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Cheap and Bloated

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Thought Leadership

Cheap and Bloated

In 50 years, will Americans know the difference between well-crafted homes with visual harmony and cheaply built chaos?

By Erika Mosse August 3, 2023
Modern house
This article first appeared in the July/Aug 2023 issue of Pro Remodeler.

The house on my corner is being “remodeled.” I put the word in quotes because there’s nothing left of the original 1930s home except a small section of one wall, so really it’s a new build.

I was walking by yesterday and the developer happened to be on the jobsite. He’s a bright, young builder and remodeler, and this was his first spec home in the neighborhood.

The man explained that he loved the area and had gone out of his way to make sure this house would fit into the existing aesthetic. He then proudly pointed to a large sign, which had a rendering of the completed home.

The man seemed so enthusiastic that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was an eyesore. Part Cape Cod and part contemporary, the house had tiny windows strewn in a seemingly random pattern across the front and side. It also had seven dormers.

“That’s a lot of dormers,” I said.

He grinned. “Yep. And there’s three more in the back.”

There was a beat of silence. “How big will it be?” I asked. The lot looked about the same size as ours: 7,500 square feet.

“5,600 square feet,” he said proudly.

There are two problems here that have plagued older neighborhoods around the country for decades. The first is scale. Building a home in proportion to the lot size and the neighboring houses is a fundamental principle that should be adhered to.

The second is design. Directly across the street from me is a modern home built in 2021. It’s a stark, matte-black rectangle bordered on either side by sweet little prairie homes.

And yet, while it’s not to my personal taste, the black box is thoughtfully proportioned, and the shape and placement of the windows play in an interesting way against the shape of the home. Overall, the box feels like it was authored by someone rather than just thrown together.

Not so with the humongous, builder-grade mashups that have appeared in lovely older neighborhoods all over the country. These McMansions are built for nothing but profit. Which brings an interesting question to mind.

“McMansion” isn’t an actual architectural style, and yet we all know one when we see it. Bloated. Ostentatious. Zero design integrity. How do you think these homes will be regarded in 50 years? I worry that by then, most Americans won’t know the difference between well-crafted homes with visual harmony and cheaply built chaos.

In his brilliant book, Building A Timeless House in an Instant Age, remodeler and historical preservationist Brent Hull argues that the homes we construct define us. “Each house we build is a storybook,” he writes. “It is a proclamation of faith, beliefs, and values.”

What is the story we are telling today in our new builds and remodels? What are we teaching our children about quality? Could it be part of why we devalue trade professionals in this country? If our homes are any indication, we are becoming a culture that is losing its ability to gauge beauty or value.

written by

Erika Mosse

Director of Content

Erika Mosse is the director of content for Professional Remodeler. Contact her at emosse@sgcmail.com or 972.803.4014.

Comments (3)

  • Submitted by Annette A McCleery (not verified) on Mon, 08/07/2023 - 14:21


    It would appear the "old" garage was upgraded to living space, old driveway left in place. "New" garage was added to left, new driveway color not matching old driveway.
    I would question if this addition met with side yard setbacks for this neighborhood. Did the existing residence, to the left, maintain ITS side yard setback.
    Unfortunate the existing residence appears to lose all view our of their right side windows.

  • Submitted by Thom W Wright (not verified) on Thu, 08/17/2023 - 08:48


    Heartily agree. It seems many, possibly most buyers have no sense of esthetic, scale, or quality. Dollars per square foot is their measure. Builders merely fill that demand.

  • Submitted by Stacey Freed (not verified) on Tue, 08/29/2023 - 14:14


    How will these new McMansions be regarded in 50 years, asks Erika Mosse. We have only to think about the McMansions of the 1980s and 90s that still reign over quaint neighborhoods. They're just as unappealing now as they were when they were built. We've obviously learned nothing.

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