Municipalities again McMansions

April 20th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer


According to an online article I just read, our suspicions have been confirmed: American houses are getting bigger. No big surprise, but here are the stats:

Average American home size in 1950: 983 square feet
Average American home size in 2004: 2,349 square feet

That’s a notable increase! Moreover, it is not uncommon to hear about houses twice to four times the 2004 size!

Since the mid 1980’s the term “McMansion” has been used in describing houses that are large and about as different for one another as Big Macs are from each other.

As the article points out, many municipalities are fighting to keep McMansions from coming to their towns.

So, what’s the big deal about McMansions?

They’re usually built cheaply and front-loaded, meaning that the budget allocation is highly skewed toward “curb appeal” and monumental entrances rather than efficient, liveable, usable space. I’ve always thought they were built for the next buyer, not the current occupant.

Then there is sprawl. Most of these whoppers have been built in the suburbs, surrounded by acres of grass. The environmental impact of this sort of development is less than positive: irrigation, heating and cooling costs, energy inefficiency, herbicides, pesticides, high material costs, septic systems, commuting pollution, and the like.

But now, the trend is to come back into in-town neighborhoods, to tear down existing houses to build new, bigger houses. This happened in my Grandparent’s Chicago Suburb–two beautiful homes are gone, now replaced with a much bigger single-family home. It looks very out-of-place and weakens the fabric of the neighborhood, but that’s not all. Density has been cut in half. Available housing inventory has been reduced. Two homes are now landfill. Two long-time residents are displaced (perhaps volutarily). Property taxes go up and push out more residents. It’s a new kind of gentrification, but it doesn’t preserve any architectural heritage; perhaps the opposite.

But really, my grandparents’ suburb is a fairly affluent one. The dollar cost of such a project will keep it to a minimum there, but not is less well-to-do areas. In poorer neighborhoods, homes and lots will be cheaper. Displace residents will have fewer options for housing, and the lower-income housing stock is already in shortage world-wide.

Then, given the cost of energy these days, I’ve got to wonder how long the McMansions will survive before their own size and inefficiencies will bring them crashing to the ground, allowing them to rest in landfilled peace next to those that fell to clear their way.

What about our town? Our local building official says our average new home size in Northfield’s current average new house ranges from 1,800 to 2,500 sf (finished space), but 75% of all basements are unfinshed initially, accounting for another 750 to 1,250 sf. But I am aware that developable land around town is limited. Should our local ordinances pay attention to over-sized homes to protect our housing inventory and taxable values?

By the way, I found the article via archinect.

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