Written by Adrian Scott Fine
Last week the national news was less than encouraging. No one could miss the nonstop reports that homes sales are slumping again, and are now apparently more in the dumps than ever. The Federal Reserve chairman has seemingly thrown up his hands, suggesting instead that the cure to the economy is people spending more money. And, more than ever, the economic outlook ahead will continue to be on shaky ground.
Given all this gloom, I was happy to find a little kernel of good news hidden away in all the bad. It seems the bloated McMansion -- the term given to mass-produced, oversized houses judged by some as tasteless -- is falling out of favor with America’s mainstream public. For the first time in a long time the idea of bigger being better is not so popular, with new homes starting to shrink in size. The average new house is now 2,135 square feet, down from the high of roughly 2,300 square feet just a few years back. In practice, many new McMansions were in the 5,000 to 8,000 square foot range. This latest news calls for a collective sigh of relief and something to celebrate for advocates of smart growth and basic sustainability principles.
CNN’s story, “Say goodbye to the McMansion,” includes some interesting stats and interviews builders who report the McMansion chapter of residential design may be a thing of the past. CNBC’s piece, “Death of the ‘McMansion’: Era of Huge Homes Is Over” reports a 2009 survey by the National Association of Home Builders indicates 90 percent plan to build smaller or lower-priced homes in the future, and instead focus on building green rather than just big homes.
Signals that the McMansion era may be coming to an end is especially good news for the many people who have been trying to maintain community character in existing neighborhoods. Since it first began in the late 1990s and grew in popularity throughout this past decade (peaking around 2008), the teardown trend (or McMansionization) has threatened older and historic neighborhoods from coast to coast, with the last tally showing over 40 states and more than 500 communities affected. This issue of incompatible new development, sending thousands of homes to the landfill, and the loss of community and economic diversity helped land Teardowns in Historic Neighborhoods on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2002.
I hate to do this and would rather leave you all thinking the news about McMansions being a thing of the past is a done deal, but I’m not so certain. The economy and real estate market lull is temporary and will rebound eventually. Close-in neighborhoods with access to urban areas and amenities will continue to be desirable and in demand. Many of these places are essentially built-out, meaning there’s no available room to build new without tearing down something existing in its place. Take, for instance, this New York Times article, “Down to its Last Million Acres,” which reports New Jersey is expected to run out of its last million acres of developable land by 2050.
All this means there will still be pressure on existing communities and open space in the future. While indications that the super-size craze may be going out of favor, Americans are slow to completely change patterns. McMansions will likely continue, albeit reinvented in a somewhat smaller package and perhaps in disguise, heavily labeled and touted for their “green” qualities.
Before we face the next version of the McMansion or latest housing trend, now, more than ever, is the time to get ahead of the curve in your community. Take a look at your land use and zoning tools and perhaps ask, is this going to help guide us in the right direction in the future and still retain our unique community character? It is a questions we all should be asking during this down time.
Adrian Scott Fine is the director of the Center for State and Local Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.