'One Big Home' Profiles America's Obsession With Supersized Dwellings

Trophy homes like this one often sit empty for months at a time. Thomas Bena is a carpenter-turned-filmmaker raising many good questions in the documentary, 'One Big Home.'. (Photo: One Big Home)

If you've ever visited or read one of the many articles on the popular Tumblr page "McMansion Hell," you've likely enjoyed an amusing breakdown of America's obsession with giant, poorly conceived dwellings. Created by architecture critic Kate Wagner, the site rips apart the mass-produced, "bigger is better" suburban homes that, thanks to endless customizations, take on a Frankenstein-esque appearance based on the classical homes they're trying to emulate.

Needless to say, Wagner has plenty of fodder to pull from. A recent study found that the average size of a new single-family home built in 2015 topped out at 2,687 square feet. Nearly all of those houses contain two-car garages (or bigger), two or more bathrooms, and a minimum of three bedrooms. While there appears to be a shift underway towards smaller homes, the McMansion industry is alive and well in America.

“Since the housing bubble, it sort of goes in cycles. Every year or two, you’ll see a collection of stories that says the death of the McMansion is finally here,” sociologist Brian Miller told the Washington Post in January. “But I don’t suspect Americans are interested all that much in smaller homes.”

It's clear in director Thomas Bena's new documentary "One Big Home," that the very wealthy are definitely not interested in downgrading anytime soon. Bena, a carpenter by trade, started noticing over a decade ago that the very rich were building increasingly massive and unnecessary "trophy homes" on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. In some cases, the homes often sat vacant for more than half the year.

'I was part of the problem'

“I had been backpacking in various countries, traveling, surfing and seeing the world,” says Bena in the film. “I had just spent time with people struggling to find food and shelter, and all of a sudden I’m building homes that will sit empty and heated for 10 months a year. It hit me in the gut: I was part of the problem.”

In 2003, Bena picked up a camera and began filming the giant homes under construction, interviewing both the contractors and the owners funding the projects. The film, which took 12 years to complete, ended up being as much about Bena's evolving perspective on giant homes as it was about the industry itself. A big part of the documentary's success is that it includes the viewpoints of multiple parties — avoiding a one-sided bias that can be a problem in a shorter filming window.

"The film I set out to make is not the film I ended up making,” he told Martha's Vineyard magazine. "I started out wanting to say that big houses were bad. Along the way I realized that there was so much more going on than that, and so much more at stake than I originally realized."

Communities having a conversation

In the end, Bena's film becomes not so much an indictment of mega-mansions, but a rallying cry to local communities to have a voice in the conversation. In 2013, Chilmark, the small town on Martha's Vineyard at the center of "One Big Home," successfully passed a bylaw limiting house size.

"I hope my film will spark a discussion about the way we regard housing, land ownership, and the economic forces that shape our communities," Bena says on his site. "Rather than throwing up our arms and saying 'you can't fight progress,' communities can stand up for themselves, their way of life, and the natural environment."

You can see a trailer for the film below. To catch a screening near you, check out the official site here.