Reinventing the McMansion

Now that smaller houses are back in style, people are finding new uses for the oversize ones

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Andy Kropa / Redux

Ideas are flying about what to do with unwanted large houses.

What do we do with our McMansions now?

The housing market may be showing signs of life, but it's mostly limited to modest homes. The 4,000-, 5,000- and 6,000-square-footers — the ones that dot the landscape of countless American suburbs, replete with vaulted foyers and Palladian windows — are still finding precious few takers.

But maybe that's O.K., because the Great McMansion Repurposing has begun. People are finding new uses for huge houses that were once inhabited only by nuclear families. A film collective in Seattle has taken over one behemoth, turning the wine closet into an editing room. Outside San Diego, the former residence of a husband and wife and two kids is being converted into a home for autistic adults. Architects around the world are dreaming about what they might do if they could get their hands on such massive spaces. A group in Ohio wants to create suburban greenhouses. Another, in Australia, has a plan to take a large dwelling apart at the seams and build two new houses with the materials.

The McMansion, perhaps the most garish symbol of the age of real estate excess, is fast becoming a relic. For the first time in 15 years, the average size of a new house is falling, according to data from the National Association of Home Builders. That fits shifting demographics. As baby boomers gray, fewer people have kids at home. In 2000, 33% of households included children; by 2030, only 27% will. "Single people and households without children don't want big houses on big lots," says Arthur Nelson, director of metropolitan research at the University of Utah's College of Architecture and Planning. To visualize the coming change, imagine a turreted Victorian mansion, the sort that was popular at the turn of the 1900s. Now picture an Arts & Crafts bungalow, the small-footprint style that followed in reaction.

The good news — at least from a city-planning point of view — is that McMansions are ready-made to be broken into tinier living spaces. Each bedroom typically has its own bathroom, voluminous basements often offer a second kitchen, and garages comfortably fit three or four cars.

Around the country, people are getting creative with that sort of space. Members of Seattle's Beta Society not only sleep in their 10,000-sq.-ft. find but also shoot movies there. (They keep a green screen in the garage.) Near San Diego, the nonprofit TERI Inc. has bought a 3,600-square-footer on half an acre to house four autistic young adults. The secluded master suite that used to give parents some privacy now offers the same benefit to a live-in attendant, while the pool makes for great therapy. In Idaho, the nonprofit Housing Company is looking for a 4,000- or 5,000-sq.-ft. house to turn into a home for kids aging out of foster care. "You have all these spaces for teaching life skills before they try to make it on their own," says director Douglas Peterson. A restaurant-league kitchen, for example, can be used as a place to give cooking lessons. An industrial-size laundry room is large enough to handle a group lesson on separating whites.

Longtime McMansion residents too are looking for more economical ways to use their space. In the lush suburbs of Connecticut, some homeowners have started to rent out rooms. And even among those not looking for help with the mortgage, a movement to make supersize homes cozier is bubbling up. Architect Sarah Susanka, a small-house advocate, is finding that people are interested in making modifications, like lowering ceilings, to create more intimacy. Mathieu Gallois, who came up with the McMansion-splitting project in Australia, hit on the idea while visiting a 4,000-sq.-ft. home and feeling that with everyone in his or her own room, the family had been "atomized" — and that someone should do something about it.

All this repurposing is easier said than done. Statistically speaking, we may have too many too large houses, but try to split them up — as people did a century ago with those Victorian mansions — and you're sure to hear from the neighbors. In order to keep houses as single-family homes and ostensibly protect property values, zoning ordinances and neighborhood bylaws often limit the number of unrelated people allowed to live in one dwelling.

But an even larger problem is brewing, according to Christopher Leinberger, a real estate professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. If there are no longer enough people who want to own overgrown houses in far-flung suburbs, we could see a repeat of what happened in center cities in the 1950s and '60s, when abandoned homes helped set off blight. What we really need to do, Leinberger says, is reinvent entire communities as the sorts of places where people want to live. That means building mass transit and urban-style city centers away from the metropolitan core. Finding new, creative uses for McMansions is a start, but the ultimate goal may be to design neighborhoods in which such large houses wouldn't make sense in the first place.