Planning, Design, and McMansions: A Conversation with Kate Wagner

Earlier this month, first-year Master of City and Regional Planning student Emily Paul interviewed Kate Wagner, the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell and whose work was recently included in the Web Cultures Web Archive through the Library of Congress. Kate’s writing focuses on architecture and design, and Emily was interested in hearing her thoughts on the state of housing today, new design trends, and the connections in her work to urban planning.

What are your thoughts about the role of the public sector in informing or shaping design?

Involvement from the public sector for design standards is a good thing. We are seeing some interesting conflicts right now between aesthetic standards and friction with places who have housing shortages, a clash between homogenizing and ideological forces. From the public sector, input on urban design is important.

For example, in the City of Baltimore, there’s a growing interest and the Council is getting more involved with street design. Planning decisions were sequestered behind closed doors for some time, but now officials have been given a political platform for safer streets. The city had an abnormally high number of pedestrian deaths per year, which meant they were given the momentum needed to be put in the public awareness. This led to the campaign, and approval by the city council of the complete streets program, which may be adopted in the future.

What do you think about the effects of the anti-mansionization codes that cities such as Los Angeles are adopting?

My opinion is that anti-mansionization laws are one of the only good examples of NIMBYism. They are preventing a certain subset of the population from building single-family housing that is out of context with other neighborhoods. They are also preventing the teardowns of multifamily buildings and of historic properties at the hands of McMansions, which are also environmentally a disaster. If you are going to build to that scale, you should be building housing for multiple families. The McMansion mentality is inherently selfish and often bad for reasons other than aesthetics. For example, it messes with the property values of a certain area. In addition, people send me stories all the time where a McMansion house puts a smaller house completely in shadow.

The Tampa Bay Times featured Shirah Levine, a one-story homeowner whose property is cast in shadow by a mansion next door. Photo Credit: https://www.tampabay.com/news/business/realestate/as-florida-mcmansions-multiply-neighbors-cope-in-the-shadows/2262310

The anti-mansionization codes allow for more efficient and productive uses of land, as well as less tree removal from not building a giant house on a postage stamp-sized lot. There’s the possibility for [the codes] to be weaponized in a way that is not productive, but for now, they are good.

It’s useful to think about how eventually, these houses will have to be rehabilitated for multifamily housing and it will be interesting to see how that is accomplished. While I think the exurbs might be a lost cause, the second and third ring suburbs are probably able to be replaced or revamped for multifamily housing, following the historical patterns of housing adaptation. You can see this in historic preservation cases regarding the Chicago bungalows, which are also not being converted into multifamily housing.

What are your thoughts on the balance between affordable housing and good design? I’m interested in your take because of so much research being done about the millennial generation’s debt burden impacting their ability to purchase a home like their parent’s or grandparent’s generation.

The balance between affordability and design in some cases is tenuous and [in some] cases pretty apparent. Much of the emphasis in the [design] discourse, including from myself, is on the aesthetics of high-income properties. There’s a bit of a muddle or vagueness in the aesthetic expression of middle-income properties; in the case of multifamily housing, the same aesthetic style is often used in new build housing at diverse income levels. Ultimately, it is more affordable to build than it was before. As materials go, the same materials are used across the housing spectrum, with the exception of maybe some finishes.

I wrote another article about aesthetic moralism and the housing crisis. There are people wagging their fingers at all apartments of a certain “modern boxy” style, and calling them gentrification apartments, but there’s also a lot of HUD housing built like that. It’s hard to go by aesthetics alone to determine how much [a house or apartment] is worth.

What trends are you excited about in housing design or construction?

I’m excited about low-carbon sustainable housing and the idea of a passive house, which is a carbon neutral house and construction system. As it becomes easier to produce, it’ll have a huge impact on the carbon footprint of architecture. A lot of the things I’m excited about are in sustainable materials. For example, when I went to Finland for Helsinki Design Week, they had really amazing 100% reused recycled materials. They had particle board made out of bottles that feel just like particle board but is cheaper to produce, and Formica countertops made out of recycled materials that looked cool and vintage. There’s a lot of development in sustainable materials not just beneficial to the planet but also to architecture in general, as well as ways of making these materials more cost-efficient.

How do you feel about tiny houses and the tiny house movement?

From a personal standpoint, I’ve always thought that tiny houses are clever in their use of architectural space and efficiency. I enjoy seeing how they parse space and the various clever solutions for storage and cooking. It gets you to think about how much space you really need. But right now, I basically live in a 400 square foot apartment so I don’t wonder that much. However, I don’t think tiny homes are a solution to a political or social problem. My issue is the idea that they are going to solve the housing crisis. That’s just another form of austerity.

If you look at historical precedents, they had the same mentality of the tiny house. My favorite applications of tiny houses are cabins in the woods, such as the mid-century A-frames, that started from the 300-400 square foot vacation cabins of the 1960s and 1970s. [Tiny homes] really aren’t a new idea — postwar single-family suburban houses were only about 700 square feet.

Have you considered venturing into nonresidential design critique?

I’m really interested in nonresidential spaces, historically speaking. I’m also into looking at retail space and its use. I wish there was a comprehensive history of commercial spaces and multifamily housing. I’m always disappointed there isn’t a style book for these that includes chronological histories, like A Field Guide to American Houses, but for strip malls. I wish those existed as academic books. There’s still a lot of work to be done ethnography-wise and that’s exciting to me. Thus far, it has fallen into the vernacular realm, where there are people like those on this Flickr page, who have amassed tens of thousands of pictures of Kmarts and cataloged them because they have time on their hands. Being able to date or place a certain design is powerful and I would do more on it if I had more scholarly resources about it. I wish anthropology would get into that, but if push comes to shove I’ll do it myself!

Featured Image: Kate Wagner utilizes wit and humor to publish design critiques of the excessively large houses in the United States, such as this one above located in the suburbs of Los Angeles. 

Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansionHell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses from top to bottom, all while teaching about architecture and design. Since its launch in July 2016, the blog has been featured in a wide range of publications, including the Huffington Post, Slate, Business Insider, and Paper Magazine. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate has written for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, The Atlantic, Architectural Digest and more. She recently graduated from Johns Hopkins with a Masters of Arts in Audio Science, specializing in architectural acoustics. Her thesis project examined intersections of acoustics, urbanism and Late Modern architecture.

About the author: Emily Paul is a first-year master’s student seeking dual degrees from the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Her research interests involve how the built environment can address social justice issues and the impact of climate change and the environment on health. Prior to attending UNC, Emily earned her bachelor’s degree in urban & environmental planning and Spanish at the University of Virginia.