When a house is just a house

February 26, 2014

Maybe you saw the New York Times article “In Housing, Big is Back (Not Counting the Extras).” While it doesn’t overtly herald the return of the McMansion, the implication is there. That’s mixed news as a whole and bad news for builders and designers who are fighting against homogenized houses.

Recently I spoke to architect John Thatch, AIA, LEED AP, senior principal of the Dahlin Group in Pleasanton, Calif. Towards the end of our conversation, Thatch said, “My big fear is that we’re going back to McMansions. I’m hoping it doesn’t happen.”

There’s evidence that the luxury-home market is back. According to an article in Realtor magazine, in July 2013 sales of $1 million-plus homes were up 46.6 percent from the previous July. Buyers are spending more on options such as media rooms, sunrooms and in-law suites. Affluent individuals who managed to hold onto their homes through the recession are most likely to get a mortgage. Because the inventory of existing homes is low, they’re drawn to new homes.

I asked Middleburg, Va., architect Russell Versaci for his opinion of the McMansion reboot, and he was characteristically blunt. “I’m with [John Thatch]; I think we are returning to McMansions. I think it’s troubling and honestly, I think it’s stupid.”

Versaci continued, “I don’t understand why the buying public didn’t feel sufficiently burned by the recession to realize that the McMansion was a no-go zone.” To many people, “post-recession” means “dream postponed.” The line of thinking goes something like, “We planned our house back in 2004, but unfortunately our portfolio got crushed so we never got to build it. Now we’re going to pick up those plans again and do it.”

The main objection to McMansions is that they’re big houses loaded with options and upgrades and a lot of wasted space. Consequently, they’re very expensive to maintain. A better alternative, suggests Versaci, is the New Old House—a new home that has authentic historical characteristics but is reconfigured for the way people live today. Call it the anti-McMansion, if you will: a home rather than a house.  

Read more about the New Old House movement in the March issue of Professional Builder, and let me know if you think the McMansion is making a comeback. 

Senior Editor

Susan Bady has been writing about the housing industry for 30 years. She is senior editor of Professional Builder and Custom Builder magazines, and produces the Design Innovation e-newsletter.  Bady has also written for such consumer magazines as Cabin Life and Better Homes and Gardens’ Home Plan Ideas