Skip to content
Home » Kate Wagner: What’s a McMansion – and How Can We Prevent More of Them? at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Kate Wagner: What’s a McMansion – and How Can We Prevent More of Them? at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of McMansionHell creator Kate Wagner’s TEDx Talk: What’s a McMansion – and How Can We Prevent More of Them? at TEDxMidAtlantic conference.

Kate Wagner – TRANSCRIPT

First of all, I’d like to apologize to anyone in the room who considers themselves to be architecturally sensitive. What you’re about to see may upset you.

So, the number one question I get in my inbox all the time is, so McMansion hell, what the hell is McMansion? So, it’s pretty easy. I’ve narrowed it down to a couple of factors. First of all, they are oversized. That means there’s over 3,000 square feet which is 500 feet more than the highest national housing average. So, AKA that space, as you can see here probably 26 children.

And the other thing is, if you look at this house, which is quite lovely, I’m sorry. This house probably has three media rooms, seven bathrooms with a garden tub, and a chandelier and whatever, but it doesn’t have a front porch and I cannot find the front door. Also there’s no lawn.

So, that leads to my second point, they are poorly designed. So, that means there’s no respect for form or scale or other things that people in the architecture would call ‘the basic rules of architecture.’ So, as you can see here, this house looks like it was designed by someone who maybe saw a house once in their life, but either had some sort of visual issues or was wearing kaleidoscope glasses that you get during Halloween.

Even worse these poorly designed houses are cheaply constructed. So, I will get to that in a second. But, I’d like to point out that this is an engineering marvel. This is a house that is a wood frame covered in different types of foam. So, and finally, they are disrespectful. So, you have to feel really bad for the poor folks in these little houses who on longer have any natural light in their homes. It is a dark time for them as it is for all of us.

So, basically they are fundamentally bad architecture. Now, even though I’m dressed impeccably well, I’m not the gatekeeper of what is and is not good aesthetic architecture. But, we’ve been talking about these things in architectural history for thousands of years starting with Vitruvius, the great-great-great -granddaddy of architecture.

Sorry, art history majors, this is going to be boring. So, Vitruvius said that architecture should be three things, right? It should be durable, it should be useful or functional, and it should be beautiful. And McMansions are well, you know, none of these things. So, let’s start with durable.

So, through most of human history houses were built to last generations, that means that you were born in the house, had kids in your house, died in your house, and then your kids had kids in your house and died in your house. AKA, they were permanent. That changed in the 1980s with access to cheaper construction methods and materials and also in deregulation economies, etc, causing a huge housing bubble, right? That we all know of. And basically these houses weren’t built to last 15 years, because they were built to have the most amount of space for the lowest price, and people didn’t really care about how long they’d last anyway because they were going to live there for maybe six years, maybe less because they were going to flip that house and make, like, a million dollars. A million dollars. And they would be on the next house before you ever knew it, so it was not their problem anymore, but we all know how that ended.

So that brings me to another part of durability- they are not aesthetically durable. That means that certain house designs like you know, you have the box, and the box has a roof and the roof looks like this, and this is the house that every child draws, this is your idea of the house. These houses, of course, as you can see in this case, this is a house that is got water damage, and the balconies don’t lay anywhere, you can actually go out open those doors, you will fall into your yard. These were just trends. People saw stuff like this on TV and said, “I want that on my house.” And so they’re not really aesthetically durable because they were built on these trends, and when the trends ran out, they would be onto the third house or the fourth house because they were flipping and making millions of dollars.

So, according to ‘Bloomberg Now,’ these houses aren’t selling well. And houses that are smaller, you know, like normal people houses, built for normal people not giant cars to live in, are appreciating are at a much higher and faster rate. And so we are gonna move on to useful. What does it mean for house to be useful? So there are primary uses for a house.

One is to keep us, you know, out of the elements. Like you saw in the last example, it’s not doing a good job of that with the water damage in the missing deck. Oh, speaking of the elements, imaging trying to heat and cool that house. So you can’t even stay warm or cool without spending millions of dollars. But most of all, a house is suppose to be our home. It’s a place for our sanctuary, community, and being one with our families. And in a space that is designed where everyone has their own room, and their own living room, and their own dining room, and their own pool table? You don’t have to interact with any members of your family.

So trust me I would have loved that in the seventh grade. But I think most of us are the well-adjusted people that we are, because we’ve had to fight with our siblings in our parents, and all these things that come from living in a smaller-knit space. And when you rob that sense of community from our homes, what real purpose do they have? But McMansions ignore both of these purposes to focus on a new purpose, and that purpose was the house is an asset, the house was now becoming through series of, you know, deregulatory economic policies, etc, a liquid asset, it was money, it was no longer a place to live, and it was separated from the sense of place and space that we know and consider our homes, and so beautiful.

McMansions don’t follow the rules of traditional architecture, but really love to use the icons and the symbols, and shapes of the traditional architecture like columns in windows styles, and the box with the roof, though the roof is three times as big as the box. And in this case, you can see none of the windows actually match. Some have mountains which is the bits that separate the panes of glass, and some don’t, and most of all it looks like it is a screaming animal. So, there’s no regard for basic matching, scale, you know, the rules of architecture, because they were designed mostly from the inside out, and mommy really needed her cathedral ceilings in the bathroom. You know sometimes that meant you had a roof on that looked like this.

Okay what’s the point, right? Why do I even care about McMansions if they are so horrible, and why do I write about them? Well, it’s about education. 60 percent of people according to the US census bureau live in the suburbs, and not all of us have access to the fabric of our cities that have buildings from different eras, and all their beautiful details, all interwoven into an urban fabric. Most of us have to live with, you know, McMansions.

And so it’s about teaching with what you have, and also they’re politically charged. They’re sort of the poster child of the recession, and they are attached to concepts like urbanism and sustainability and other things that make up a better world. You might be still asking, “Okay, well, why not talk about you know good architecture?” Well why so negative? I started writing about architecture in high school to defend buildings like this. This is the Goshen Government Centre by Paul Rudolph, in Goshen, New York which is undergoing, what I like to call ‘a murder.’

I discovered, in the fight for preservation of late modernist and post-modernist architecture which is the part that I like, if you were on the side of “I don’t like this,” you have the advantage. People say, “Oh, I like this”, and like okay, but if you say, “I don’t like this,” then like why? And if you don’t know why you’re pretty a jerk and so but that gets people talking and starts a discussion and so in McMansion Hell I saw this opportunity to explore, because a lot of  people hate McMansions but they have no idea why. They’re like, “I hate that, it’s big and it’s ugly!”, but they don’t know what is so ugly about it or why it seems so big, and that’s sort of where I come in, and it brings me to my final point.

It’s about the greater purpose. So my professor at Peabody where I study acoustics has this saying that says, “The first step to good design is avoiding the bad, then you can design the good, and the first step to avoiding the bad is recognizing the bad.” It’s about looking at the world through a critical eye, and the best part about being snarky is that you are automatically critical. And so people can say, avoiding the bad, right? You don’t want a house that looks like the ginormous thing that’s on the screen here. This is literally the McMansion, it is a house that someone took to their little mouth and blew up into a balloon. It’s like they took the nice house with the cable and puffs.

Now if you know I don’t like that, and here’s why I don’t like that then I can start thinking about encouraging other people and educating them about why I don’t like that and they don’t like that. And maybe through this sort of education and design, getting people who don’t care about design to talk about design is another really huge step in perpetuating better design.

And so through using America’s ugliest and most hated houses, I mean, I’m sorry. We can. In talking about them in a way that introduces humor so it’s not, “I’m shoving my good design down your throat, dang you!” We can encourage people through discussion, through education, through empowerment, to be a greater force for change, and a change towards a more beautiful, a more sustainable, a more inclusive, and you know, a better-looking world. Or at least, prevent them from building more McMansions. Thank you!

Related Posts

Reader Disclosure: Some links on this Site are affiliate links. Which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support.