Why We Need McMansions

The other day, I caught myself swooning over a gigantic house for sale in a suburban neighborhood a few miles away from mine. This thing was huge: It must have had at least five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, and I just know there was a spacious study just waiting to be lined with bookshelves somewhere in there. I grabbed one of the brochures from the box attached to the For Sale sign, and saw that it wasn't terribly expensive; based on some of the interior shots, it seemed like the builder was going for sheer square footage over character or quality. In popular parlance: It was a McMansion. 

We're not in a position to buy a new house right now, and probably won't be any time soon. But the fact that I would even want a house like this is shocking, considering that I have been staunchly anti-McMansion for as long as I've been old enough to have grouchy opinions about houses. Consider this data from a piece at MSN Real Estate:

Today’s homes are big. No, not big -- huge. The average American home swelled from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 square feet in 2004 -- a 140% increase in size. And everything about them is bigger, from their three- and four-car garages to the professional-grade stoves and refrigerators. In 2004, 43% of new homes had 9-foot ceilings, up from less than 15% in the 1980s.

...And more recent data shows that the average American home is now closer to 2,700 square feet.

Whenever I used to come across articles like that, I'd shudder. "Who needs that much space?" I'd say to my husband. I'd think of the farmhouses of our ancestors that were less than half the size of a typical house today, yet housed many more people. Doing my best imitation of a cane-waving old lady, I'd mutter about how people these days don't know how to make do with what they have, but always want more, more, more. I'd bemoan the waste that comes with huge square-footage-per-person ratios, and preach about the efficiencies that come with living with less space. I'd remark on the charm of cozy houses, and note that it brings a sense of family togetherness when everyone lives in close quarters.

When NPR covered the topic, their experts had similar thoughts:

"The big house represents the atomizing of the American family," [Harvard professor John Stilgoe] says. "Each person not only has his or her own television -- each person has his or her own bathroom. Some of these houses are literally designed with three playrooms for two children. This way, the family members rarely have to interact. And the notion of compromise is simply out one of the very many windows these houses sport."

"Hear, hear!" I would have said five years ago. People don't want to share! They avoid interaction with their own family members! That's another reason they buy these super-sized houses!

Now I find myself drooling over these mini-castles, and my motivation is not any of the reasons listed above. And thinking about my own change of mind has made me realize that I was completely wrong about what's driving the McMansion craze.

In all my snarky analysis of why Americans keep super-sizing their houses, I failed to consider a crucial difference between the lifestyle of modern parents and the lifestyle of parents of yore: We no longer have recourse to the age-old parenting panacea, "You kids go outside!"

I've spent a lot of time talking to older folks about their lives growing up in the early to mid 20th century, and one of the things all of their childhoods had in common is that the kids spent most of their days outdoors. My 98-year-old grandfather once laughed that his mother only saw them at mealtimes; the rest of the time, he and his siblings were out working on the farm, hunting game, or swimming at a nearby creek. Most people of my parents' generation report the same: Many of them lived in suburban environments, but they still spent hours out of each day roaming the neighborhood with friends. In my own childhood, as early as age six I was running with packs of kids throughout the nearby streets until sunset, the only rule being that I needed to come home when the streetlights came on.

These days, one of the fastest ways to be deemed an irresponsible parent is to let your children out of your sight outdoors. It's debatable as to whether there is actually more crime or whether there's simply more awareness of it, but, either way, the modern parent is expected to keep her eyes on her kids at all times. Some families might have the option of playtime in the back yard, but a) that's still not the same as freely roaming over large swaths of land, and b) many of us don't have yards that are pleasant to spend a lot of time in. (Us, for example. This past summer I kept trying to kick the kids out to the back yard, which is small, teeming with scorpions, regularly bombarded by wasps, and offers no shade from the scorching Texas sun. My kids kept coming up with household chores they had to do just to avoid going out there.)

Especially for those of us whose kids don't go to school, we often end up spending a high percentage of our waking hours within the walls of our homes. This is not natural. I'm not an expert on the subject, but the few years of anthropology classes I took in college taught me enough to know that humans were meant to wander outdoors, meandering to various places in their villages or farms or cities as they went about their daily tasks; we were not meant to spend our days with the entire family confined to a single, tiny, indoor space. 

At least on a short-term basis, this situation is unavoidable for most families. Maybe over the long term we could aim to live on acreage or identify a neighborhood where we'd feel comfortable letting our kids play out front without our direct supervision, but, for now, many of us have no choice but to spend an unnatural amount of time indoors. And one way to make the situation better is simply to buy the biggest house you can reasonably afford. At least then you have space for everyone to spread out, even if you're still stuck inside.

I would love to see more close-knit communities where people stayed put and got to know their neighbors over decades, as well as communities optimized for walkability. These kinds of changes would allow families to feel more comfortable letting their children roam outdoors, and would thus make smaller homes a more realistic possibility. But, until that happens, count me in as a supporter of the sprawling American McMansion.