Are McMansions Over, Being Replaced by McModerns?

©. The New American Home 2018

Traditional design can be the refuge of the marginally competent; with modern design, there is nowhere to hide.

Recently a timber frame builder I am friends with asked for advice. “Everybody wants flat roofs and modern designs these days. I don’t know what to do.” I tried to point out that there are lots of good modern designs with pitched roofs, pointing to the work by Go Logic in Maine, and that up in the north where there is a lot of snow and nobody around to notice a leak, flat roofs are a really bad idea.

But Brad is on to the current trend: modern is fashionable again among the general public for the first time since the sixties. Over at Family Handyman, Alexa Erickson writes about this trend, and notes, “You thought the McMansion was bad enough!” She writes:

While the McMansion was big in the ’80s and ’90s, the new trend is the McModern. The revival of modern architecture over the last decade has brought to life this new archetype—the millennials’ answer to the baby boomers’ indulgent, inefficient and architecturally mishandled McMansion design. And where McMansions can be characterized as cheaply made, the McModern follows suit, often constructed with chintzy materials.

Alexa has exquisite taste in bad design, picking some supremely ugly houses. But I think she is wrong to call them McModerns, as we might have been to call others McTudors or McTuscans or McCraftsman. These are Vaguely Modern McMansions, plain and simple. In her series McMansion 101, Kate Wagner notes that McMansions are not just about aesthetics, but are just bad architecture for a number of reasons that have nothing to with style:

1.) BAD craftsmanship! (crap is crap, whatever style it is)
2.) BAD investment! (This one’s for you, Wall St.)
3.) BAD for the environment!
Living in huge houses on the fringes of society consumes massive amounts of resources: from the CO2 emissions from power plants that keep the lights on and heat your Pringles Can of Shame, to the emissions from your car as you sit in gridlocked traffic trying to get to the office park in Edge City, USA, the huge house lifestyle is no doubt impacting climate change in its own, if small, way.
4.) BAD for the spirit! (That’s right, architecture affects how we feel!)

We are going to be seeing a lot of really awful Modern McMansions, because with traditional design there were rules of proportion, balance, massing (Kate Wagner covers these here) -- most of which are ignored, but were in books going back to Vitruvius. With modern design, there are none of these; it is every designer for themselves. It is why older cities and communities are so charming, and why I am so fond of the New Urbanism; people followed the rules, and their buildings fit in. There were great buildings and satisfactory buildings and homes but they didn’t jump out and hit you in the face. Traditional design can be the refuge of the marginally competent; with modern design, there is nowhere to hide.

modern house in vancouver

Pnwra on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

And if modern design is really hard, modern green sustainable design is even harder; designers add jogs, projections and giant windows because they have so few elements to play with. These all increase heat loss and gain, thermal bridges, and mess up the air barriers and insulation. You need a good eye for proportion, and most designers just don’t have one. So it is likely that the already lousy McMansions will perform even worse when they are modern.

Ugly vancouver house

Pnwra on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Often the detailing is just terrible, flat or shallow roofs running into walls, no logic, and often no decent drainage. I suspect that there will be trouble ahead on the maintenance front.

Don't get me wrong, I am a modernist at heart. It's just that it's harder because there is no rule book. Good modern design is simple, elegant and well proportioned. Good modern sustainable design is what Bronwyn Barry hashtags as #BBB, or Boxy But Beautiful. But most designers have trouble with that, so they add a jog here, a box-out there, a material change in between. In the end, they are an inefficient muddle.

Many of the houses that Alexa Erickson shows are conventional McMansions with the ornamentation stripped off, exposing how bad the proportions really are. Others are messes of materials and roofs banging into each other. They are almost sublime in their awfulness. If you think the McMansion scene was bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.