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Big, ugly, and green: Rethinking the McMansion for the climate change era

Suburban megahomes are energy guzzlers — but they can be repurposed and retooled

By Kara Baskin

On a hillside with views of Boston, a giant home built in the early 1970s — the kind of suburban mega-house its detractors would call a McMansion — is about to get a climate-friendly overhaul. Mark Doughty, the MIT-trained president of the custom home builder and renovator Thoughtforms, is retrofitting the 7,000-square-foot house to make it more sustainable. His firm will add triple-pane windows and tighten the insulation; install LED lighting and induction cooktops; and add ground- or roof-mounted solar panels. It’ll put in a high-tech monitoring system so the owner will be alerted if systems run out of their normal range — for example, if a fridge door is left open or an HVAC pump starts to burn out.

The client, the founder of a Boston tech company, “wants the home to be a showcase for what’s possible in terms of high performance and sustainability,” says Doughty, “so we can spread the message.”

Many renovators, builders, and homeowners are now reckoning with a similar challenge: how to reduce the carbon footprints of suburban megahomes — and, along the way, perhaps restore the reputation of one of America’s most controversial architecture forms.

McMansions took off in the 1970s and 1980s, real estate experts note, because they represented success. Homeowners who longed to leave postwar tract homes were drawn to their extra space and more-is-more architecture. “The McMansions emerged as this sort of housing [for] the landed gentry out in the exurbs,” says Georgia Institute of Technology urbanist Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia.”

But to their critics, McMansionsThe term McMansion first appeared in architecture criticism in 1990. Its earliest known use was in 1985 by a young-adult novelist. mimicked the worst aspects of fast-food: shoddily made, shamelessly super-sized. The homes had a glut of useless spaces and a mishmash of clashing architectural styles, sprouting columns and gables that scream, “I have money,” along with soaring ceilings loaded with skylights. “My longtime followers hate them because they live in a little house, and McMansions loom over their garden and vegetables, which don’t get sun anymore,” says Kate Wagner, who created the website McMansion Hell, devoted to the tearing down — verbally, not literally — of this peculiar style of home.

“Also, we live in a time of climate change, and they’re an affront to a livable future, says Wagner, who is also an architecture critic for The New Republic. “Or else because they’re ugly.”

For Wagner’s devoted readers, McMansions are the housing versions of scrunchies, high hair, and pleated pants: relics from the 1980s, now fair game for ridicule. Just one difference: You can throw away pleated pants. But McMansions still exist, and they’re guzzling energy.

Many were built at a time when global warming was just starting to emerge as a worldwide issue, before LEED and Energy Star standards for energy efficiency. Their tall ceilings, big attics, and leaky ground floors require enormous amounts of energy to heat and cool.

“We don’t see many clients who fully understand the climate issue and how the built environment is related to it,” says Doughty, whose firm specializes in environmentally sustainable work. “When we meet them, suddenly a light goes off.”

Just tearing McMansions down might please their fiercest critics. But demolition is actually not a McMansion’s most environmentally friendly fate. Instead, say green-friendly planners and renovators, it’s time to retrofit and reimagine McMansions for the 2020s and beyond.

Radical revisions

Already, the contours of suburban architecture are changing. Trends are slowly shifting away from sprawling homes, real estate specialists say, while new regulations reflect increasing environmental awareness. In Pitkin County, Colorado — home to Aspen — any new house over 5,000 square feet, or any addition that takes a house above 5,000 square feet, must offset a portion of its fossil fuel energy consumption through either on-site renewable energy or a fee. A California law requiring newly built homes to have solar panels or get solar power from off-site took effect in January.

“Not all McMansions are ridiculous. Some are overly large but have decent architecture and decent proportions.”

Still, many older McMansions are nowhere near the end of their useful life, and demolishing them would be wasteful. Galina Tachieva is the author of “The Sprawl Repair Manual” and a partner at the urban design company DPZ Co-Design, which focuses on retrofitting auto-centric suburbia into walkable communities. Tachieva says that a more sustainable idea would be converting big houses to new uses.

“Not all McMansions are ridiculous,” she says. “Some are overly large but have decent architecture and decent proportions.” She imagines those homes converted into student housing, senior housing, or multi-family buildings.

That may not happen in big numbers anytime soon, Tachieva concedes. Many McMansions were built in subdivisions where homeowners’ associations strictly regulate renovations. But another recession could propel changes in the housing market. Baby Boomers could get antsy about moving. And millennials who don’t want an entire McMansion might be happy to live in part of one, she says. “They have different attitudes toward the size of their homes,” she says. “Two two-bedroom apartments could be retrofitted into one of the mansions.”

Conversions would diversify the single-family subdivisions where McMansions are usually located, creating more choices for more people, Tachieva argues, and addressing the growing demand for smaller, more efficient housing. “The transformation of McMansions into denser housing will help make communities more livable, more walkable, with better services — and more sustainable in the long run, as people will tend to drive less,” she says.

Apartments and condos in ex-McMansions could also appeal to renters who can’t otherwise afford to live in suburbia — and to Boomers who might be lonely and want communal living with neighbors, says Dunham-Jones.

“It’s about having shared spaces,” she says. In 2017, former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy declared that the country was suffering from a loneliness epidemic, she notes. “A lot of that is people living out in the middle of a big house, in the middle of nowhere.”

Retrofitting a McMansion

Still, it’s clear that a lot of McMansions will remain single-family homes. After all, the market for outsized homes hasn’t waned. The average new single-family house in 2015 was 2,657 square feet, 57 percent larger than four decades earlier, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

“We’ve seen the writing on the wall that millennials don’t want their parents’ homes. That doesn’t mean nobody wants them,” says Erika Hall, a real estate agent. Hall works in Westborough, Mass., a town spotlighted in Leigh Gallagher’s 2013 book, “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving,” which found that U.S. suburbia’s long commutes and car-dependent lifestyle drive some folks from once-desirable subdivisions back toward the city.

Hall has sold larger homes to Generation X’ers who want to accommodate boomerang kids. And she says McMansions now often appeal to immigrants, who didn’t grow up disdaining these homes and who find a different meaning in that extra space. They often reside with multiple generations, taking advantage of in-law apartments, finished basements, and attics. In fact, some of today’s McMansion living looks much like multi-generational living arrangements of yore, when duplexes and triple-deckers were packed with extended family. This time, though, Mom and Dad aren’t living on the third floor — they’re living in a sky-lit in-law apartment.

Even if there’s room for dust bunnies to bounce from game room to au pair suite, there’s still a way to retrofit these single-family homes for a climate-aware era. That’s where Doughty and builders like him come in.

Doughty says the biggest problem that McMansions pose to energy bills and carbon emissions comes from their inefficient heating structure. Hot air rises and leaks out through their roofs, Doughty explains, while cold, dry air leaks in through spaces in their foundations. “About a third of the energy used for such a house is to make up for the warm air that’s lost to air leakage,” Doughty says. Thus begins a vicious cycle: Residents then need to heat and humidify the new air.

Chris Rapczynski, co-owner of Boston’s Sleeping Dog Properties, which specializes in retrofits, says the first step is to conduct an energy audit to target the home’s inefficiencies: old skylights, single-glazed windows, doors with flimsy glass panels. Typically, windows — and McMansions have oh, so many windows! — are the biggest flaw, he says. The simplest fix is to replace single- or double-glaze windows with triple-glaze, which improve insulation. Rapczynski also advises clients to block their fireplaces, so hot air isn’t lost through the chimney. Spray foam insulation can keep heat inside McMansions’ notoriously large attics. “Everything has hope, even McMansions,” says Rapczynski. “It’s just a matter of return. Will you get a return on investment? That’s an analysis the audit can help with.”

Doughty has also pulled gas-fired furnaces and appliances out of homes, replacing them with electric versions. Today, he says, “you don’t want to install infrastructure that requires natural gas or oil, because then you’re pretty much locking that family into needing to purchase natural gas or oil for 20 or 30 years.” He often installs air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling, or ground-source heat pumps, also known as geothermal pumps. “That house is now ready to go to renewable energy,” he says.

In fact, McMansions are well-positioned for solar panels, which can drastically reduce a huge house’s carbon footprint. “This works out well with a McMansion,” Rapczynski says, “because they have a bigger roof and can house bigger solar arrays.”

Who would have guessed it? Those 1980s dinosaurs, once a hodge-podge symbol of material success, could instead impress the neighbors with their colossal solar panels. Sometimes size isn’t a bad thing, after all.

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Kara Baskin is a writer based in Boston.

Illustrator Martin Elfman

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