How to Tell a McMansion From a Big House

Too Big Architecture

overly large house with multiple roof types under construction
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McMansion is a derogatory term for a large, showy neo-eclectic architectural style home, usually built by a developer without the guidance of an architect's custom design. The word McMansion was coined in the 1980s by architects and architecture critics in response to the many over-sized, poorly designed, expensive homes being built in American suburbs.

The word McMansion is cleverly derived from the name McDonald's, the fast food chain restaurant. Think about what is offered under the golden arches of McDonald's — big, fast, tasteless food. McDonald's is known for mass producing super-sized everything in huge quantities. So, a McMansion is the Big Mac hamburger of architecture — mass produced, quickly built, generic, bland, and unnecessarily large.

The McMansion is part of the McDonaldization of Society.

"Features" of a McMansion

A McMansion has many of these characteristics: (1) over-sized in proportion to the building lot, which is usually a defined space in a suburban neighborhood; (2) poorly proportioned placement of windows, doors, and porches; (3) excessive use of gabled roofs or a bizarre mixture of roof styles; (4) poorly planned mixture of architectural details and ornamentation borrowed from a variety of historical periods; (5) abundant use of vinyl (e.g., siding, windows) and artificial stone; (6) unpleasing combinations of many different siding materials; (7) atria, great rooms, and other grand open spaces that are rarely used; and (8) quickly constructed using mix-and-match details from a builder's catalog.

"McMansion" is a snarky word used to describe a certain type of house, for which there is no absolute definition. Some people use the word to describe an entire neighborhood of overly large houses. Other people use the word to describe an individual house of new construction, more than 3,000 square feet, that has replaced a more modest house on the same lot. A very large house in a neighborhood of mid-century modest homes would look disproportional.

A Symbol of Economic Status

Is the McMansion anything new? Well, yes, sort of. McMansions are unlike the mansions of yesteryear.

In the Gilded Age of America, many people became very wealthy and built opulent homes — usually a city dwelling and a country house, or "cottage" as the Newport, Rhode Island mansions are called. In the early 20th century, large, rambling homes were built in Southern California for people in the movie industry. No doubt, these homes are objects of excess. Generally, however, they are not considered McMansions because they were individually built by people who really could afford them. For example, Biltmore Estate, often called the largest private home in the United States, was never a McMansion because it was designed by a well-known architect and built by moneyed people on many, many acres of land. Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst's estate in San Simeon, California, and Bill and Melinda Gates' 66,000 square foot house, Xanadu 2.0, are not McMansions for similar reasons. These are mansions, plain and simple.

McMansions are a type of wannabe mansion, built by upper-middle class people with enough down payment money to show off their economic status. These homes are usually highly mortgaged to people who can afford the monthly interest payment, but who have obvious disregard for architectural aesthetics. They are trophy homes.

The leveraged McMansion becomes a status symbol, then — a business tool that depends on property appreciation (i.e., natural price increase) to make money. McMansions are real estate investments instead of architecture.

Reaction to McMansions

Many people love McMansions. Likewise, many people love McDonald's Big Macs. That doesn't mean they're good for you, your neighborhood, or society.

Historically, Americans have rebuilt their communities every 50 to 60 years. In the book Suburban Nation, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck tell us that it's not too late to "untangle the mess." The authors are pioneers in the rapidly growing movement known as New Urbanism. Duany and Plater-Zyberk launched the groundbreaking Congress for the New Urbanism which strives to promote the creation of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Jeff Speck is the director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. The firm is noted for designing pristine communities such as Seaside, Florida, and Kentlands, Maryland. McMansions are not in their visions for America.

Old-fashioned neighborhoods with walkable roads and corner shops may seem idyllic, but New Urbanist philosophies are not universally embraced. Critics say that pretty communities like Kentlands, Maryland, and Seaside, Florida, are as isolated as the suburbs they try to replace. Moreover, many New Urbanist communities are considered pricey and exclusive, even when they aren't filled with McMansions.

Architect Sarah Susanka, FAIA, became famous by rejecting McMansions and the notion of what she calls "starter castles." She has created a cottage industry by preaching that space should be designed to nurture the body and soul and not to impress the neighbors. Her book, The Not So Big House, has become a textbook for 21st-century living. "More rooms, bigger spaces, and vaulted ceilings do not necessarily give us what we need in a home," writes Susanka. "And when the impulse for big spaces is combined with outdated patterns of home design and building, the result is more often than not a house that doesn't work."

Kate Wagner has become the go-to critic of the McMansion form. Her commentary website called McMansion Hell is a clever, snarky personal assessment of the house style. In a local TED talk, Wagner rationalizes her animosity by suggesting that in order to avoid bad design, one must recognize bad design — and McMansions have a plethora of opportunities to hone one's critical thinking skills.

Before the economic downturn of 2007, McMansions proliferated like mushrooms in a field. In 2017 Kate Wagner was writing about The Rise of the McModern - McMansions persist. Perhaps it's a byproduct of a capitalistic society. Perhaps it's the notion that you get what you pay for — small houses can cost as much to build as larger houses, so how do we rationalize living in tiny homes? 

"I believe," concludes Sarah Susanka, "that the more people put their money where their hearts are, the more others will realize the validity of building for comfort, and not prestige."


  • The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka with Kira Obolensky, Taunton, 1998, pp. 3, 194
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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "How to Tell a McMansion From a Big House." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, October 29). How to Tell a McMansion From a Big House. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "How to Tell a McMansion From a Big House." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).