often built mainly to display a person’s wealth. These houses can be found in almost every suburb of America. There are several problems with McMansions. One problem is that they are superfluous in size. Usually these homes are at least three thousand square feet, built by middle-aged couples who may have a few children, but not enough children to warrant having seven bedrooms, each with their own bathroom, multiple living rooms and kitchens, and a four car garage. In many cases, McMansions are built by the dozens in large developments on the outskirts of cities, because the land allows for larger plots and the property taxes are lower. This means a potential McMansion homebuyer can get a larger house with a larger yard for less money. This also means McMansions have only added to the problem of urban sprawl. These homes are the embodiment of everything our society has deemed the “American Dream”, and moreover, have allowed younger professionals to achieve their real estate instant gratification by providing them with a large home for less money than a home in a city’s well-established, affluent neighborhood.
Some other common features of McMansions include a two-story feature entrance with a large chandelier, open plan living spaces with high ceilings, large kitchens, grand visible staircases, multiple fireplaces, and a master suite half the size of the house itself. Architects in Michigan know what is so terrible about McMansions is not specifically the large, unnecessary number or type of rooms, but the style behind said rooms–or more accurately, the lack thereof. Typically, mansions were large homes that displayed great wealth, but in a sophisticated fashion. They were of a particular architectural style, whether a grand colonial, Victorian, or even renaissance revival. Today, McMansions do not follow a specific architectural style, but instead create their own “style” by taking aspects of other styles and shoving them together in what often appears haphazard and gaudy, as if the owner told the designer, “I want ten of these specific items in my house somewhere, but I don’t really care how you incorporate them.” Some features are built from inauthentic materials and are only false representations of real features, such as brick facades or crown molding made out of Styrofoam. The resulting structure is a massive, awkward, unorganized, poorly thought out house with the sole purpose of being something the owner can brag about to his or her acquaintances, saying, “Look how wealthy I must be to be able to afford to build such a huge house!”
Architects in Michigan are trying to eradicate these McMansions, even if slowly. During the economic downturn about a decade ago, architects in Michigan were struggling to find clients in either residential or commercial sectors, so they were more willing to take whatever job came their way, with little leverage when it came to design because they were just trying to keep their client happy. Today, as the economy has recovered, architects in Michigan and the rest of the country are better able to focus on educating their clients about what good design is, and how to achieve what they want in their projects while creating something with style and function. Ordinarily, McMansions would be built with methods that are common yet not the most efficient. It is common for large developers to use inferior materials to construct their projects quickly, for the least amount of money possible. The end result is a poorly built, energy guzzling building that costs the owner a lot more money to heat and cool than other types of building methods would. Architects in Michigan have the task of not only designing with style, but also with the owner’s energy bill in mind. This means finding better solutions for insulating buildings than what is commonly used today.
This brings me to another point about McMansions: their size does not actually mean they are “good” homes, in the sense that they are not always built with high quality materials or efficiently for the client’s use. Developers have tried to minimize their cost of building these McMansions and maximize their profit, because they know they can find a buyer. Unfortunately, many homebuyers who have purchased a McMansion now regret their purchase because their new house seems to be falling apart after only a few years. Builder grade finishes are breaking, parts are missing, facade materials are falling off of the sides of their homes. In addition, a lack of real design with regard to solar orientation or other elements an architect would take into account means a large building with inadequate storage or windows in the wrong places for appropriate daylighting, cheap finishes, etc., causes the home to feel much less appealing and comfortable than the owner initially wanted or expected. And likewise, a small, well planned home with adequate storage and correct building and window orientation, built using high quality materials and high-end fixtures not only may cost more money to build, but will make the client feel better when they are actually inside the house.
The goal of teaching the general public about what constitutes good design and what is just an illusion of wealth, however, is a long and arduous one. The majority of people–especially Americans–have bought into the lie that money brings value to you as an individual, and not only that, but you need to show everyone just how much money you have; while in other areas of the world, people care more about stewarding their wealth toward something lasting, and in terms of buildings, that means by creating healthier buildings–those that use less energy to build and maintain. We at Sedgewick + Ferweda Architects believe it is our duty as designers and architects in Michigan to educate our clients and those around us about the benefits of high quality buildings–those that are well designed, stylish, comfortable, efficient in form and in function, and can stand longer than one or two generations.