Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Everybody's a Critic

The Landscapes of McMansion Hell


For making me laugh while I learn, I LOVE the architecture critic Kate Wagner and her highly opinionated blog McMansion Hell. Who could resist her “Pringles Can of Shame ™” award in the photo above?

So I recommend McMansion Hell for making me laugh and for educating me with “What the Hell is Modern Architecture?,” the “Pictorial History of Suburbia,” and other great stuff on the site.

Now to readers who might suspect sheer snobbery in Kate’s snarky criticisms, rest assured that there’s a higher purpose behind it all – making the point that McMansions are bad for the environment. She’s a proponent of dense, walkable and diverse neighborhoods.

So I wasn’t surprised to find McMansion 101 – Landscaping, where Kate rants about the humongous yards and ridiculous plantings around these overbuilt homes. She begins with pointing out three common “Yard Tropes,” like the tiny “Soul Patch” of turfgrass.




Haven’t we all seen seen plants around homes that were mere “obligatory green bits” and wondered if the developer thinks of plants as “trees n crap”?


On the connection between huge homes and the homeowner’s ability to garden:

Usually people go the turf-grass with one or no trees route because it’s the easiest kind of yard to ignore. Because you really don’t have time to worry about yardwork when you work a 9-to-5 to pay off your massive house and your marriage is falling apart and I heard that gas prices are going up again….


She blasts English ivy, using exaggeration with admirable abandon.


When I saw this image on McMansion Hell it looked so familiar, it had me combing through my photos to see if it was the landscape I’d noticed and hated SO MUCH that I parked the car and walked along a sidewalk-less street (natch) to get the shot below.


Clearly the homes are similar and the landscape is even worse! This one is located in Potomac, Maryland, not that far from where Kate is studying for her masters in acoustics at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, so it might get her attention yet.

McMansion Hell has been getting lots of great press since its launch in July of 2016 (99 Percent Invisible Podcast, HuffingtonPost, and more).  So congrats to Kate on her wonderful blog and its instant success!

And there’s ore coming for us gardeners. One of her future posts is called “Curb Appeal: A Guide to Front Lawns & McMansion Landscaping.”

Posted by on December 30, 2016 at 7:56 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Everybody's a Critic.
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22 responses to “The Landscapes of McMansion Hell”

  1. I admit I had a good laugh reading through this! I sometimes think its better to raise awareness through humour, its a more enjoyable learning experience! Thank you for educational laughing fit.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Parts of yout comment make no sense to me. Surely you don’t think that less densely populated places are universally more self-sufficient than cities?
    I’m currently living in a rural area. There are family farms all over but everyone still gets in their car to schlep to the grocery store to buy their exotic, out-of-season produce. A recent development was water being pumped out from the closest city so that people don’t have to rely on wells anymore.
    I love having a large garden and being closer to nature but the way most of us live out here in the sticks is not even close to being efficient or sustainable.

  3. Marcia says:

    While part of your being deals with these awful landscapes, another part can ring in the NEW YEAR with some inspiration with the trifecta of greatness, for a mere $3 each.

    They’re new, terrific, and have even dropped to a mere $3. I love them. They are the December deals and may change soon.

  4. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    Denise, that means so much – thank you! Susan

  5. Denise says:

    Susan, thank you for this. I live next to three of these, built on acreage that once sported a tiny ranch house, gardens and even a few horses. These eyesore builders called our home (built in the late 40’s) the “Little Red House” even though it originally housed my grandparents large family. It is that endangered specie: unenlarged Cape.

    The list of personal indignities is long. Best? The time the immigrant crew sprayed their pesticide on a windy day and got me, working on my pesticide-free garden. Outcome? I had a vascular allergic reaction. Translated? I turned blue and had trouble breathing for a couple of days.

    The disregard for the environment is clear. The indignity and abuse innocent neighbors endure is less known. Trust me, it Really is Hell. All seven levels.

    Thanks for the chuckles and have a well-deserved great 2017. Garden Rant does a great service, we just need to tell you more often

  6. Laura says:

    I think this report from Environmental Defence Canada on smart vs. dumb growth is spot on, although it is somewhat specific to Ontario. I live in community where ugly McMansions are springing up at an alarming rate.

    My parents lived in such a community for a time. It was like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate factory: other than seeing cars enter and leave (presumably to work and shop), no one seemed to inhabit the houses. No one played outside. No one opened their windows in summer. No one planted trees or gardens. The odd person might walk a dog on occasion. Perhaps calling such a housing a development a ‘community’ is a stretch…

    Because I can’t resist one more link, this one an infographic on tiny houses, but I think the increase in house size relative to the decrease in family size is interesting.

    One final thought. With rising debt, I wonder how many of these McMansions are just a product of runaway debt for the families who own them?

  7. Dear Susan, you made me laugh and cry on this one! We’re seeing more and more of this in Austin, too. What in the world are people trying to prove? Well, okay, I know. . . Thanks for introducing me to this blog and for your creative exploration, as always!

  8. skr says:

    the entire country outsources food production regardless of whether you are in a city or the country. The question is how many people are serviced per truckload of food? The coty wins that. Yes the city uses more enrgy to heat and cool, but a high rise is far more efficient to heat and cool per person that an SFR. Yes people have to commute in but there is public transportation that moves 100s of thousands of people a day for a fraction of the energy per person than cars. Suburban spread is of course a problem but one caused by archaic zoning laws and NIMBYs that think high rises across the board are ugly an heaven forbid a multi unit building go in on an SFR block. But it all really comes down to land use. Sprawl drives agriculture to convert more and more marginal land which is very environmentally destructive. We need to densify what we have.

  9. skr says:

    High-rises are ugly? Well there are certainly ugly high-rises but all the properties that command a view of the LA skyline command a premium price so they can’t all be that bad. I would rather look at a Hertzog and de Meuran high rise than one of these painful McMansions. I don’t care if you jam an English estate house on a small lot at least the proportions of the structure work with one another and have some sense of order.

  10. Mary Gray says:

    Good points, Laura. I’m just wondering how using immigrant crews to maintain one’s landscape is a bad thing? Is this worse for the environment than using non-immigrant crews?

    I wonder if the author of the blog has ever hired an immigrant to trim trees, do home repairs, fix her car, cut her hair? I don’t get it.

  11. Did a few “the good, the bad, and the ugly” landscape blogs, but wife said they were just too mean. Now it’s just “how unfortunate”. So glad to learn of a kindred spirit.

  12. Mary Gray says:

    Yeah, I don’t buy the higher purpose thing either. I had a hard time finding anything about the environment on the blog. The author was too busy making fun of the houses and the people who buy them.

  13. Mary Gray says:

    I checked out her website, ’cause who doesn’t like a bit of McMansion snark? Unfortunately, what comes across instead is just sheer contempt for anybody who doesn’t share her taste or outlook on life. Apparently, everybody in Arkansas is racist, too! Sorry, this blog is just way too heavyhanded.

  14. anne says:

    Oh, interesting! I recently took a “Redfin Tour” through the neighborhood I grew up in 50 years ago, a post-WW2 California suburb in the SF Bay Area. Back then, it was all the ubiquitous lawn + tree(s) + shrubs (adventurous housewives planted a row of annuals each year too). And, kids roamed the neighborhood and played on those lawns, climbed those trees, and played hide-and-seek in those bushes. Now? Just about every house I saw in the street view photos has killed all or most of their lawns (some had a “soul patch” lawn–thank you for the term!) in favor of pretty nice looking (hopefully drought-resistent) perennials and groundcovers. What struck me was that very few front yards looked like places anyone but professional gardeners were spending any time in–certainly no kids would be playing in them. Of course, given the average sky-high house price there now, there probably aren’t too many kids in the neighborhood anymore, anyway.

  15. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    Kate has a whole page for comments like this: why mcmansions are bad beyond the aesthetics. E.g., they’re bad investments for the buyers.

    Also, is there a reason to mock the study of acoustics, or is that just a gut reaction?

  16. George says:

    “Dense cities have been shown time and time again to be better for the global environment because of efficiency. ”

    Yea, thank goodness they can outsource those little things like:

    1) where to source water from
    2) where to get fresh veggies and fruit from – (yea, those trucks that have to ship everything in, especially the last mile) and get stuck in traffic idling don’t harm the environment)
    3) where to get their energy from to support the extra energy consumed by the inhabitants (denser cities require far more cooling and electrical power than where your mother lives)
    4) where to get the municipal workers from who often have to long haul it whether by car or public transport since they can’t afford to live where we do
    5) where to dump all the garbage – certainly not within the town limits

    An interesting side note about many of the studies that tout public transportation – they often assume a much higher usage rate than actually exists. Much of the supposed environmental benefit goes out the window if real usage rates are accounted for.

    I live in a dense city and love it. But we need to get over ourselves and stop the virtue signaling and pretending that our way of life is somehow superior to others. Its not and all we’re doing is perpetuating the us vs. them attitude that is way to prevalent in our culture these days.

  17. George says:

    Elitist snobbery that is couched in some “higher purpose” is still elitist snobbery but its proponent is too ashamed to admit it. At least be brave enough to admit the elitism.

    I live in a place populated by people who eagerly look down on the McMansion set while insuring their beautiful old homes that have often been renovated at tremendous cost are surrounded by vast expanses of turf grass which are perfectly manicured by illegal immigrants who work off the books and will use any chemical to keep away the slightest evidence of a weed.

    Our town has an enviable walkable score but we outlawed the city dump and now ship our garbage out to other communities to do away with. Because we often have brutal winters and very humid summers, the only people often seen on the walkable sidewalks outside of the 15 blocks that make up the town center are the immigrants who work inside and outside our houses since they often can’t afford the cars we use in the 6 months of the year where people would rather be off the ice or in the AC. And those immigrants often have a 1-2 hour daily commute each way since we don’t want to have ugly high rises and wont allow building through land use regulations which also serves to keep our housing prices and rents unaffordable but for the select few. The high housing prices also keeps out the riff-raff like the police and firepeople and other municipal workers who have to live outside the city in the (shudder) mcmansion suburbs that people like Kate Wagner make fun of. Of course, when you can spend your time getting a masters in acoustics, I guess there is a lot of spare time to be snarky.

  18. […] The Landscapes of McMansion Hell originally appeared on Garden Rant on December 30, 2016. […]

  19. skr says:

    Dense cities have been shown time and time again to be better for the global environment because of efficiency. It’s not simply a matter of walking places but the distance between places, greater use of public transportation, efficient delivery of goods by rail instead of long haul truck to centralized locations that service large populations, and land-use per capita. Converting wilderness to any sort of use is insanely environmentally destructive. The less land you occupy, the more land there is that can be reverted to a less disturbed state. So for instance where my mother lives the average lot size is about an acre with a big boring monoculture lawn covering most of it and where I live, the densest metro area in the country, the average is just under an 1/8th acre with a tiny patch of monoculture lawn (thankfully drought is getting rid of those too).

  20. skr says:

    beer’s legit now with all the micro brews. more like sweet berry wine taste on a champagne budget.

  21. Laura Munoz says:

    I agree with most of Kate Wagner’s points, but it’s not just McMansions that are bad for the environment. Most homes–big or small–have large expanses of lawn (mono-culture) with ubiquitous foundation hedges and not much else. Non-McMansion yards aren’t always good for the environment either. I’m sure readers of GR already know this.

    Many of the large antique homes (old McMansions?) where I live use immigrant crews to maintain their yards, so it’s the same thing.

    I’d like to know–seriously–how more densely packed homes make the environment better. Is this because there are fewer roads? Use your car less? Contrary to the current walk-abie neighborhood trend, if you live in a southern state or aren’t in good physical shape, you may not walk or bike to the grocery store/work in a 100-degree summer even if your destination is only a block away.

    I can’t imagine living in tight quarters with my neighbor without much green space of my own. Would the green space we all give up be given over to parks? Would parks be environmentally better than individual yards?

    Most developers have profit in mind, whether they are installing McMansions or tract homes and most (my opinion) don’t care much about installing environmentally positive developments unless this somehow increases their profit.

  22. Tara Dillard says:

    Oh those darn cliches.

    Ain’t no hiding beer taste on a champagne budget. Excepting few of those mcmansions have a champagne budget for the landscape.

    They’ve burrowed into lipstick on a pig with faux champagne taste with wally world rotgut beer on sale.

    Thanks for sharing this new blog !!

    Garden & Be Well, XOT