McMansion Ordinances/Overlay Zones Limiting Square Footage

« Back to initiatives

Austin, Texas and Los Angeles, California are working to preserve the character of their older neighborhoods using “McMansion” ordinances that also may have positive implications for sustainable consumption. Applied as an overlay zone, these ordinances use a combination of Floor Area Ratios (FARs), maximum gross square footage, building height limits, setbacks and other design standards to help limit new construction, remodels and additions to sizes that are compatible in scale and bulk with existing neighborhoods.

In Austin, the McMansion Ordinance (or Residential Design and Compatibility Standards Area) now covers the vast majority of neighborhoods within the city limits. In Los Angeles, an interim McMansion Ordinance (or Neighborhood Conservation Interim Control Ordinance) covers 20 neighborhoods but is set to expire in 2017, while updates to a permanent ordinance are being crafted. (In 2008, a similar ordinance was passed but loopholes in the code made it ineffective.) The Los Angeles ordinance also includes a moratorium on building and demolition in historic districts.

The City of Austin produced the training presentation to explain how each element of the ordinance plays out spatially.

Examples of McMansions

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

By limiting the size of new construction, remodels and additions, McMansion ordinances help to advance sustainable consumption in the following ways:

  • Smaller-sized units require fewer materials to build and lower consumption of utilities like water, gas, and electricity than traditional single-family homes or condominiums. (Source) Smaller homes also require fewer materials to construct. As a result, small homes produce fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than larger homes.

  • Smaller-sized dwellings create a cap on the amount of material goods that residents can fit into their homes, encouraging them to acquire fewer possessions and share tools, equipment and other material goods.

  • Preserving and using existing dwellings requires fewer materials for maintenance or renovation than new construction.

  • By limiting home sizes, property values do not rapidly increase, and potential gentrification is staved off.

Potential City Roles

  • Support & Educate—Provide easily understood guidance and technical assistance regarding the ordinance to homeowners, builders and developers.

  • Make Policy Adjustments—Develop an ordinance specifically calling out maximum building sizes for housing. These maximum sizes can be fixed or relative, e.g., no more than X percent larger than the average of other houses on the same street.

Implementation Challenges and Potential Solutions

  • Pushback from developers, building trades and professions, and homeowners—This type of ordinance is almost certainly going to stir up fear and controversy. Two common arguments against McMansion ordinances have to do with suburban sprawl and home values. The sprawl argument alleges that newcomers or existing home owners will move to suburbs to find homes that better suit their needs. Others claim that property values drop or stagnate when additions are limited in size or prohibited. And, in areas where land value is very high, it does make financial sense to build a larger house.

    It is important to introduce and maintain a strong marketing campaign that explains ordinance benefits and to prepare clear, readily understandable responses to common questions and concerns. Finally, it’s important to engage community members who will benefit from stability in property and home prices as well as the preservation of their neighborhood’s character to provide support as proposals are rolled out.

  • Unintended loopholes in code can diminish or even completely destroy the efficacy of these ordinances. Loopholes to watch out for include:

    • Excluding garages, balconies or other unconditioned space in floor area calculations;

    • Exemptions or bonuses for elements such as green building materials, building massing proportions and design elements; and

    • Exemptions for double volume (height) rooms.

Further Resources