McMansion Meets SoHo

Suburbanites’ penchant for urban lofts.

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The dining area of the NAHB “New American Home”

Every year the National Association of Home Builders puts on the International Builders’ Show. It’s a lavish affair. Thousands attend; millions are spent. The NAHB even builds a ready-to-own showcase house called the “New American Home” to highlight the latest styles and technologies. To make sure the house sells afterward, the designers usually stick to conventional, suburbanite-friendly architectural styles, often a riff on the Sun Belt villa. But at the 2004 show in Las Vegas this January, they broke with convention in a big way. They built a loft.

Or, to be more accurate, they built a “loft-inspired detached single-family home.” A curious hybrid of McMansion and SoHo, the interior looks like the typical converted downtown loft, complete with an open floor plan, buffed concrete floors, high ceilings, and lots of shiny steel fixtures. But it is also surrounded by a small but immaculate yard, ensconced in a gated section of a suburban development. It was an enormous hit with attendees, and it sold two days after it was listed for the full asking price of $1.9 million.

Ironworks Lofts’ “Cannery” design

It’s not the only loft-style home to go quickly. Such houses—many of them apartments, but a growing number of them detached, suburban piles—are an increasingly common sight in America’s suburban landscape, particularly in the West. One development outside Denver, the Ironworks Lofts, offers five “loft-inspired” models—detached faux-warehouses with urban monikers like the Ballpark, the Steam Plant, and the Cannery; the architect says that requests to buy the plans have been rolling in from across the country. And while some developers cheat and call something a loft simply because it has a high ceiling, most immerse their creations in factory grit: roll-up garage doors, exposed ductwork, brick or cinder block walls, caged floodlights. “The more industrial the better,” says Marta Borsanyi, a housing industry consultant.

It’s easy to see why the image of the industrial loft is gaining such currency in the suburbs. Today’s downtown, drained of both its economic rationale and its once-fearful crime rates, has become a playground for suburbanite visitors. Gone are the muggers and dirty streets; the average American downtown now boasts colorful sports venues, multiplexes, and theme restaurants. Downtown’s media image has improved as well—think of New York circa Cagney and Lacey; now think of New York circa Carrie Bradshaw. The same is true, to varying degrees, in cities across the country. Nevertheless, the suburbs still win out over the city as a place to raise a family, because downtown still lacks the amenities that most Americans crave, such as good schools, convenient big-box stores, and, most importantly, a sense of personal space all but impossible in the big city.

Interior of an Ironworks loft

Hence, a dilemma: You want a more urban experience, but you don’t want to give up your suburban trappings. The answer? A house in the suburbs that looks like it belongs in the city. Exposed brick! Floor-to-ceiling windows! A mezzanine bedroom! And just look how much space! Why, it’s just like the place we always wanted in college!

As the venerable architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable notes in her 1997 book The Unreal America, the defining characteristic of postwar suburban architecture is its willingness to build illusory worlds out of disparate styles and symbols. Restaurants shaped like castles, homes like ranches, shopping strips like New England towns—illusion trumps reality every time. It takes a lot of guts to see social, historical, and cultural forms as little more than stylistic grab bags, but that’s what the suburbs are all about. And nowhere is this more so than in the suburban home. It is, as Huxtable writes, “the first vernacular building conceived apart from a received tradition, the first to break free from historical precedent to invent its own past. Divorced from the tradition it misappropriates, it has also become disconnected from all that is essential to the complex act of making an environment.”

The bedroom/office of the NAHB “New American Home”

Freed from tradition, the postwar American house confronted another, seemingly contradictory impetus: sameness. By the 1950s the housing industry had matured to the point where it could dictate, more or less, the styles of housing it built, and in order to limit expenses kept a lid on the range of design options available; at the same time, it had to offer the illusion of difference to attract buyers. Thus, the convergence of suburbanite fantasy and industrial housing economics gave birth to an array of “neo-eclectic” styles—neo-tudor, neo-Mediterranean, neo-neoclassical—each speaking to a certain type of consumer, each offering a pre-packaged lifestyle. (For an excellent taxonomy of the postwar home, I recommend checking out Virginia and Lee McAlester’s encyclopedic A Field Guide to American Houses.) Fancy yourself an Anglophile? Then consider the neo-Tudor. Want to be greeted by shades of Monticello when you come home from work? Neo-neoclassical is for you. Each, of course, is divorced from the rigors of the actual styles they mimic—rare is the modern neoclassical home that in any way conforms to the tight geometries that motivated Jefferson or Palladio. But it’s the impression, not the precision, that counts.

Another Ironworks exterior

The “loft look” is no different. What began with something authentic, the converted downtown loft, has been slowly diluted into little more than a few symbolic, superficial elements. The 1990s saw a proliferation of suburban loft apartments, many of which sprouted atop shopping strips to give an area more of a cosmopolitan feel. Houston’s Galleria shopping suburb, for example, sports a loft development called “The Manhattan,” which, according to its developers, is “reminiscent of the historic buildings that flanked New York City’s Fifth and Park Avenues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” complete with gargoyles. Other Houston-area developments carry titles like “The Metropolis,” “The Renoir,” and “The Gotham.” The form and aesthetic have separated, as the suburban imperatives—a yard, private garage, and so on—clash with the desire for a more cosmopolitan living arrangement. A new look is born. Welcome to the McLoft.