McMansions: Unsustainable Housing Meets Unsustainable Finance

A hillside of unsustainable homes - how many are in foreclosure?The “sub-prime meltdown” hit me personally when my bank calmly informed me one day last fall that they had ceased to be, and, due to the bank’s apparent policy of making questionable loans that were simply unsustainable for too many borrowers, had become insolvent  and thus had gone into receivership by another bank.

With news today of a 306 point drop in the Dow precipitated by $16 billion in mortgage related “write downs” for a net quarterly loss of $9.8 billion coming on the heels of an $18 billion dollar write down with another $9.83 billion loss posted for Citigroup’s fourth quarter, the impact of the sub-prime mortgage spree is clear and pervasive.

At the other end of this scenario are the homes going up for foreclosure. A recent report by Matthew Yglesias of the Atlantic Monthly describes the areas hardest hit by the sub-prime collapse: subdivisions built on the edges of urban areas where once arable land is bulldozed to make way for over-sized, energy-intensive houses, with landscaping consisting grassy yards adorned with non-native species of trees and shrubs, the whole lot of it out of character with the natural surroundings and located so that most residents are forced to drive miles and miles to get to work, for too often there is no public transportation available. McMansions tucked cheek-by-jowl in some aspirational attempt to find the American Dream.

But is this the American Dream run amok, paid for with money people don’t have?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Reclaiming the Dream and Building for the Future

James Howard Kunstler is thought of by some as a profit of doom and by others as realistically prescient. Whatever angle you take away from his philosophy one thing is clear: according to Kunstler suburbia in America is unsustainable.  I read his book The Long Emergency last year and there is no doubt that Kunstler’s outlook is “sobering” (mildly put). While his views may be too pessimistic for many, he has some valid points, I believe, on how much of our built community and human landscapes have become unsustainable and undesirable. An interesting discussion regarding Kunstler, the “end of suburbia”, and our future energy economy is found at In any case, some may find his talk at the TED conference interesting.

Perhaps the silver lining in this dark cloud of the “McMansion Meltdown” is the impetus to do better – the real American Dream.


Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

6 responses

  1. McMansions are now found in the suburbs, but suburbs grew up without them. In fact the ‘burbs started with small houses and lots we’d call sustainable today … room for a garden, some fruit trees, maybe chickens.
    The problem with urban haters is that they want to make one particular lifestyle (everybody in an apartment) the rule. And then you’ve got to find a farmer’s market for those tomatoes.

  2. odograph… indeed. Apartments are not always the idea. Tradidtional suburbs are in fact quite excellent. What matters is some space for freedom, but still not relying 100% on the car. That’s the idea!

  3. Suburbs started with small house close to the city in neighborhoods that were often served by mass transit — remember the for-profit trolley systems that the anti-mass transit corporations bought and shut down?

  4. If you enjoyed this kick in the pants, it is worth checking into the book Eco Cities:Rebuilding American Cities in Balance with Nature by Richard Registar. He introduces a wonderful model for moving away from suburbia into sustainable communities.

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