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Are Big Houses Back In Lamorinda?

They went away for a while as we concentrated on "building smarter" and keeping our footprints small. But are McMansions poised for a comeback?

Is big back?

The massive trophy homes of the go-go-go Dot Com years seemed to all go away there for awhile - indoor volleyball courts and media rooms giving way to smaller "smart" homes the hip new "green" architects promised would prolong the life of the human species.

But as the financial sectors rebound a little and vast sums made during the boom years come out of shoe-boxes and bank vaults across the land, The Blessed Among Us know a devastated construction sector is eager for work and ready to build.

There's one going in at the end of quiet little cul de sac in Moraga and it's a Big 'un, the contractor apparently going to some lengths to stabilize a hillside behind the home. Nary a peep from the neighbors, whose own 60's-era ranchers are dwarfed and sheepish next to their magnificent new neighbor.

An architect friend calls the trend "Vulgaria," a build-it-to-the-property-lines mentality possibly meant to capture something of an owner's summer holiday to the Rhine or Tuscany, and built to impress.

Morley Safer and 60 Minutes examined the syndrome recently, traveling to Texas - the land of purse dogs, Ferraris, and the New American Palaces - to find out exactly why a family of three needs 40,000 square feet to live in.

An extremely nice Texas lady, purse dog in hand, showed Morley her bathroom - a three-story water closet that looked more like the bell tower for a Franciscan seminary than a West Texas pissoir.

Morley was agog (most journalists are happy if they have indoor plumbing), and he had to speak with the man of the house, a nice guy who said he patterned his abode after "that Versailles, that Versailles home."

"You mean, the Palace of Versailles," Morley pressed.

"Yes, that's right," said Texas' answer to Baron Philip De Rothschild.

People who build homes like this tend to cast naysayers as "envious" little people who would build one if they could, but I don't know. My dream is to have a nice parcel of land with a nice but manageable home built in the middle of it - a comfortable place where the land is appreciated and not the height of my ceilings.

But that's just me. What do you think, is big really better?

Slow down Lamorinda June 16, 2011 at 04:06 PM
and now the objective discussion about "taste" begins. We want our freedom but we dont want others to have theirs.
Amanda June 16, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Build what you like, but PLEASE put some limits on how long it takes. Our neighbors have been "building" their house for over SIX years. I am listening to their saw going RIGHT NOW!
Crowley June 16, 2011 at 04:25 PM
My family and I refer to that Lafayette house as "the hotel" (e.g., "Oh look the hotel is almost done!"). I am of two minds on this issue. I think people should be able to build the homes they want and can afford, but I also think the aesthetics of a community and environmental impact (e.g., securing hills, blocking views, ruining ridge lines, etc.) are very important considerations. Building a huge home that many around you consider an eyesore isn't the best way to become part of a community. I hope these builders will be planting some trees to help these mansions blend in with their surroundings.
Nancy Lee June 16, 2011 at 04:35 PM
It's a big issue. Land of the free for sure but when we're built to the limits and unable to support the population we have and those on the way, what happens then? This is just the start of the discussion and what better place than in the neighborhood where it is occurring? For the record, Lafayette has a couple of mega mansions coming there soon. If the "wealth rules, individual freedom prevaisl at any cost" argument trumps all, look for more to come. The question here, I believe, is *why?* Why are such massive homes necessary if not to showcase the owner's ability to finance them?
Eastofthehills June 16, 2011 at 04:41 PM
Realistically we don't "need" anything; we don't "need" to live in Lamorinda or drive german cars or shop at wholefoods. "Need" is a very flexible term; my "needs" can be your wants and vice versa.
X June 16, 2011 at 04:42 PM
Dang. The City of Lafayette nearly made me go to Design Review when all I wanted to do was change from two smaller size garage doors to one large garage door. Trying to use the two smaller size garage doors & texting at the same time was quite difficult. But having one big garage door makes parking & texting much easier to accomplish. I only avoided Design Review when I pointed out that nobody can see my garage so why would anyone care that I switched from two doors to one oversize door.
BV June 16, 2011 at 04:43 PM
I never realized how many envious people lived in Lamorinda! If you have the cash and the property go for it! Enjoy what you have earned!
Amanda June 16, 2011 at 04:50 PM
I actually do NEED to drive a Greman car, but I don't need a giant house. :)
Sara June 16, 2011 at 04:53 PM
There it is. I was waiting for the "envy" argument, as in "you little people are just envious of my ginormous house." Common sense and reason is getting as hard to find as a ruby in the $1 dollar aisle at Dollar Tree these days. I believe we'll be revisiting the issue in the years to come - when it is too late.
Chris Nicholson June 16, 2011 at 04:56 PM
@Nancy: You said "...when we're built to the limits and unable to support the population we have and those on the way, what happens then?" You think we're close to "full" in this country (or this region)? Not even close. We're 15 miles from SF. 75 years ago, SF and Berkeley were "full" and we were pasture. Drive 15 miles farther east and you will find pasture land (and lots of it). Fly from SFO to JFK and you will conclude that our country is essentially uninhabited.... I assume that all those who object to oversized homes are fully supportive of high-density condos in downtown Orinda, right?
Nancy Lee June 16, 2011 at 05:10 PM
Interesting leap in logic but no. Count me as one of those loonie lefties (actually I'm a chastened Republican) who believes in a smaller human footprint on the land. Sure, there's room to BUILD things further east of here, but will there be room to GROW things further east of here when the tract homes fill in to accommodate our rising population? Will the faux rock pillars and two story foyers matter to us then? I'm just hoping that someone will do something other than count on financial ill winds to stem the tide of our expansion. I don't think it will happen though because there are too many people who want their "freedom" to do what they want - buy the Hummer, build the GargantuHome, and spend our lives consuming like locusts. Pretty dark, huh? I'm off for a run!!
Chris Nicholson June 16, 2011 at 05:22 PM
Was my logical leap flawed? I assume you live in a small apartment, don't own a car and are walking distance from work, shopping and public transit, right? If by "grow," you mean food, we have plenty of that too--- and plenty of water/sun/land to basically grow as much as we want. Is it wrong to want to be more productive? Is it wrong to consume more if you produce more? Is it wrong to spend an extra $1M on a bigger/better primary home versus buy a second home in Tahoe?
BB June 16, 2011 at 05:58 PM
I don't have a problem with big homes, but if you are going to build it - please make it nice and not tacky looking, blend it in with the neighborhood and surroundings and not make reit eyeso, and for god's sake, please use some common sense - just because you could doesn't mean you should!
BB June 16, 2011 at 06:00 PM
It's all about keeping up with the Joneses in Lamorinda.
Nancy Lee June 16, 2011 at 06:37 PM
@Chris Whew! I'm back and ready to rumble! ;-) Actually I enjoy your posts though I suspect some of them are there to get people riled. The logic leap to me was your assertion that if people like me can't get behind Godzilla Homes then we must be for high-density condos in downtown Orinda, etc. I found that a leap. I am against traffic, congestion, "stacked" housing, silly catch phrases used to describe the latest government pet project and senseless consumption of land, earthly goods, and each other. I was struck by the photo of this particular house, though there are others far worse. All those windows looking down on the neighbors bedrooms, living space. I'm surprised no one objected but not everyone is cut out for that sort of conflict. They're not like us Chris!!
Stacey J. Weinberger June 16, 2011 at 06:48 PM
Ironically I saw this article in the Huffington Post today: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-schwab/downsizinga-thousand-squa_b_873587.html
Chris Nicholson June 16, 2011 at 07:50 PM
Funny. Who knew that a 5,000 square foot home for a family of five is considered "Green" by Sierra Club? Maybe those guys aren't so radical after all.
Chris Nicholson June 16, 2011 at 08:06 PM
Someone has to rile up the people. I do find it ironic that you (and others I am sure) object BOTH to low-density (few people per acre) AND to high-density. I still struggle for a consistent framework that would allow for both conclusions (other than "maintain the status quo in order to protect our semi rural charm"-- which presumably now includes a charming retain ghost town). I agree that it is odd that the big house got built without objections--- perhaps a brief pause in the erosion of individual property rights.
CJ June 16, 2011 at 08:15 PM
Chris- I agree with everything you've said on this subject no need to repeat it. Isn't it funny how those crying the "sky is falling" the loudest seem to ignore all their own warnings when it comes to themselves. Al Gore is probably the biggest blowhard of all in this area yet in addition to his well documented massive mansion in Nashville which is 10,000 SF and has power bills that are 20x the national average, also has just built this home in Socal. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/17/photos-al-goree-new-8875_n_579286.html#s91230 He travels to this house weekly on his personal Gulfstream Jet. Interesting. BTW- Where does all this nonsense about the world or US being full come from? I think these peopple who state this stuff need to go for a drive sometime to something other than the mall.......or La Boulange.
Ric Hattabaugh June 16, 2011 at 10:46 PM
That's a house? I thought we were getting a Four Seasons Resort. Does this mean I can't use the pool?
Eileen June 17, 2011 at 01:22 AM
Every municipality has the right to shape its character by creating distinct residential, commercial and industrial zones - and within a city, establishing different regulations regarding high v. low density residential (or light v. heavy industrial) and then defining "maximum" footprints in those sub-zones for any given lot size. Thus, I don't think anyone in Orinda arguing "for" higher-density residential housing in downtown while bemoaning out-of-scale houses in low-density areas are being hypocritical. I've passed this construction sight off Rheem Blvd many, many times over the past year or so, and am still surprised that it either met the standard Moraga zoning regs or got permits after whatever design review process the owners went through. It must have and we can debate whether it should have. (After all, you have several 5,000+ sq ft homes at the end of Camino Pablo and in Bollinger Canyon already.) My reaction is different - I pity the owner's stupidity at spending some large sum on a house that is so very out of character for its neighborhood. S/he will have difficulty re-selling it at some point down the road, IMO. Any buyer wanting that large a house will be looking to live in a neighborhood of similarly-sized and -appointed homes in Lamorinda. This house sticks out like a sore thumb where it is. (And when I first spied it, I assumed it was another assisted-living facility or retirement home, oops.)
Chris Nicholson June 17, 2011 at 01:40 AM
I hear you, but the objection was to "largeness" as such (with a sneering accusation of conspicuous consumption thrown in for seasoning), not zoning. I think it is hypocritical to live in a $1M 2750 sq ft (or whatever "average" is around here) house (huge and extravagant by global standards) and gripe about 5,000+ sqft homes (on grounds that they are an inefficient and needless use of scarce land and resources--- and are likely vanity pieced) while simultaneously objecting to cheaper/smaller/greener high-density units that are unquestionably "better" than the objector's presumed current home on all the metrics used by them to condemn the McMansion. As an aside, I agree that the home in question is a monstrosity and, if I were on the design review board, I would require trees to hide it / blend it in to background more. I would not, however, block it due to size or cost.
Eileen June 17, 2011 at 01:45 AM
There are really two directions in which we, in the western US, could go over the next century: (1) Continue with the "suburban sprawl" model we've been operating on since the mass production of reasonably-priced personal autos, until every square inch of the west is covered. (As growth in China, India, etc raises demand for oil, our gas prices will rise and thus, for this model to make sense long-term, either we'll have to absorb higher commuting costs or develop much more fuel-efficient autos. Hopefully, we can do the latter.) (2) Follow the lead of earlier industrializers on the east coast of the US (think NYC, Boston) or in Europe, by getting comfortable with greater density (in our cities but also our suburbs too). I've lived both and am aware of the trade-offs and am not advocating one over the other. However, I'll assert, that pretending that we don't have some choices to make is unrealistic. Regardless of our density destiny, prior Patch posters' points about the limits of our global ability to provide the food for an ever-growing global population have merit. Read this interesting piece for more info: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/25/the_new_geopolitics_of_food
Chris Nicholson June 17, 2011 at 02:00 AM
@Eileen: Stop thinking globally. Most Americans spend more on their car payments than on food. We are not a subsistence economy. If you worry about grain prices, perhaps we should stop the insanity of converting it into ethanol (even Al Gore is now saying "oops, that was dumb."). Food policy/prices has nothing to do with population density in the U.S. If you worry about global hunger, educate third world nations that GMO food won't harm them, bring back DDT, and focus on getting rid of tyrannical leaders who ration food as a means of political/military power. There, I just saved millions of lives/year. Now, I'd please like McMansion in the hills and condo downtown in case my wife kicks me out.
Eileen June 17, 2011 at 02:26 AM
@ Chris. Thinking globally is complicated, but I think you're up to the task. And, yes, food policy/price is not correlated with density (but of course is correlated with pop levels). First, let's stop thinking about the rising middle class in India and China as living at a "subsistence" level. We're beyond that now. They want to eat meat for dinner too. Over time, the prices we'll face at - name your grocery market - for rib eye steak or bacon or chicken eggs or milk - will rise substantially. Second, by all means, let's end ethanol subsidies. Let's go further and rationalize our federal ag subsidy programs. It kills me that we ca. 37 million Californians have the same number of senators as do the 3 million residents of Iowa. THIS is why our agro-economy is so distorted. (But, before we get too smug, let's remember that farmers in Japan, Switzerland and the European Union have even more political power than do our own, and ensure that food markets in those countries are even more distorted.)
Lafayette Curmudgeon June 17, 2011 at 02:30 AM
Chris, I'm surprised at you here. Design review for design (not for set back or zoning) is offensive to the First Amendment. If naked dancing is protected speech (and it is), architecture certainly is. As long as it's not above broadly applicable size and setbacks, it should be no matter whatsoever whether a person builds a Tudor or a Craftsman or an Eichler or a shotgun shack or a Yurok longhouse.
Chris Nicholson June 17, 2011 at 06:12 AM
Speech conduct, I guess. I don't know if it is an implied reciprocal negative covenant or some other theory, but I think it is reasonable to prevent people from building outlandish homes in residential areas that are intended to be somewhat consistent.
CJ June 17, 2011 at 03:02 PM
I believe any size discussion is determined by the city's code that specifically spells out the allowed building footprint and SF /vs O/A property SF. Maybe the lot is sized in such a way that it allows a much larger SF even though much of the site SF is not obvious as it is on a slope or not being developed. In order to get approval for obvious violations of these codes, you would need variances that create quite a stir(i.e. public hearings). That said the house is certainly shocking in it's placement. I certainly would have wanted a more private setting for something so audacious. If just for security considerations.
Zoe Claire June 19, 2011 at 05:16 PM
I don't think it was mentioned here but some people seem to think having one of these monsters in your neighborhood is actually GOOD for property values. Uh, no. I was surprised to see the house pictured in the Patch as I had heard about it for some time. Do a little digging and you'll see that a neighbor who tried to sell as it was being built TOOK A BATH when potential buyers realized what was going in next door.
Chris Nicholson June 19, 2011 at 06:01 PM
I assume most of this was due to construction hassles and NOT simply being in a neighborhood with large/huge homes. In this buyer's market, who would want to buy a house knowing that you are signing up for a few years of noise/dust/sketchy workers? Thereafter, other than the next-door neighbor (whose house might be mistaken as a guard's shack if it is a 50's original), I think property values would go up as people build newer/bigger/pricier homes in your neighborhood. I say "bring it on." I do wish construction could be faster, however.

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