LOS ANGELES - For many they are a blight on the American landscape. For others, they are an expression of freedom and success. Now legislators in cities across the US, alarmed at the spread of "McMansions", are trying to contain the size of American homes.
Inspired by concerns that communities are disappearing and alarmed by the environmental costs, planners have drawn up measures to ensure new homes stay within a footprint that is proportionate to the plot size.
Since 1973 the median size of a new home in the US has grown from 1,525 sq ft (142 sq metres) to 2,248 sq ft. At the same time, the number of people per household has fallen from 3.1 to 2.6. Huge mansions are a common site across the US, dotting the landscape alongside motorways in Colorado, or squeezed into tiny plots in urban areas. Wherever they are found, they share common features: large atrium-style hallways, showpiece kitchens, multiple bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes, built-in garage and garden statuary; a style familiar to viewers of the Sopranos. While McMansion is the most frequently used pejorative term, "plywood palazzo" is another.
But the trend has alarmed planners and conservationists. In Boulder County, Colorado, which has recently adopted measures to cap the size of new homes, houses have grown from an average of 3,900 sq ft in 1990 to 6,300 sq ft last year. Last month in Los Angeles, the city's planning commission passed a motion to restrict the size of new homes. If the city council adopts the measure it could affect 300,000 properties in the city. Similar measures have been adopted in Minneapolis and in Florida.
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"I think people are suspicious of development in the US right now," says John Chase, architecture critic and urban designer for the city of West Hollywood. "People have an unconscious cultural association with a place. Mansion-building takes away from a person's sense of the identity of a place."
But environmental pressures are also being felt. "According to scientists, if we don't learn to contain our use of fossil fuels we are in serious trouble," says John Nolon, a law professor at New York's Pace University. "One of the most egregious examples is a large house. A 6,000 sq ft-8,000 sq ft house is a climate change disaster. If the country doesn't rein in the construction of these mansions the message to individuals is that they're encouraged to follow their urges. The phenomenon with McMansions is similar to that with SUVs [sport utility vehicles or 4x4s]: they express a certain sort of success, they're available and they're fun. If legislative folks don't take some kind of position on mansionisation, it will go unchecked."
But some discern signs that Americans are tiring of the architectural bling of the McMansion . "My sense is that in the luxury market people are less interested in size than they were a decade ago," says Kermit Baker, chief economist with the American Institute of Architects, which has recorded a levelling off in the size of new houses.
Small may be beautiful, but new home owners may not want to go as far as the 250 sq ft micro-apartments proposed for central Los Angeles. That would be just enough space for a Humvee and a Prius to snuggle together.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007