McMansions: Frankenhouses of the Suburban Landscape
My focus lately has been on Long Island and the architectural achievements and history it holds. If you haven’t read, over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the Gold Coast Era mansions on the North Shore, the birth of the modern Suburbia in Levittown, and Andrew Geller and his work on unique beach-houses here on the Island. Over the last century, Long Island developed from farmland, forest, and wetlands to an incubator of ideas for the city that never sleeps on it’s most western tip.
However, today is less history and more of a discussion of modern day development, but first a recap. After World War 2, the US Government turned huge swaths of Long Island wilderness and farmland into planned neighborhoods that they’d grant to returning soldiers. Overnight, the suburban dream was born with four house designs to choose from with green yards and winding backroads. To this day, it’s a dream people chase after, looking for good public schools and spacious properties and modest homes to raise families.
That said, it should be no surprise that there are some people who just aren’t sold on living on a rubber stamp style of house designed over sixty years ago. Drive down any road in Levittown and you’ll see all the ways houses have evolved, with classic Levit Houses sprouting additions and expansions or being wiped out entirely to make space for something bigger.
Like so many times before, people with money are looking to the Island to build something bigger, but bigger isn’t always necessarily better. Which brings us to the topic at hand: the McMansion.
McMansion is a term that refers to a type of housing that you will generally find in suburban or rural areas that utilizes design sensibilities often affiliated with wealthy and luxurious. However this is putting it gently. There’s often a stigma against these types of houses, and quite honestly it isn’t unfounded. They break rules of design and style, and seldom have any regard for the other properties in the area.
So if you’re considering purchasing property and building your own home, consider these factors before hiring a contractor.
First, what ISN’T a McMansion? Well. Here we have a good example of what follows the rules most of the houses in question break. First, it’s balanced. If you were to cut this house down the middle it would be asymmetrical but balanced, there is no side that has features that are in greater number or size, and they even manage to mimic the open-air garage with the arch to frame the door. It’s simple, balanced, and doesn’t use an excess of any one element to create an issue of being too busy or cluttered
This on the other hand lacks balance. The weight all falls on the right side of the house with a heavy blocky extension while the left diminishes and slopes away from the center. Even if you looked at this as two or three individual fronts, they too would be off balance in most cases due to unnecessary extensions in the way of peaked roofs that seem to serve no purpose.
Which brings us to our next topic.
Sometimes you grow beyond the boundaries of your home or sometimes you want to make your home modular. So quite simply unless you want your home to be nothing but a box, you’ll have additions that extend beyond the main mass of your house. Our example home features four. The peaked roofs extension, the two windows on the upper floor, and the bay window itself. They’re small, subtle, but they add depth to the house and are appealing to look at. And then we have this. There is no main mass. There’s no way to draw all the extensions back to its’ core, making it hard to know where your eye is meant to be drawn too. The issue here is it’s too busy to look at. Houses with too many elements are equatable to a dish with too many ingredients. You can’t appreciate any single piece of it because there’s too many to focus long enough. Cluttered is a term that fits nicely, and once more acts as a perfect transition.
Once more let’s refer to our sample home. Note how it has a door with a matching archway with the garage, a bay window, two stand alone double hung windows, a neat collection of windows with the flower box, and one small semi circle window. Total about 7 voids, unless you wanted to nitpick and count each window frame individually.
Now how can we do it wrong? This is how. Fifteen voids on the front of the house and the size of them. Of the fifteen, nine are door sized if not doors themselves, and the rest are tall enough to qualify even if they’re not all quite wide enough. Not only is there an abundance of voids, their size is massive and create a swiss-hole look. As with before, it’s too much going on and creates too many focal points for onlookers to start on, devaluing each of the individual windows. There’s a pattern and rhythm, but ultimately it’s just too all consuming of the house.
Finally, one last thing to consider when you’re building your home and trying to avoid the pit-trap of the McMansion. Before rebuilding, consider, what does the rest of the block look like?
You don’t need to be exactly like everyone else, using the same layout and colors, but knowing the region it’s good to know what family of design that might fit. Farm-houses and Victorian style homes, for example, stand out from the usual Levittown houses you’ll find on Long Island. But again, it depends. If you want to stand out, learn what looks good in the style you see and stand out from the norm by being good and not just strange.
The McMansion is, at the end of the day, generally just an eye-sore born from the desire to live in something grand. Hopefully, this will encourage future homeowners to steer away from replacing quality with over-abundance and excess. Modest designs executed expertly are more often than not enough to impress and stand out for all the right reasons.