A McMansion is a pejorative term for a certain type of ubiquitous supersized suburban American home that people love to hate. A symbol of American excess, these homes reinforce the unsustainable notion that bigger is always better, and can be found cluttering neighborhoods across the U.S. from sea to shining sea and beyond.
McMansions are the architectural equivalent of fast food—generic, mass-produced, dubiously constructed, and inexplicably popular.
History of McMansions
The history of the McMansion dates back to California in the 1980s—a decade of questionable taste and free-flowing capital. But the 40-year rise of the McMansion reached its peak during the subprime mortgage–fueled housing bubble and subsequent global financial crisis that resulted in the Great Recession starting in 2008.
No longer content with the Cape Cod cottages, Craftsman bungalows, and other kinds of post-war housing that sprung up in suburbs to offer middle class families a picket fence and modest quality of life that nevertheless rivaled many places in the world, developers began bulldozing perfectly lovely human-scale houses, which often sat gracefully on generous plots of land, and replacing them with pretentious, bloated monstrosities that started at the sidewalk and stuck out like sore thumbs. A shoddily constructed, cheap-looking McMansion in a neighborhood of bungalows not only looked out of place, but it was a menace to the well-being and quality of life of its neighbors, who suddenly had a multi-story building blocking all of their natural light, or windows peering into what had previously been private backyards.
Many people thought that McMansions were hideous, tacky, wasteful, and depressing. But their prevalence seemed inevitably to raise the bar on what was acceptable and desirable housing for a middle-class family and to raise the stakes on what it meant to keep up with the Joneses. Suddenly, sharing a bathroom seemed incomprehensible, and local city hall meetings featured parents tearfully pleading for their children’s right to a private bathroom suite.
Early McMansions were often Frankenstein’s monster–style riffs of classic architectural styles such as Georgian and Mediterranean. McMansions began to fall out of favor with the onset of the Great Recession and the rise of countercultural movements like the tiny house trend, but the American taste for supersizing has continued to thrive in the form of upsized Mid-century modern homes that have been dubbed McModerns and are popular among Millennials.
Key Characteristics of McMansions
- Oversized, mass-produced homes usually of at least 3,000 square feet and up that are developer-driven rather than architect-driven
- Despite their desire to look opulent, they often are cheaply made, with low-quality materials
- Jam-packed with random interior features that often result in odd layouts and incongruous exteriors
- Many McMansions are Neo-eclectic in style, connoting a mishmash of sometimes unrelated architectural styles lacking in coherence and integrity—the result of the absence of an architectural style
- Windows, rooflines, and other details often clash
- Towering ceilings, particularly in two-story entrance halls, often including giant chandeliers
- Double-storied so-called great rooms with enormous windows and echoey acoustics
- Often includes Palladian windows, multiple chimneys, discordant rooflines, and oversized columns
- Multiple garages with room for four or more cars
- Usually two or more stories
- Multiple bathrooms and/or en suites with every bedroom
- Wasted and inefficient use of space
Criticism of McMansions
Architectural critics and many observers find that despite their popularity, McMansions are an eyesore on the American landscape, a bloated aberration of what a house ought to be, and a case study in what ails the United States. One of the internet’s leading explainers of what makes McMansions so uniquely terrible is architecture critic Kate Wagner of the morbidly entertaining McMansionHell blog, who argues at length and in vivid detail that McMansions are brutal on the environment, a bad long-term investment, a showcase for bad craftsmanship, and are hard on the spirit.
While some families covet living in McMansions where children have their own bathrooms, parents have their own wing, and nobody has to make an effort to social distance, critics argue that this lack of family togetherness can actually be bad for supervising children as well as building family intimacy.
McMansions guzzle precious materials and waste land. Also, due to their overbuilt, energy-inefficient, overblown, comfort-centered building styles, they promote excessive energy use and exacerbate the climate emergency. The McMansion is the antithesis of the sustainable and regenerative architecture that is a growing movement around the world.