Debunking LA’s Urban Legend: “Green” McMansions

WHERE WE LIVE - New York might have alligators roaming its sewer system, but LA can now boast of its own urban legend: “green” McMansions.  Yes, that’s right; in Los Angeles, McMansions, those boxy, oversized, energy-demanding suburban houses plopped into the middle of older neighborhoods are officially considered to be sustainable development.

How could this be?  After all, McMansions require huge amounts of energy to assemble their building materials and move them to job site.  Furthermore, the houses themselves are massive, which means enormous heating and air conditioning bills, even if their windows are double-paned, their walls padded with extra insulation, and their restaurant-sized refrigerators and stoves Energy Star rated.  

Then we need to consider their multiple bathrooms and heated outdoor pools and spas, the most energy intensive features of modern houses.  

Other McMansion features also have their detrimental environmental effects.  During demolition they release dust and asbestos into the air.  After construction, their large patios, pools, spas, and double driveways reduce natural open space.  Combined with their elimination of parkway trees and landscaping for driveway cuts, the cumulative result is a heat island with less penetration of rainwater.

Last, but certainly not least, we need to factor in their transportation system.  All McMansions are built on single-family residential lots located away from bus stops and transit stations.  This is why McMansion residents rely on their cars to get around; the only difference being that most of their vehicles are large, thirsty SUVs.

Given this environmental profile, some advanced jurisdictions, like Marin County, require a full energy audit of all new houses larger than 3,500 square feet.  Many other cities, like West Hollywood, simply restrict the size of R-1 homes to prevent McMansions.


But, certainly not in Los Angeles where the treatment of McMansions has raced in the opposite direction.  Our city government offers a “green” incentive to contractors so they can super-size their McMansions.  Finally, all this is done through a misnamed ordinance, the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance.  It purports to stop mansionization, but, in fact, does exactly the opposite.

Just like the Patriot Act, that curbs civil liberties, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, that stops the regulation of derivatives, and the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011 that bars the EPA from regulating soot, the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance -- despite it name -- is deliberately filled with enough exemptions and bonuses to permit McMansions to still be built by-right in most of Los Angeles.  

Since 2008, after two years of detailed research and preparation by the Department of City Planning, public hearings and adoption by the City Council, and then signed by Mayor, mansionizers still have a free rein in most of Los Angeles.  This is why they are building McMansions at an accelerated rate as market conditions improve.

This fraud was deliberately and carefully crafted as follows:  Unlike large lots, the 77 percent of the LA’s single-family lots zoned R-1 grant homes have a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of .5.  This means that in Los Angeles houses built on a typical 6000 square foot R-1 lot begin at 3000 square feet, already a thousand square feet larger than the average R-1 home.  Then, if the contractor adds such green features as extra insulation, double-paned windows, and new appliances, they get an additional 600 square feet through a 20 percent “green” LEED bonus, for a total of 3,600 square feet.  

After that, the McMansions' attached garages, which are often surreptitiously used as play rooms or storage, are exempted for an additional 400 square feet.  This increases the McMansion total to 4,000 square feet.  Next are the exemptions for high entryways and semi-enclosed decks and balconies.  They legally raise the total to 4,350 square feet.  In some cases slip-shod plan check and inspections appear to allow even more massive structures.

Voila.  These tricks result in the same McMansions that were built before the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance was prepared and adopted under the pretense that it would stop McMansions.

How easy would it be fix this fraud?  The answer is that it is simple.  A minor amendment to the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance would stop mansionization in its tracks.  If R-1 lots were treated like large lots, and their by-right FAR became .35, most of the work would be done.  

To put some frosting on the cake, if the exemptions and bonuses, especially the “green” bonus or the garage exemption, which are spurious to begin with, were ratcheted down to 900 square feet, McMansions would then be limited to 3000 square feet.  This is the size of the largest existing homes in most R-1 neighborhoods.  

But the real questions are not technical because municipalities all across the United States have devised many effective legislative and administrative procedures to stop mansionization, such as design and environmental review.

In Los Angeles, the real question is political.  Do we have any elected officials who are willing to show leadership and prevent vast swaths of Los Angeles’s residential neighborhoods from being quickly wrecked by speculators bulldozing charming older homes and then building and flipping McMansions?  

(Dick Platkin is a city planning consultant who teaches sustainable city planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy.  He is a CityWatch contributor and can be reached at

Vol 10 Issue 79
Pub: Oct 2, 2012