Built Too Vast

By Bruce Irving | Boston Home |

Say what you will about our throwaway culture, at least we can dump our faddish buys when they become embarrassing. That bolero tie we wore in college? Our death metal cassette collection? The Chia Pet? All are composting quietly in a landfill somewhere. Unlike other bad ideas, though, poorly designed houses don’t die: They get built, bought, sold, remodeled, sold again, and so on…


Say what you will about our throwaway culture, at least we can dump our faddish buys when they become embarrassing. That bolero tie we wore in college? Our death metal cassette collection? The Chia Pet? All are composting quietly in a landfill somewhere. Unlike other bad ideas, though, poorly designed houses don’t die: They get built, bought, sold, remodeled, sold again, and so on. In other words, if they’re not our headache, they’re someone else’s. It would seem obvious, then, to have a slightly different attitude toward construction than toward, say, fist-sized clay planters.

Unfortunately, many of today’s home buyers design by numbers, fetishizing square footage and countertop measurements like MLB stats. That’s how houses get huge (5,000 square feet is entry level; 20,000 square feet, comfortable), with so many rooms we’ve run out of names for them—formal dining room, casual dining room, sitting room, exercise room, dressing room, (undressing room?) …. Yards are maxed out through zoning, trees are cut down, and windows look right into neighboring windows. It’s the McMansion recipe, and sheer bigness is the main ingredient.

You may be thinking, “People want to build big homes, Bruce, so leave them alone.” You’d be wrong. It turns out that, given a choice, most Americans actually want quality over quantity. In a 2004 study, the National Association of Home Builders posed the question: “For the same amount of money, which of the following would you choose: a bigger house with fewer amenities, or a smaller house with high-quality products and amenities?” Sixty-three percent of the 2,900 randomly selected respondents wanted the better, not bigger, home.

The problem is that people don’t really know what better means, so when facing a bottom line, they just go bigger. Size is the lowest common denominator, that one yardstick by which all Americans value, well, value. If it’s huge, everyone will know it’s expensive, right? (And that’s how we get the stylistic serial killer, “Charles Mansion.”) Enormous houses need lots of doodads to look right. Builders “break them down” into smaller piles, hide their massiveness under dormers, peaks, gables, eyebrows, and sheds, then decorate them with a Home Depot version of architecture’s greatest hits, including Palladian windows, purposeless neoclassical columns, absurdly elaborate staircases, and inaccessible balconies. The sheer volume needs its own private power plant to keep it at room temperature year in, year out. Owners might as well burn a pile of bills to take the chill off a New England fall. In the end, it’s all a very expensive mess.

Sarah Susanka, author of the bestseller The Not-So-Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, argues that the best designers understand the importance of scale. In other words, a good designer wouldn’t call for a master bedroom, the seat of intimacy, with ceiling heights befitting Symphony Hall. A good designer wouldn’t take time-tested, time-honored room dimensions and blow them up by, oh, 50 percent, the way McMansions are proportioned. But I suspect even good designers can get sucked into the numbers game.

Some do have the courage to walk away. I know an architect who was asked by a Charles Mansion victim to “please try to make these rooms more comfortable—I feel like I’m rattling around in here.” The architect found a fix was impossible: The walls and ceilings were far enough apart to feel cavernous, but not far enough apart to divide into two rooms. The house, the expert concluded, was irredeemable. She left, and the client ended up doing the only thing he could think of—he added a great room.

Which just goes to show that for every designer who says no, another will come along to do the nasty. Can we have some kind of consensus here? Can we all just agree to respect our better judgment and make houses that are comfortable, well built, and lovely? Because I’m not sure all these McMansions will fit next to my Chia Pet in the bad-idea graveyard. If we keep going this way, we may need to invade another country just to find a place to bury our stuff.