The street I grew up on in Moore County, North Carolina, is unrecognizable now. What was once a mix of modest, low-slung ranch-style houses interspersed with pockets of turkey oak scrub has been invaded by gargantuan homes with equally oversized trucks parked in the driveway. They tower over their older neighbors at a tragicomical scale difficult to convey, each identically crafted for maximum cheapness and interchangeability. Behold the McMansion in all its readymade, disposable grandeur.
Unlike the McMansions that predominated prior to the financial crisis—over-inflated, fake-stuccoed colonials festooned with some tacky approximation of European finery—the new iterations are whitewashed and modern, their windows undifferentiated voids. The compound hip roofs of the aughts have been replaced with peaky clusters of clumsy gables, a nod to the faux-folksy “modern farmhouse” trend ushered in ten years ago by HGTV. Moore County, meanwhile, is a prototypical American sprawl scenario: boundless, monotonous growth laying waste to what was once a network of stolid retirement communities orbiting the quiet resort town of Pinehurst. Who the hell are all these new interlopers? When I ask, my mother simply says, “They’re military.” Indeed, Moore County has become a de facto upscale exurb for high-level military personnel and civil servants working in nearby Fort Bragg. But it isn’t only happening in North Carolina: like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the McMansion has replicated, reduplicated, and overtaken the country overnight.
But what is a McMansion, exactly? Well, you know it when you see it. Take a look at any remotely desirable area on Zillow, sort by “new construction,” and you’ll see an endless array of them: bloated, dreary, amenity-choked domiciles. When I venture out from Chicago’s Logan Square, where I now live, to scope out the new suburban standard in housing, I find that even once-empty lots in existing McMansion neighborhoods are being crammed full of these hollow, made-to-order giants. Though draped in “farmhouse modern” trappings, they fit right in with their forebears. Once thought vanquished by the recession, the McMansion really hasn’t gone anywhere. From 2010 to 2021, the rate of construction of McMansions (loosely defined as homes at or over 3,000 square feet) was on par with the more classical McMansion period between 1999 and 2004. Census data backs this up: in 2021 alone, 426,000 homes were built with an area larger than 2,400 square feet; 68,000 of those were 4,000 square feet or more, firmly in McMansion territory.
Seven years ago, I started the blog McMansion Hell to document—and deride—the endless cosmetic variations of this uniquely American form of architectural blight. I’ve mostly tackled prerecession McMansions, just for the novelty of houses both dated and perched on the ugly/interesting Möbius strip. But I worry that I’ve actually reinforced the idea that McMansions are a relic of the recent past. In fact, there remains a certain allure to these seemingly soulless suburban developments, and, more specifically, their construction and inhabitation. Increasing interest rates, inflation, and supply chain disruptions notwithstanding, the McMansion is alive and well. Far from being a boomtime fad, it has become a durable emblem of our American way of life.
McMansions began proliferating even before the term first appeared in the 1980s. (Meant to lampoon the graceless strivers of the nouveau riche, the portmanteau has no known direct origin.) But, it wasn’t until 2008 that the McMansion firmly imprinted itself on the national consciousness. Recall the endless newsreels of oversized, foreclosed houses that implied that the subprime mortgage crisis was caused not by the predatory lending institutions who foisted junk mortgages on inexperienced homebuyers but by the greedy poors who wanted more house than they could afford, all in order to imitate their idols on MTV Cribs. The McMansion did not cause the financial crisis; its role was negligible at best. But it became indelibly associated with debauched, prerecession excess—and, in the wake of the collapse, seemed as though it might become an anachronism, a memorial to a bygone housing bubble.
The McMansion has endured because, in the wake of the recession, the United States declined the opportunity to meaningfully transform the financial system on which our way of life is based.
Nevertheless, once the economy began to recover, the McMansion quietly returned, albeit in more respectable costumes: a Disneyfied version of the Craftsman style, the Tudor, and today’s neutered modernism or its farmhouse equivalent. Meanwhile, the media’s attention drifted to the growth and gentrification of urban centers spurred on by the tech industry. Cities suffered—and continue to suffer—an affordability crisis. Millennials decried being priced out of the housing market. The ultrarich staked their architectural claim to the city with ungainly supertall skyscrapers. The asinine YIMBY/NIMBY wars erupted. Pundits like Matthew Yglesias became, to our collective detriment, concerned with urban planning. The object of furor in the realm of architectural criticism shifted from the McMansion to the boxy five-over-one apartment building—so named for its five stories of residential units over one story of retail—that began blanketing every American city. The new McMansions faded into the backdrop of the American landscape.
McMansions were a misunderstood architectural phenomenon long before they passed out of public consciousness. The most common misconception is that they are an architectural style and that, like most styles, they have their time and place—in this case, from the Reagan eighties to the ignoble 2008 collapse—and then are replaced by some ensuing vogue. Indeed, Virginia McAlester included what she calls the “Millennium Mansion” in the updated edition of her seminal Field Guide to American Houses, a compendium of the varying styles of exemplary homes. The stylistic argument falls in line with how architecture is commonly taxonomized, studied, and critiqued: as a progression of notable formal and ideological developments contrived by great and innovative architects. In other words, little more than a list of aesthetics adopted by the wealthy. Owing to the fact that McMansions are owned by a demographic encompassing the upper-middle class as well as the unconscionably rich, it’s tempting to lump them in with the patrician architecture of old—the Hearst Castles and Biltmore Estates. However, the truth is a bit more complex.
The McMansion straddles the divide between high and what’s called vernacular architecture, i.e. the trailer parks and worker’s cottages and dormitories occupied by the working and middle classes. The vernacular is the mass-produced architecture of the everyday. To study it is to undertake a mix of architectural history and anthropology, a focus on the common most architectural critics and historians eschew. As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of the vernacular in another context, “This is our culture, and it is our architecture, like it or not, much more than the approved monuments of the tastemakers, who treat the rest of the built environment like a bastard child.”
The disdain for the vernacular is not universal: Thomas Hubka’s 2013 book Houses without Names: Architectural Nomenclature and the Classification of America’s Common Houses lays out how to identify and classify ordinary houses without defaulting to the “elitist” taxonomical standards (such as style) used in analyses of so-called “high” architecture. “In a forest,” he writes, “we might be satisfied simply by saying that everything is merely shades of green, as we could also say that a typical residential street merely contains a lot of anonymous houses. But in both cases, we would be missing out on hidden worlds of appreciation just beyond our reach.” These hidden worlds are the living patterns of the working and middle classes, and to study the vernacular is to get a sense of how it evolves in response to the environment and to shifting material conditions that are common to vast swaths of people—rather than the idiosyncrasies of a lone monied client or the singular artistic preoccupations of an architect, the influences that drive “high” architecture.
Even so, Hubka is of the mind that the McMansion falls outside the purview of vernacular study. He links it with “star-architect-designed houses” that are overrepresented in the media while many thousands of “normal” houses go unappreciated. This class-based defensiveness in vernacular studies is echoed in the work of one of its fountainheads, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, who wrote in A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time that “vernacular space is to be shared, not exploited or monopolized. It is never a source of wealth or power, it is in the literal sense of the term a common ground, a common place.” Despite his antipathy, Hubka’s analysis still has room for the McMansion itself, which he somewhat strangely describes as “Suburban Minimal-Traditional,” noting that there is “little agreement” about its classification aside from the fact that it is a development of the “two-room deep plan” found in bungalows, ranches, and split levels throughout the twentieth century. The tension between the McMansion’s inclusion in his taxonomical framework and his ire toward the public’s preoccupation with it is left curiously unresolved.
I disagree with Hubka’s rejection of the McMansion as a topic of vernacular study, but I agree that it is not quite vernacular, either. However, I think there are some things about the McMansion that can only be understood through a more vernacular framework, such as their ubiquity and the means by which they are built. McMansions are not usually designed by architects but by builders, most of them massive corporations like Toll Brothers, Pulte Homes, and Ryan Homes that traffic exclusively in master-planned tract communities. Like most vernacular architecture, the McMansion might best be considered a typology—an architectural configuration that adapts over time but remains generally stable.
Reviewing the many case studies I’ve undertaken at McMansion Hell over the last seven years, it becomes clear that the McMansion, for all its garish variation, follows a consistent floorplan. A central foyer opens up on either side to a formal dining and sitting room, both rarely used outside of tense Thanksgiving dinners. Two-story McMansions feature a large, often curved, staircase that leads up to a mezzanine off of which the private rooms (bedrooms, offices) are located. On the first floor, the foyer empties into a large space for entertaining—a cavernous great room and an open kitchen, invariably with an outsized island, often with a breakfast nook. Off a secondary hallway is a master suite, purposefully distanced from all the other bedrooms; it is usually flanked by a sitting room and a decadent little bathroom. As square footage expands, so, too, do the amenities: a wet bar, a bonus or rumpus room in the basement, a gym, a den exclusively for watching television, a (decorative) library. These are merely tacked onto the existing core plan as the house metastasizes outward, upward, or both. The social structure of the nuclear heterosexual family permeates the plan. Rooms are excessively gendered, both for children and adults. Man caves and she sheds abound.
In Houses without Names, Hubka breaks the working- and middle-class houses that predominated during the twentieth century into three domestic zones: the living room, kitchen, and bedroom(s). The rise of each of these zones is linked to immense changes in standards of living, such as the internalization of plumbing and the advent of electricity, the shift of work outside the home, and the moment in the middle of the last century when individual privacy became attainable in working-class homes. The McMansion adds a fourth zone for entertaining, reflective of the increasing social alienation and distance from urban centers caused by decades of sprawl. Such a profound shift in American life necessitated the internalization of communal spaces—bars, gyms, billiard halls, and the like—into the home itself.
Not that this development is entirely new. There has always been a connection between increasing wealth and intentional isolation, from the palace of Versailles to the petit bourgeois homes of the nineteenth century that were designed for live-in labor. However, between the streetcar Victorians of the 1890s and the McMansions of the 1980s, our entire social and economic order transmogrified. Industrialization and unionization meant the working class could suddenly afford better and bigger homes. Technological progress, standardization of construction, the invention of the automobile, exclusionary financial incentives—including those sponsored by the government—and a century of social unrest drove the almost uniformly white middle class out of the city and into the periphery. The interiors of their homes reflected these seismic transformations.
The McMansion’s basic floorplan stabilized by the end of the twentieth century, though it continued to evolve through cosmetic customization, their very modality being part of the appeal and a major reason critics often place the McMansion outside the vernacular. But there’s no denying that the senselessly baroque architectural ornament borrowed from European styles at the height of the McMansion era is mass produced, for all its pretensions concerning wealth, taste, and status. And it has been for over a hundred years, over the course of which materials have cheapened from stone and the less-durable wood to covered foam and fiberglass. The McMansion is sold in catalogs, not unlike the vernacular homes that could once be ordered from Sears. Interior customization is mostly limited to details and finishes, the spackled granite countertops and wrought-iron balustrades and overwrought chandeliers and gray tiling that looks like wood but isn’t.
Ironically, the contemporary McMansion’s aesthetic flourishes borrow not from Tuscany or a generalized old country but from vernacular architecture. Gone are the Corinthian columns and disproportionate quoins. Here is the era of Hardie Board® shiplap, big porches, sliding barn doors, and faux gas lanterns. That the McMansion is a typology rather than a mere style explains why this is so. The Biltmore Estate is not the same as the Rococo estates of the eighteenth century, which are not the same as the houses of Rem Koolhaas. Unlike those bespoke abodes of the ultrawealthy, each unique in plan and distinct in architectural expression, the McMansion is always fundamentally the same house. The signifiers change, but the house remains. There are millions of McMansions. There will be millions of McMansions.
The real question now is, Who is still building, buying, and living in these houses? It is stubbornly difficult to nail down. According to Realtor.com, millennials are moving to the suburbs, where mortgages are often cheaper than urban rents. Boomers are downsizing for accessibility reasons, often competing with millennials for the same entry-level houses. Gen X—making up 22 percent of homebuyers—are now the ones “looking for larger, trade-up homes.” An American Home Shield survey indicates that the largest homes are being built in the West, in Utah and Colorado, with other concentrations forming in emerging tech hubs like Raleigh, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas. In essence, the only certainty is that when Americans get richer—through generational wealth transfer or through industry—they tend to seek out McMansions. When boomers die and bequeath their wealth to their children, those children will probably also build a bunch of McMansions.
More than half a century of urban planning prioritizing sprawl has gotten us to where we are now: choked by endless freeways, numbed by carbon-copy strip malls, secluded in catchpenny houses with no sense of human scale.
Why? Some of the correlating factors are cultural, others architectural or material. For starters, you get more house for your money in the suburbs than in the city, where the price of land is astronomical. Buyers with children, but without the means to send them to private school, want to live in good school districts, which necessitates moving to wealthier neighborhoods on account of the American public school system’s entrenched racism and inequality. Architecturally speaking, the reason for the McMansion’s persistence is that it is the path of least resistance for building a house of a certain size. It’s hard to be efficient when forcing four thousand-plus square feet under one roof. Tailor-made architectural creations remain out of reach (or undesirable) for many people. The McMansion is a structurally stable, if visually clunky, formula. Contrary to almost four decades of urbanistic thought highlighting the need for walkability, density, and transit-oriented development, companies like Pulte Homes continue to construct McMansion neighborhoods near highway off-ramps and high-traffic arterial roads. They do this because people buy these houses and drive to work, and because building single-family homes doesn’t require suffering through rezoning battles or complying with extensive building code requirements, to name just two pesky bureaucratic hurdles of the plethora associated with multifamily residential development. Perplexingly, despite the ascent of interest rates that might otherwise deter buyers from procuring a mortgage, building McMansions remains immensely profitable. PulteGroup—which constructs housing under several subsidiaries, including Pulte Homes—made over $13 billion in 2021, and while that revenue encompasses a range of property types, McMansions are certainly among them. These are simple, crude realities.
The McMansion has also endured because, in the wake of the recession, the United States declined the opportunity to meaningfully transform the financial system on which our way of life is based. The breach was patched with taxpayer money, the system was restored, and we resumed our previous trajectory. The McMansion survived what could have been an existential crisis; it remains an unimpeachable symbol of having “made it” in a world where advancement is still measured in ostentation. It is a one-stop shop of wealth signifiers: modernist décor (rich people like modernism now), marble countertops (banks have marble), towering foyers (banks also have foyers), massive scale (everything I see is splendor). Owing to its distance from all forms of communal space, the McMansion must also become the site of sociality. It can’t just be a house; it has to be a ballroom, a movie theater, a bar.
It is a testament, too, to a Reagan-era promise of endless growth, endless consumption, and endless easy living that we’ve been loath to disavow. The McMansion owner is unbothered by the cost of heating and cooling a four-thousand-square-foot mausoleum with fifteen-foot ceilings. They see no problem being dependent—from the cheap material choice of the house to the driving requirements of suburban life—on oil in all its forms, be it in extruded polystyrene columns or gas at the pump. The McMansion is American bourgeois life in all its improvidence.
The gaudy, spendthrift lifestyle does not have a clear expiration date—even if it has limped past its prime. Perhaps the McMansion will only come to an end when the ethos it represents becomes impossible, logistically or financially. One day the McMansion, once a token of financial tomfoolery, will instead epitomize our nihilistic, environmental death drive. More than half a century of urban planning prioritizing sprawl has gotten us to where we are now: choked by endless freeways, benumbed by carbon-copy strip malls, secluded in catchpenny houses with no sense of human scale.
The solutions to these problems are equally obvious: more density; preserving existing green space to allow for stormwater runoff; better public transportation to decrease reliance on cars; the decommissioning of urban highways; comprehensively transforming the energy sector in pursuit of a post-oil world; and, most of all, building affordable, livable, and—dare I say it—rent-controlled or even government-funded housing. These are concepts for stability that extend beyond the current urbanist recommendations of kowtowing to developers and crossing our fingers that they’ll be generous about the rent. One day we will look at five-thousand-square-foot McMansions and Hummers and desert golf courses the same way we look now at thalidomide: a ginormous fuck up. That’s assuming we manage to plan for the future and come through a political fight antithetical to the mortal coil of capitalism: late, fossil, or otherwise.
We need, quite literally, a revolution. And every revolution, lest we forget, is an architectural revolution. The Industrial Revolution brought about the dawn of modernism; the Russian Revolution initially saw the demise of bourgeois opulence in favor of Constructivism. The French revolutionaries looked upon the palace of Versailles with disgust, for it represented everything loathsome about monarchist French society: inequality, waste, and excessive filigree. So, too, under increasingly dire material conditions spurred by climate change and intersecting political catastrophes, will we look upon the McMansion. Maybe sooner than we think.
The present crisis surrounding the depleted Colorado River, owing to overconsumption and a world-historic megadrought plaguing the Southwest since the 2000s, will be the first real test of the McMansion way of life, the life of endless plenty. If the recession saw entire suburban developments reduced to eerie ghost towns, imagine what water rationing will do to golf courses in Phoenix, Arizona. Already, the nearby city of Scottsdale has cut off the wealthy suburb of Rio Verde from the municipal water service, leaving residents holding the bag. When the resources of the commons no longer subsidize the whimsies of the rich, when there is truly nothing left to drink or burn in the tank, then, and only then, will we be able to look at the McMansion in retrospect.