McMansion is a pejorative neologism, coined by NY environmentalist Jay Westervelt, (Westerveld) to describe a particular type of housing that is constructed in an assembly line fashion reminiscent of food production at McDonald's fast food restaurants. The term is one of many McWords. A McMansion often denotes a home with a larger footprint than a median home, an indistinct architectural style similar to others nearby, and is often located in a newer, larger subdivision or replaces an existing, smaller structure in an older neighborhood.
A McMansion is a house with a floor area of between 3000 ft² (280 m²) to 5000 ft² (460 m²) in size, often on small lots (the house itself often covering a larger portion of the land than the yard in a more conventional design), in homogeneous communities that are often produced by a developer. Although they are generally large homes, they are mass produced and are not of the caliber of a mansion. Their cost places them in the purchasing range of the upper middle class segment of the population.
It has been suggested that their popularity may not be purely based on consumer desires. Adjusted for inflation, in terms of square footage and features, a house in 2006 cost about the same to build as a house in 1970. Therefore, in order to increase profit margins over previous years, builders need to build more expensive houses (more features and square footage) on the same tracts.
Although the term "McMansion" is recent, criticism of American architecture based on the perception that it was oversized and artistically bankrupt reaches at least back to the beginning of the twentieth century. As the social critic H. L. Mencken wrote during the 1920s when examining the architecture of suburban Pittsburgh:
Here was wealth beyond imagination—and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgusted a race of alley cats...[Architects] have taken as their model a brick set in end. This they have converted into a thing of dingy clapboards, with a narrow, low-pitched roof. And the whole they have set upon thin, preposterous brick piers. By the hundreds and thousands these abominable houses cover the bare hillsides, like gravestones in some gigantic and decaying cemetery.
In Britain similar concerns bothered every generation since at least the 18th century such as when Romanticist Dorothy Wordsworth in her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland (1803) lamented Drumlanrig Castle saying. "This mansion is indeed very large; but to us it appeared like a gathering together of little things."
The term is less often used to describe houses situated within existing urban areas. Usually, smaller cottage-style houses have been demolished to make way for these homes. They are not usually built as a "development cluster" which is managed by a homeowners association; rather, they are built by their owners as a single dwelling.
Some Middle Eastern nations, particularly those infused with oil wealth, have seen the large-scale importation of many U.S. American concepts, including sprawling, inexpensive pseudo-Mediterranean architecture, usually for hotels/resorts but also for domiciles.
McMansions vary greatly in their appearance and layout. While many of the following features are often found among these types of houses, they are not all required in order for a house to be considered a McMansion.
This style of house will usually have two floors, although it is common for some ground floor rooms, particularly foyers and "great rooms", to be two stories tall. These houses can also be one-story, but these usually feature a facade appearing to be 2-story. Simpler versions will have a standard rectangular footprint, while more complex, and usually more expensive, floorplans will have additional wings or projections. Roofs are usually voluminous; they are often constructed with prefabricated truss framing that, while inexpensive, makes the upper interior space unsuitable for attic storage or additional rooms.
The typical square footage is in the range of 3000 ft² (280 m²) to 5000 ft² (460 m²).
Advances in building technology have provided less costly ways for features to be incorporated. Large rooms, with large ceiling areas, would not have been possible without metal connector plates to unify the wooden struts, which can be nailed by hand. Alternatively, 5-way or larger pre-fabricated wooden trusses can be used. This allows much larger roofs over an unsupported span, without the expense of metal I-beams or concrete spans. The use of trusses also allows substantial flexibility in the partitioning of interior spaces to form rooms and is an advantage to both builders and homeowners. To builders, it eases the production of variations suitable for various family sizes and age ranges, and to homeowners, the lack of interior load-bearing partitions facilitates easy home remodeling.
Elements taken from these architectural styles are often decorative, rather than design or construction features. Roof spaces that contain rooms rather than attics offer ample opportunity for dormers and cross-gables. Porches, being the focus of the front elevation, are often columned and pedimented with oculus or "bull's-eye" windows. Windows, particularly in the reception rooms, are very large, and may take the form of French doors or Palladian windows (also known as Venetian and Serlian windows), in which a central arch-headed window is flanked by narrower rectangular windows.
The formal entrance of the house may be echoed by large gate piers at the driveway entrance, even in the absence of a gate or fence.
Golf course or lakeside developments may have an additional shed for a golf cart or small boat storage. Some developments offer the option of a taller and deeper third garage to accommodate an RV or boat on a trailer.
The movement of the "atrium concept" home layout from popularity to ubiquity in modern American architecture stems largely from the "Ten Minute House" theory that has been espoused by real estate developers, realtors, and home builders. Consequently, houses change owners more frequently and thus must be designed to be marketable and appealing to as many people as possible, with less emphasis placed on the specific needs of the house's initial buyer. Most realtors agree that a client will like or dislike a house within ten minutes of entering. Combining a home's foyer with a two-story "great-room" leaves secondary rooms more visible, making it easier for agents to show the house—and hopefully win the client over—in ten minutes or less.
Family rooms provide space for family entertainment such as casual television watching or playing video games; a higher-end McMansion may also feature a theater room, complete with raised seating and a rear projector with screen. The family room is typically either adjacent to the kitchen or incorporated into an open-plan space that includes the kitchen and an everyday dining area.
Houses with no formal dining room are becoming increasingly common. American families, particularly dual-income middle and upper-middle class families, tend to dine out more and do less formal entertaining at home, making a formal dining room superfluous for many home buyers.
Lighting systems may be complex, with large banks of switches or computerized controls. Television, telephone, cable, and Ethernet wiring will often be included throughout much of the house. Some homes also contain centralized audio, with independent volume controls for each room of the house.
Kitchens are generously sized and contain high-tech appliances and features, such as built-in refrigerators with panels that match the kitchen cabinets, multi-burner (5+) professional style ranges, granite counter tops, multiple ovens, or specialized wine-storage refrigerators.
Developers that sell such homes generally reject the pejorative use of the term "McMansion". They counter criticism by pointing out that they build what people want, they sell quickly, and that they use less land for these dwellings, conserving expensive building lots. "We call them luxury move-up homes," says Rob Parahus, a developer.
While the average American family has shrunk in size, the average American home has grown. In 1974, the average American single-family home was 1,695 square feet (157 m²); in 2004 it had increased to 2,349 square feet (218 m²). The average family size, on the other hand, has fallen from 3.1 people in 1974 to 2.6 people in 2004.
The larger amount of space in a McMansion means that much of the home's volume is not used as much or as efficiently as the space in a smaller house. Rooms often go infrequently used; this is particularly the case with great rooms and formal dining rooms.
A substantial amount of a typical McMansion's square footage goes toward large hallways, aiding the maximum visibility required for the "Ten Minute House" concept. The individual rooms in a McMansion, particularly secondary bedrooms, are often no bigger than in earlier housing.
The large, numerous windows that are sometimes used in the great room can result in buildings that are much more expensive to cool and heat, especially if the house has been designed without consideration for its orientation relative to seasonal sun paths or without proper insulation. Large rooms, especially those with high ceilings, are frequently more expensive to heat.
Despite common criticisms of McMansions for their small lot size, especially compared to the size of the house, other critics claim that McMansions contribute to urban sprawl and increase commuting or traveling time in developed communities because of their size and low population density. This has been a source of criticism for writers such as James Howard Kunstler, who also attacks what he sees as the shoddy construction of many new homes.
The extra space in a McMansion allows for new and unique uses for rooms in the home. One anomalous report describes a room solely for the family dog, with a special dog shower. The large number of rooms, along with their vastness, sometimes leads critics to complain of conspicuous consumption in furnishing them.
Exterior lighting is often profuse and varied, usually designed more for dramatic effect (such as aesthetic lighting for trees and gardens) than practicality or security. Critics sometimes assert it is both wasteful of energy and contributes to a growing light pollution problem.
Because McMansions are generally at least two stories in height, when built as in-fill or to replace older structures they may be taller than the neighboring homes, creating a disagreeable contrast. In an effort to prevent this and to maintain architectural consistency within neighborhoods, many jurisdictions have written "height ordinances" or zoning to prevent construction of such tall houses. Some builders have attempted to dodge such requirements by elevating the foundations on an artificial mound of earth so that the measured height from the soil is reduced. Such homes then become the subject of disagreements and possible litigation.
In some jurisdictions, in order to combat perceived urban sprawl from nearby metropolitan areas, local counties have designated a minimum lot size. The lot size is often a matter of great local political debate between housing developers, local officials, and residents. Developers will typically seek a variance to allow larger houses to be built on smaller properties, often with the promise of using some of the land for parks or open space. When a variance is not granted, plot sizes end up being "too small to farm, too large to mow," and are sometimes criticized as a poor use of land resources which ultimately contributes to further sprawl, rather than preventing it.
In other jurisdictions, there may be a minimum area requirement for the house, designed to promote a consistently upscale neighborhood but with the (possibly intentional) effect of keeping out lower-income residents by forcing the houses to be larger and thus more expensive. This can stratify economic groups by neighborhood, and some worry that this stratification will lead to a more broadly inegalitarian society (e.g., by causing de facto economic segregation in neighborhood schools).
One common aesthetic complaint is that McMansions are overly ostentatious; for example, the front façade may boast multiple gables, in addition to blind dormers, porticos, and a staggered garage that has been placed forward from the body of the house, facing the street. Other aesthetic issues could encompass traditionally functional elements, like shutters, now used as a non-functional ornament, or more generally a poor choice of ornamental elements for that particular construction and site.
The specific styles of architecture used are also sometimes criticized because they are not native to the local area, and because features from various different architectural styles are randomly mixed. Defenders of the McMansion style of architecture claim that builders respond to what their customers want and that today's architecture is at least more interesting, albeit more ersatz, than that of the Levittown tract houses of the last century.