What is a McMansion? To my way of thinking, it is a not-very-well built house, oversized for the number of occupants, which usually borrows motifs and elements from incompatible architectural traditions. It is ostentatious in its presentation, without the qualities of true value. These sheetrock palaces use the budget materials of tract-home construction to mimic traditionally-built homes. It is a hacienda-style home built in a northern climate with a thin layer of textured goo spread over plywood and styrofoam to mimic adobe construction-a technique completely impossible in the climate. It is a house with dormers and gables completely unrelated to the space they cover. Often this is carried to the extreme of tacking up dormers with windows which don't actually open onto an interior space. This is the deluxe model. The budget version adds the dormers but skips the windows-which would have been the only reason for the dormer in the "real" version. (no I'm not making that one up)
The "great room" is the current affectation in private residential architecture. These replacements for "living rooms" confuse private spaces with public spaces. The "Great Homes of Europe" have great halls because his lordship needed a place to gather the tenants and so on. These gigantic spaces are plasterboard and textured vinyl imitations of a baronial hall-without the suits of armor or the tapestries that would cost a prince's ransom. Instead, huddled off to the side like something afraid of all that open space is an anonymous sectional couch and some motel-room artwork on the walls. While hardly a universal truth, in my experience even the very upper middle class simply can not afford to equip these spaces in the style they cry out for. They are, simply, house poor. And you know what? They got screwed. That great room is a low-cost add-on. It is inexpensive volume to build, yet brings premium prices. I have a friend with one of these homes. It is at least four times the square footage as my own-with as much as ten times the volume. Like my family, there are three occupants. All of that volume has to be heated. The heat leaks through the (larger) outside surface. Anything above about 10 feet off the floor is wasted. The volume of that great room could have made at least four of the living rooms in my house. But to make it into those four rooms, expensive floor structures would have to be built, along with the additional wiring and trim work.
My historic home is not large-not by today's standards-nor was it considered large when it was built. Yet, for 165 years, it has been everything needed to raise families-some of them quite large. It has gotten bigger in that time, though this has been to accommodate technological changes-indoor plumbing and the automobile for instance. For all of that it has remained quite modest. I've lived in larger homes-both a Victorian monster and a 60's suburban house.
The irony that my home is a Greek Revival (essentially a frame-built imitation of a stone-built temple which was itself an imitation of a post-and-beam frame-built temple) has not escaped me. Yet there are historians who say that this is the first American style not simply imitating the current style in England. Here, in this house, the 19th century's idealized classicism was rendered in oak, pine, and poplar. Its interior approaches an asceticism almost Japanese in execution. For all its small size, the spaces are comfortable and well laid-out. Ceilings are slightly higher than the modern standard of eight feet. I've entertained groups as large as twenty, with a dining room which will seat sixteen. And that, I think, is the practical difference between a McMansion and a well-made house; at the end of the day, you can afford the table to seat sixteen as well as the room to put it in.
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008