April 21, 2011 by: Ben Heimsath


Just over five years ago, the Austin City Council took emergency action to create the McMansion ordinance, a sweeping new set of regulations governing single family and duplex construction.  I was concerned that homeowners would be subject to unprecedented complexity so I wrote a critique in the Good Life Magazine to share my misgivings.  I won't repeat the issues here, but the article takes a comprehensive look at what's wrong with the McMansion approach. McMansion Eyebeam Cartoon

Looking back at my prescient concerns, every one of them is still valid.  As an architect and activist, I believe strongly in neighborhood preservation, but as I stated back then, the ordinance is too restrictive.  The McMansion ordinance and its related rules still are an excessive and expensive burden.  They have become a disincentive for reasonable investment in our neighborhoods.

My purpose here is not to re-hash the past, but to expand on the earlier McMansion critique in a positive way.  What can be built under these laws?  How do other City ordinances make it better or worse?  What is the impact of the rules the City uses?  I believe McMansion can and should be refined and simplified so there can be realistic controls on residential construction without the wasteful and excessive red tape.

With this post, we're initiating a series of McMansion studies to answer these questions and to illustrate the potential for "fixing" the ordinance.  We're looking at a range of ideas, from ways to creatively shape family spaces to designing on sloped lots.  Feel free to add any suggestions or submit questions - we'll see if they can be included.

Ultimately, the goal should be reasonable laws that are understandable and enforceable.  Regular homeowners shouldn't be subject to the same red tape as a multi-million dollar commercial builder.  As I concluded in my 2006 article:

"Family homes and residences should be the easiest to build and renovate, to encourage new growth and investment.  A family trying to add a new kitchen should not have to worry about the same bureaucracy as a large downtown developer.  For this reason, the City Council should carefully analyze the full ramifications of this ordinance, and make sure that any new ordinances are easy to interpret and enforce."

Codes & Permitting