COTE DE TEXAS: New Home Exteriors (I'll spare you the interiors)

New Home Exteriors (I'll spare you the interiors)

A few weeks ago I showed you some of my favorite houses in my neighborhood along the route I take each morning to Starbucks.  These houses  weren't my only favorites in West University, just the ones I drive by each day.  I could have shown you a lot more homes than I did.   Most, if not all, were new builds - stuccos mainly, French inspired, clean lined with beautiful windows.   The houses were as a whole very attractive, but be clear, not all the homes in my neighborhood are.    Lately, I've noticed a trend in the speculative new house market.  A trend where the builder plays architect and the house's curb appeal suffers immensely from this.

In my small world that I travel each day, I drive through a few different neighborhoods:  mine - West University; River Oaks - the best that Houston has to offer, classic homes, and gorgeous mansions  from the 30s and the 40s; and Bellaire, another small town nearby, encircled , like West U, completely by Houston.   And just like my small town, Bellaire has undergone a resurgence , fueled by young professionals moving in and tearing down the small ranch houses that once populated it.  Bellaire has large lots and more custom houses than West U does, giving it a diverse appearance and less of a Georgian cookie cutter look.   But lately, this diversity has come with a price.

Each year, Bellaire builders compete in a Showcase of Homes where they try to out build each other with more and better amenities, more square footage, more details, more windows - more of everything and anything to win the Best of Show.  The builder is the star here, architects are rarely if ever mentioned.  I don't blame them, I wouldn't want to claim one of these "show" houses myself.  Is it truly harder to design an attractive house?  Is it more difficult to design a home with inviting curb appeal?   I don't think so.  I think it actually must be harder to design one of these detailed overloaded showcase style houses.  Does anyone find these showcase homes attractive?  I know they do sell, but to whom?    Only to people with no design sense at all, or to people who believe that more is better?

Below are a few speculative homes on the market in Bellaire today.  Each is contrasted with a similar home in another neighborhood.   Make no mistake, these houses are creeping with increased frequency into every neighborhood at an alarming rate.   It's just that there seems to be an abundant crop of them in this particular neighborhood.




Spec House #1:   Stucco and stone, I'm not sure exactly what style this is.  Is it Mediterranean or French, contemporary or Tuscan?    Take your pick, there are elements here of each style.  The front loading garage is the focal point.  Can someone please explain the two windows lowered on the stone at the front of the garage?  Are they lowered for children or dogs to peer out of them?    And why are there two faux windows on each side of them?     I count  FIVE  lanterns on the garage alone.  The house itself is barely noticeable, it's so pushed to the back of the garage.  The front door is encased in a square stone facade, again, why?  Two turrets of different heights flank the front door.  The stone work is placed with no regard to design.   The left turret has a stone base, the right turret has a stone facade with bands of colored stucco at its base.  The windows are contemporary, while the house is not.  And why are there three faux windows with a small gable above the right turret on the second floor?   There is nothing, absolutely nothing attractive about this house.  If someone buys it, it will be a miracle.



Contrast Spec House #1 with this home.  Both are large stucco homes with front loading garages. This house is accented with brick instead of stone.  Notice how the garage is placed far back - so far back it is barely noticeable as opposed to House #1 where the garage is the focal point.   The windows above this garage are simple and balance out the arched drive through.  Here, windows flank the chimney in a symmetrically pleasing pattern.  The gable highlights the arched front door and the charming small window next to it.  This home has a cozy, European feel to it.  It's facade is simple without any superfluous detailing.  Which would you prefer?  Where would you be happier, here or House #1?




Spec House #2:  In Bellaire, many of the old houses have significant foundation problems caused by its shifting soil.  To remedy this, care must be taken with how the foundation is built.  Instead of going to the extra expense of adequate foundations, spec builders elevate the houses to avoid the soil problems.  But, since the garage doesn't need to be elevated, the houses become bi level.  Here, you can see the actual house is higher than the garage which causes a strange, uneven appearance to houses constructed this way.   Unfortunately, this way is becoming the norm in the spec housing market here.  This house, again, has a questionable style.  Is it Tuscan?  Again, there is no symmetry.   The two turrets are of different sizes. The plethora of windows are unsettling.  There is no rhythm to their placement.  Does any house need so many differently sized windows?   On the right turret a small window in encased in travertine for some reason.  Above it is a balcony leading to nowhere.  The color of the stucco is unappealing.  There's too much going on with this design, there's no obvious focal point.  It's actually an unpleasant experience for me looking at this home - it's over stimulating.  Is it unpleasant for you too?



By contrast this French styled home has a turret that is barely noticeable.  It serves as an accent rather than the in-your-face turrets of the above Bellaire houses.  The straight facade of this house is pleasing to the eye.  The creamy stucco lends an elegant appearance as opposed to the deep khaki colored stucco house #2.   Here the windows are simple and symmetrical.  There are no windows added that are not needed.  The wood shutters lend just a touch of texture to the smooth stucco.  The single lantern is more effective than a multitude of them.  This architect chose one style and stuck with it, therefore the house appears more honest in its design.  This house is beautiful and it's curb appeal is undeniable.



Spec House #3:   Is this a Beaux Arts styled home?  The house itself looks like an after thought stuck onto the prominent garage.  Rustic wood garage doors belong on another home, not this dressy stuccoed one.  While there is no real turret, the builder could not resist adding the top of a turret here.  It looks the top of a percolator coffeepot stuck on the roof, giving the home a comical appearance.  The windows are a mix of traditional and modern.  The three odd shaped windows to the left of the door are not lined up with each other.  The left one appears to be floating on its own.  The front stairs lead to the grass instead of a walkway.  And, lastly, the iron balconies are typical of showcase homes where the more swirled the wrought iron, the better.  I call this the Coffeepot House.



Similar to House #3, this is a far more beautiful version.   The turret is substantial, yet elegant due to the proper placement of its windows and its proportion to the rest of the house.  The top band of small windows are traditional in keeping with the style of house.  The large window above the garage balances the turret on the left.  The arches of the porte cochere repeat the arch of the front door. Elegant in its white stucco, with black framed windows, this home shows that a front loading garage, designed correctly, can actually be an asset.  I love the stuccoed fence creating a front courtyard.    Very pretty, very simple, less is more - indeed!



Spec House #4:  Stucco home  with, again, a mishmash of windows.  Instead of a tall turret, this builder settled for a short one.  This house could have been saved with a little architectural direction.  If the two balconies were the same instead of dissimilar, if they flanked the front door, instead of were side by side, there would be some symmetry to this house.  Instead, it's a mess.  Is it too much effort to design something with symmetry?  Is it easier to just stick windows wherever the builder wants rather than where they are needed?  Why would there be two balconies side by side that are different?  And please tell me what are those stucco squares on each side of the balcony above the garage?????




This home, similar to House #4, shows again, how pleasing white stucco is over  tan or muddy colored stucco.  Again, the windows are purposeful and simple.  Here the single balcony over the front window balances each other.  The iron railing is simple, not over designed.  The arched door is set inside a stucco arch with a single, effective lantern.  Gray painted wood detailing adds an accent touch keeping the house from being plain.  Again, simple elegance over excess wins every time.



Spec House #5:   This house is a total mess.    Again, I am not sure what style this is supposed to represent.   Any clues?    The white louvered garage door is a nice touch, which is totally wasted on this house.  And its  white color makes no sense - it appears unpainted.  Again, there is no symmetry to the window placement.  Look for instance at the unmatched windows on either side of the front door, second floor.  And why is there a cinderblock looking fence between the door and the garage?  What IS that?    Most confounding of all are the dark stuccoed shapes next to the front door and over the garage.  What are THOSE?  What are they supposed to do?  Add more detail, as if this mess needed more detail?



By contrast, this similar home in white stucco with gray wood trim, again highlights how important color choices are.  Simple elegance, again proving less is more.  Instead of stucco accents like on House #5, this architect placed a pergola atop the garage where vines will one day soften it.  The garage door is wooden and arched and mimics the arch of the front door and the front window.  The simple balcony over the garage is arched, it's iron railings are plain, yet pleasing to the eye.  Compare this balcony to the one above the garage of House #5.  Is there any comparison?  And again, it proves with the deft hand of a competent architect, a front loading garage doesn't have to be an eyesore.  Is it really harder to design something pretty?   I particularly like this home and can envision it filled with Belgian styled furniture painted in tones of grays and whites. 



Spec House #6:  Finally a style I recognize:  Country French.   This home has the potential to be passably attractive, but the details stop it short.  The stucco is a nice color and the stone is an authentic touch, but why would the builder put a section of stone over the right garage in a pie shape?  Mystifying.  Again, the turret is too much.  The windows in the turret are contemporary rather than traditional.  There are too many gables and roof pitches here.    So, while the house has some curb appeal, it's just too too much:  too many windows, too many gables, not enough symmetry, no obvious focal point.



By contrast, this is a country home well designed by an accomplished architect, Houstonian Kurt Aichler.    The windows are symmetrically placed.  The small charming window next to the front door is repeated above it.  The facade has a pleasing movement to it that allows the eye to move from one end to the next.   A brick section is on the left side, followed by a wood plank section, followed by another brick section, and ending with another wood plank section with a screened-in porch above it.  This house exudes country home charm.  Attention was placed to the smallest of detail without any overload.  Notice the charming fence to the left of house with its wooden gate.  Which country house do you prefer, the French styled spec house #6 or this one, designed by a thoughtful architect?




Spec House #7:  Close, but not quite enough to give this house curb appeal.  The builder added a third garage to this house, but no turret!  At least we can thank him for that!   But the garage to the right looks like an after thought, a tower with its own gable that is uneven.   Squeezed in next to the garage tower is a balcony that looks like it was added so that the builder could advertise:  "iron balcony!"  The other garage also has an uneven gable and an odd assortment of windows on the second floor.   The driveway is attractive, but the poorly thought out details overweigh what is good here.



By contrast, note how perfectly placed these gables on this French styled home are.  And also, note the straight roof line behind the right gable. This minor details gives the gables an appearance of depth.   Drawn perfectly by an architect and executed by the builder, the gables are meaningful and architecturally correct, not added just for effect.  Notice too, how perfectly the balcony fits over the front door.  It's delicate iron railing is beautiful.  The shape of the small arched window next to the front door is repeated in the larger front window.  Wood shutters are in light green - a nice touch against the white stucco.  Notice too this thoughtful detail:  the gables are white stucco while the straight facade behind the gables is a darker shade that further highlights the perception of depth in the gables.  A section of white stucco comes up a third of the way on the left side of the house.  This house is beautiful and elegant.  Not a single detail  or accent is wrong.  Notably this house underscores the importance an qualified architect plays in a house's design.  This is a lesson that builders who build just to compete in a Showcase need to learn and learn quickly before they destroy the beauty of our neighborhoods.


Things to ponder:   Do you live in a neighborhood or are you lucky enough to live in a house where architects  rather than builders played a significant role?  Is your house a builder's spec version or an architectural gem?  Is it really harder to design a beautiful house than an ugly one?   Do you agree that simplicity in a home's exterior is preferable to an abundance of details and windows?  Is less really more?


  1. I always wondered why I liked some house but hated others that seemed similar, now I know why, they are just missing something in the over all design. too much, too little, too what the heck is that? Thank you for pointing out the good, the bad and the ugly.

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  4. the garage in front of the house is my number 1 pet peeve. I've never been able to understand why anyone would want to showcase the GARAGE of all things?

    I definitely feel the people attracted to these homes want more bang for their buck. More space. More bells and whistles. I find so many young people leaving Houston proper to move into these homes and I often wonder if they really feel "settled" and "at home" in one of these houses? I know to each is their own. We moved from a suburban home like this into something 1/3 its size and I've never looked back. I love that my house isn't perfect...and I love that I didn't pick it from a lineup of 5 styles and watch it erect in 6 months. My house is custom because of what I've done to it, not because a builder told me so.

    But, again, I know so many people are at home in these houses. I'd love to hear their side of what draws them in! What do they see that we're missing out on?

  5. Thank you! Thank you! I have tried over and over to articulate this to people, many of whom think I am being "snobbish". The real thing is the "too much", the builder trying to capitalize on each of the styles currently in vogue, perhaps. House number 1 is so horrendous, I don't see how anyone could think it's attractive (I agree with your assessments of each). Let's just call it the "Toumouche" style and be done with it! Another wonderful, insightful post.
    Hugs, Cluny

  6. Joni, insightful as always. And speaking of builder spec homes, I watched in horror as many overdone houses went up in the Heights. I'm not a bungalow purist, but honestly, some of those houses hurt my eyes!

  7. I always wondered why the houses in Houston had that split level thing with the garage going on. Now I know. You found some very unattractive houses. Thank you for contrasting them with good looking ones!

  8. Should be required reading for every builder,city planner,et al,you put into words (and wonderful pictures) what the rest of us were thinking,but could not express it as well. You are the best...truly.

  9. I loved this post. You've really helped me pinpoint why some homes make my skin crawl. I really feel like I'll be better prepared to go house hunting now (someday). Thank you so much. I love your blog.


  10. Those are some huge monsters, you pin pointed all those flaws .
    I would love to have #2 or the last house , simple perfection, I hate all those garages, who needs all that , I suppose some do , not me.
    In this area the homes do not compare to anything you have shown our homes are meager at best , always built by builders with the only consideration the floor plan , curb appeal is obviously an after thought , and our neighbourhood is one of the more visually appealing builders .
    Lets chaulk it up to hard Canadain climates, we do get wonderful weather withstanding foundations and basements though.
    Thanks for sharing , I would love to see the interiors as well though, I love a good peek.
    Have a lovely day ,

  11. This post should be a slide show/lesson at the next builders meeting. I bet charming bungalows were destroyed for this mess. Too bad for the neighborhood. We don't see much of this on the east coast.Thank goodness!

  12. I have several thoughts:
    * It's drag-and-drop architecture. Windows from this selection, doors from this list, claddings from this list and features from that list. People want Palladian windows, but have no idea how they react to the other elements on the house. They want stone and stucco, but again, have no idea how to balance them. The builder wants to list every feature as a selling point, so he adds all of them.

    * It's all about the inside of the house. Buyers want great rooms, the bonus room (whatever stupid thing that is!), multiple bed and bathrooms and of course, a media room. To accommodate all of that, builders need to add more wings, turrets and sections. Soon, it becomes a big mess of disparate parts with no cohesive center. There are reasons that there are architectural classics – because the pieces fit together and they are pleasing to the eye and the mind. It’s all about immense square footage.

    * All of the money in the world does not buy you good taste. These houses may have every bell and whistle and cost the earth, but a small elegantly-designed shotgun house has more style on its front porch than these do in their overdone multiple square feet.

    Just my $.02!

  13. You would not believe what's going on around here. Family farms are being overrun by the McMansions. The houses you have showcased here look like garages compared to the extremes of square footage being built on former cornfields. The artchitecural styles are bastardized to the point that your head spins. I can't believe an architect is involved in this nonsense.

    Seriously, I need to take some photos and post them on my site.... or send them to you for review. HA. About 5 miles away are some homes that are so ostentatious it takes your breath away. Oh, and let's discuss the setting. These homes looked like a giant just dropped them out of the sky onto the farmland. There's no connection with the surroundings, no trees, nothing. Oh my, look what you started. HA.

    - Suzanne, the Farmer's Wife

  14. Joni- We have A LOT of these awful homes in Atlanta. I think the pseudo-Mediterranean/Spanish homes look just like a La Quinta Inn!

  15. Joni, as always you are right on target. You are so incredibly knowledgeable. I always learn so much from you! I want to echo many of the comments left on your blog...regarding the out of place feeling of these homes and the fact that they are so overdone. Ick! In my opinion the builders could learn a lot from you!

    Overdone is not the answer (do you think "they" ever get a clue???) Simple you're talking. ;)

  16. Very well said! I can not appreciate a garage in the front either. Nor do I care for a house that has too much going on. Thank you for your wonderfully written article. And I agree totally with Barbara. Who are these individuals who approve these designs for these neighborhoods? No taste whatsoever ...

  17. This is becoming increasingly apparent in many of the new homes in the Dallas area where I live. My husband and I have a joke that the builder goes to the warehouse and says what do we have a lot of? And then they slap a little stone, brick, and stucco on the same house. I used to love old Austin stone homes and the new fake has just about ruined that look for me.

  18. GOD!!!!!!! I am always "with you" on everything you say, but I am ESPECIALLY with you on this! THESE BUILDER STUPID HOMES MAKE ME CRAZY, and sad, for the death of the "charming home" is with us.AND, these huge,nouveau-riche homes are horrible environmentally! No one feels good in wonder so many people are on anti-depressants ...(in The Woodlands, one of our gynecologists has stated-many times- that Welbutrin needs to be piped in through the water supply!) I think a contributory factor to all of the depression is the preponderance of hideous houses...they most certainly are not "homes".GO JONI!!! PS Do you think these ghastly facades are beyond the reach of HGTV's "Curb Appeal"?

  19. Wonderful post, Joni! I recognize most of these homes from HAR. You're right. It seems Bellaire has experienced the worst of the McMansion epidemic. Huge, dare I say it, ugly houses on teeny, tiny lots.

    On the other hand, I absolutely love the 1st and 4th houses you posted. That is my favorite style right now.

  20. Love this post.. You are always so insightful. I work for several builders and been to many of the showcase homes...I am a true believer of less is more... The saying "They don't build them like they used to." is so true!!!

  21. Joni, This is my bete on the North Shore of Long Island, so many of the old estates( think 'Sabrina')have been knocked down for horrendous McMansions...Tacky, tacky, tacky.

  22. First, I love your blog! Always inspiring! Here in Scottsdale, Arizona too many neighborhoods suffer from this malady. If it's not rows of pale pink stucco with red tile roofs it's the Tuscan mansions with turret overload. I strongly agree with Suzanne, how about actually thinking about how the home fits into it's setting. As stunning as a home may be (or not be as in the case with some of the homes you have shown today), it should flow with the natural beauty around it and not compete with it. Oh, and here's a thought, how about not cramming the biggest McMansion you can come up with on your lot. Perhaps leave a little of the Sonoran Desert that brought you here in the first place!

    Sad that the majority of average home buyers have no real choice but to be stuck with the stamped out neighborhoods builders are putting out there.

    Joni, I am looking for inspiration for my interior. The best way I can describe it is "old Scottsdale or old California ranch or bungalow". Sorry, perhaps that is not a clear decorating style term. I come across such beautiful interiors, but ones that are not necessarily complimentary with the desert and the beautiful rugged boulder mountains that are my views. I would appreciate any pics or links you can direct my way!

    Thanks and keep up the great work!

  23. What a wonderful post! Here in the northeast, we have the McMansion problem, too, although not too much stucco and turrets which I have always thought of as (sorry about this) gigantic phallic symbols.

    What we DO have are colonials on steroids -- huge and ugly. They have inappropriate Palladian windows in odd places, and false brick or stone fronts. The rear facades are horrible -- a mish mash of different windows with no molding. Yuck!

    My pet peeve is the use of multiple stone and brick elements -- red brick on the facade, stacked fieldstone in the landscaping, concrete pavers in the driveway -- none of which are really indigenous to our area, except for the brick...

    Wow, you have really got me on my soapbox! Sorry for the rant...

  24. The problem is the size of these houses. I have been told by several architects that it's much easier to build a big house because there are no constraints, no limits. It's much harder to design a smaller, more reasonable house, because you truly have to think about the spaces. And why builders insist on erecting those hideous structures is beyond me. Why don't builders in Houston, say, go back in history and try to recreate some of the John Staub designs? That would be heaven.

  25. These spec homes are the reason there should be a design committee that approves new development. I am shocked that anyone would consider these homes to be acceptable. Unfortunately, I have seen huge developments in No. and So. Cal. with these types of homes. It's scary. Has taste and style become passe?

  26. Looking at your post I kept thinking that some of the builders in your area aren't yet out of the 80's. And about those ground level garages with the rest of the house raised? Try carrying in bags and bags of groceries up steps with an 8 month old. One of the main requirements for our recent move was that the kitchen and garage/driveway had to be on the same level. Not practical at all.

    Coming from the Northeast, I have to agree with Mary, what we have here are "colonials on steroids". And we just moved to a neighborhood FILLED with every architectural sin you can imagine. (Ours included, but fixable after we tackle the interior sins. You think fully carpeted bedrooms are bad? Try fully carpeted stairs that are the first thing you see on entering the front door.)

  27. You mentioned several times the poorly thought out placement of windows. It seems that, not only is the placement bad, but the builder has decided to highlight them with copious amounts of bulky, contrasting trim!! iich...

  28. Joni,
    I could not agree more. It sickens me to see fine old homes in River Oaks being torn down & replaced with all the pseudo Tuscan crap. It is taking the character away from some great old neighborhoods.

    I live in an older subdivision in Spring called Northampton which started in the late 60's. There are a number of Tudors with other style houses mixed in but not one house looks exactly like another. Ours is a double front porch plantation style, on the next corner is a Spanish style home done to perfection. My cousin from Ohio just visited & remarked on how nice it was to be in a neighborhood without cookie cutter homes.

    I was just in your neck of the woods admiring that country style house, should have known it was an Aichler. He never misses.

    We're building a new home in the new section of our neighborhood on a great lot with huge old trees. Unfortunately right next door is a brown stucco McMansion much like those in your post although its slightly smaller. We're torn between a French style house or traditional Southern porch house, for sure it won't be anything like those Bellaire monstrosities. The Woodlands is full of those too.

  29. Another proof, if it were needed, that $$$ doesn't buy taste. Some of these are what I call "nouveau riche roccoco". I feel sorry for the neighbors across the street. . . I used to live in Palo Alto where there has been a veritable massacre of lovely old homes to make room for horrid MacMansions. Very sad. Now I live in an established Portland neighborhood developed in the twenties filled with lovely craftsman houses. except mine, which is more ranch 1960 but has the advantage of being all on the same floor. It hides behind the garden so isn't too much of an eyesore.

  30. We have a word for those homes - "Track Mansions". And at the risk of offending anyone, Kickerillo is the WORSE offender in this catagory, stuffing every trendy amenity until it is confusing AND overwhelming, building HUGE houses on lots that cannot properly accommodate them "restfully", sacrificing tasteful symmetry for a plethora of arguing details both externally and internally ("Let's see how many pillars, archways, windows and moldings we can cram in this baby!").

    I live in a small community in south Katy, which is completely custom. I have been appalled by some of the homes that have been allowed to be built! We were about the 4th or 5th closing and up to that point had been extremely pleased by the diversity of design within the neighborhood.
    There was initially a mix of Texas Hill Country stone housing with what I call "Palm Beach" Mediterranean with a smattering of East Coast (or Enlish) style.

    Now we have some beheamouths that I like to (tongue-in-cheek) refer to as "nouveau riche" houses. My huz calls me an 'house snob' because I get upset about things like solar lighting instead of low-voltage path and up-lighting or over-ornamentation (particularly things like faux stained glass windows instead of proper window dressings).

    In a neighborhood like West U, I especially hate to see this happen since the area is so rich in history and style. It smacks of the '80s huge sleeves and really boils down to being "pretentious" - again, I'm sure I'll get flack for that. But that's how I see it.

    And I'm stuck with one of the ugliest houses in the 4 street area right across the street. I even had service people come to the door for an appointment ask me, "What's with THAT house?" (perhaps I should send it in to that HGTV show of the same name?) It literally looks like the builder got materials from Lumber Liquidators at a "going out of business" sale and crammed it all into one house. You can even see some sort of 2x4 bracing through the windows of the top floor - they didn't even black them out (which also makes me wonder about the structural integrity of the place if they needed to bolster the roof beams like that!)

    Okay, hope no one in my neighborhood figures out who I am....oh dear...but if you're going to spend $1m plus, at least hire someone with "an eye" to go with you, please!

  31. What a great post! The second house (the first of your examples of bad design) looks like what the Sopranos would live in if they were in Arizona instead of New Jersey. That house is just begging for some concrete lions out front!


  32. Hi Joni,
    I love the first house but don't recognize it. Where is it?

  33. We had the McMansion syndrome here in some of the suburbs for awhile, but I think most people figured out those are ugly. Now it seems people are building more charming cottage and english style houses and creating all new quaint neighborhoods with sidewalks and parks--more like the old days. Thank goodness it appears the overdone McMansion phase is over here in Portland.

    My least favorite design is the "faux brick or stone house" look. Where the stone is on the front and regular siding everywhere else. Like it is fooling us! The other faux pas I hate is shutters that do not fit the shape of the window.

    I need to add your posts to my next drive by. You get some good ones going on!

    Fun photos here today!

    Now, where are your creative concealments? Come on. Party pooper.

  34. Joni, I have to ask...How's the tree doing? Is it going to make it?

  35. I have been trying to define this trend in housing for so long! The bits and pieces of architectural accents are carried throughout each "trend" house, but some how some end up completely heinously tacky, and others absolutely wonderful, well designed, and decidely un-new looking. My frustration over the inability to explain this to someone who doesn't "get it" (clearly you do!) was only exacerbated recently on a trip to non other than Houston... I stayed in a BEAUTIFUL house in River Oaks but traveled to Bellaire to see family and noticed exactly the spec houses you mention. Thanks so much for putting all my thoughts into pictures and words so perfectly!!

  36. Last time we moved from one state to another it was a sellers market...which was great when we sold our home not so good when we got here and had to buy FAST! North Jersey is pretty built out ond not much was on the market so we bought an almost finished spec house built by a father & son act. They just had a blast picking anything they liked for the finish details making the house look like a mish mash of styles. I'm now trying to figure out where to start to get one look inside and out. Tomorrow I'll post some pics of the house and its many different styles.

  37. HI! Y'all have to be the best readers a blogger could have! Seriously!!!!! These comments are phenomenal. I'm loving each and every one. If you are an anon- I can't email and thank you - so know that I AM thankful! I've been laughing with you all day.
    And - just a fyi - I spent all day MOnday composing this, went to Starbucks around 6pk, came back and it was gone! I almost shot myself I was so upset. The first draft was better than this, but you seem to like it just ok. Blogging - it will make you crazy. Thanks again all of you - your comments make it all worthwhile.


  38. Moira: email me at


  39. I agree with Aesthetes comments, but also want to add that I think all these houses are out of proportion to their lot size. When I was last in Dallas, I remember magnificent landscaping in the better neighborhoods, with plenty of green space and large trees almost hiding the houses. I agree about your comments on proportions, balance and garages, but also think there has to be a relationship of scale between the house and the greens.

  40. Sally: it's a Southampton home - located probably in Afton Oaks, but I'm not positive.


  41. I loved this post- I laughed out loud at some of your comments on the spec is a wonder why people can't recognize bad design! The contrasting houses you posted are just GORGEOUS- can I move to Houston now please?

  42. LOVE this post Joni. Unfortunately Sydney isn't immune to this McMansion epidemic. There are plenty of new estates popping up around my historic area filled with oversized hideous homes on itty bitty blocks of land. It would seem noone wants a backyard anymore. You could literally stand at your kitchen and spit into your neighbours kitchen.

    My dream home would look like the last pic. Simply gorgeous! They just don't make homes like that down under. I need to be the first! lol

    Anna :)

  43. Argh! Those are hideous. They look like cheap knockoffs, to be honest. Love how you contrast with nicely planned/designed homes. Atlanta and Houston have a lot in common in this regard. Way too many new n'hoods in suburbia with wanna-be McMansions that look like they'll fall apart in 5 years. Some driveways in these new nhoods are so small only half a car length will fit in them... how sad is that?

  44. Anon: about my tree - it's the same, we keep thinking it's looking better, but it's not. just the same. hopefully next spring we'll know for sure?

    thanks for asking!


  45. Joni
    Loved this post! So on the money...
    Architectless houses are everywhere and more often than not quite hideous.
    It really shouldn't be so complicated to design something appealing - Keep it simple, functional and rhythmic - and there you have it!

  46. Joni. I don't always love what you love but I certainly always hate what you hate! This is an excellent and profoundly interesting post.

    It seems as though this "trend" of huge, ugly, crass houses is truly global in scale. Here in Toronto, sweet neighbourhoods are being razed to make room for mcMaisons.

    It would be fabulous if, some day, you had all your readers send in a few examples of the best/ worst examples of architecture/ building in our respective cities. Such a feast of international delicacies and putridness it would be...

  47. perfect examples of what is, in my opinion, a serious problem in most American cities. ugh. I need to send you a picture of this Italianate (?) monstrosity close to our house.

    you know what they say ... money can't buy taste.

  48. Joni, this is the best one yet. Have you considered comedy? You had me laughing the whole time!
    I just keep thinking about that floating window and the front door and steps leading into the grass, too funny! You're right, these homes are a joke.

  49. Joni -- Jennifer (Peak of Chic) articulated so well what I was going to say about Atlanta. And you know I'm a kindred spirit with you on the McMansion issue!

    Such a waste! You found some prime examples, as everyone else has already noted. It's like Barbie and Ken's house on steroids.

  50. And I thought San Antonio had a "lock" on over-done, completely obnoxious "Parade" homes. Thanks for the lesson. Much to think about. Now I am re-thinking some exterior color selects.

  51. oh, this was a funny post. I just love it when a "builder" in our area which = a ton of them decides to put one little window on the sides of a house. If you cannot afford the details or right proportions stick to a small cottage with all the details. Hate the huge "box" houses. Oh, my I could on and on!!! I liked the very first picture you posted. Simple, love the copper swoop and the welcoming facade and indeed it flows.
    Also, enjoyed the other french home with a simple turret and loved the lantern above the door.
    One thing I noticed--- the ones that are designed correctly, they also have the best landscaping. Boxwoods, etc. tidy ---simple and elegant!

  52. Wow!!!

    You have portrayed awesome information which was striving as a question in my mind for may years, thanks a tonne for sharing the info...


    Tuscany called and wants Texas (and elsewhere) to stop bastardizing their beautiful homes.

    Secondly, half the time I have been in these homes recently (this is all over Dallas and University and Highland Parks as well) the interiors fall far short of the expected details, if one IS going to choose this style. I was in one and the curved staircase was a builder faux-colonial spindled balistrade. The carpet was BERBER?? Do they still make Berber? The cabinets were builder grade oak from Home Depot and the countertops were formica. Yet, the french doors opened onto a courtyard and loggia with fireplace.
    Wouldn't you really rather build a more modest size home and lavish it in details? I would.

  54. well, i'm glad to know los angeles is not alone with this hideous trend, though thankfully i haven't seen anything as dreadful as spec homes 1 & 2 go up nearby (lately).

    my other pet peeve is when charming older homes have their windows replaced with single pane glass windows like the windows on those spec monstrosities. what's wrong with a good old fashioned casement or double hung window with real wood muntins?

    god, i'm looking again at spec house 1 - that stone block of an entry is the most oppressive and uninviting entry i think i've ever seen...

    really terrific (and horrifying) post!

  55. I'm catching up in the blog o'sphere -i LOVE this post -it's right up my alley as you know! You have great taste and I love all the things you point out. By the power vested in me, I'm making you an honorary architect! Your task, should you chose to accept it, is teach all the uneducated people who chose house #1 in all of these examples!

  56. How did I miss this post? I love the topic, especially since I am an armchair architect.

    I think that hiring a great architect is KEY to building a house. I would never never never buy a builder spec house, both because of design and quality concerns.

    These are the houses that will look dated in the not too distant future. I notice this all of the time in the Atlanta real estate market - the houses built in the 60s/70s/80s that are classic in style sell quite well; those that were built according to the trends languish on the market, and are usually tear-downs.

  57. My husband called over, "What are you laughing about?" I replied, "Spec House #1!" The laughing became therapuetic when I read your line, "Can someone please explain the two windows lowered on the stone at the front of the garage? Are they lowered for children or dogs to peer out of them?" Hysterical! Great post and thank you for the comic relief.

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  59. Like all the others, I am happy to see these sentiments articulated so clearly. We have the same problems in Austin in Pemberton and Tarrytown. You know, the Dilbeck houses in Dallas from the first half on the twentieth century had many elements, including turrets, but were scaled appropriately. They are real treasures. I have a monterrey revival house from 1940, but a very similar house down the street was torn down for a Kelly green McMansion with a promiment white mental fence. The board of adjustment(zoning) in Austin takes its orders from Mars. Who buys these? I am not sure taste is an issue of birthright. It could help to be taught a bit, but it's not sure thing.

    These MacMansions will be tear-downs in 20 years or sooner, particularly because their windows are completely exposed to the weather. Those houses will not be worth remodeling compared to a nice house that you could gut and add on to.

    Thank you very much for the nice blog.

  60. I agree with much of your post, but in fairness to the builders on one item: The City of Bellaire now REQUIRES that houses be built with the split-level foundation. The purpose is to allow better drainage of the lot (and potentially less flooding of houses!).

  61. Anon- thanks for the comment! Are you saying that ALL houses in Bellaire have to be built up over the ground now? Is that required? Even with a properly engineered foundation? If so, then all the more reason for builders to stop adding all the doo dads - the extra windows, the gables, the turrets, the CRAP! A cleaner facade would make the spilt level less obvious.

    Thank you so much for your informative comment!

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  63. great post! i can't get some pictures to load, but i get it. bellaire is over built with bad houses. the builders rule houston, architects & designers need to take back the design. the public needs educated for sure that builders do not know design and design is important.


  64. Joni, right on the money again.

    I have a very hard time working with contractors who just do the same big Weston Hotel floor plan over and over. You we all know it is cheaper to build up! But what a hot mess they have become.

    You see these hetero/men in showrooms and box stores just picking items for a home that they have no clue what they are doing. I want to slap them and just take over!

    When was the last time you saw a builder looking at an Elle Decor, Traditional Home or even a basic shelter magazine?

    Most have very little knowledge of furniture, placement or scale. How are these people going to heat and cool these huge monsters?

    Today you can buy a $1 + Million dollar home and not have a FLOOR plug in the living room for good lord's sake? What, you stage the room like they do in Saudi Arabia with the furniture lining the walls?

    I try to get a floor plan from a GAY architect and stand on the necks of most of these idiot builder as they are doing the job. Don't let them make any decisions! They eventually hate me on the job site but at least the house has some bones and character.

    These houses should be outlawed..cities worry so much about zoning and then we are stuck with these horrible monstrosities for years. The worst of them ruin the neighborhood and look totally ridiculous!

    Enough said!

  65. there are many New Home Exteriors. very good looking in pictures....

  66. joni, i came across your blog and LOVE this post. we are kindred souls, albeit critical, or passionate, depending on who you ask! well, can you pls direct me to this entire post with all pictures? i'm able to view only 50% of the homes and with your insightful review, i'm dying to see the photos. i laughed reading this b/c i've made the same criticisms of many of these homes!

  67. Its a really beautiful pictures collection you have shared in this post. It made me really happy.

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  68. What a lovely home! I can feel really glad myself to live in this type of sweet home.

    Red Card Graduate | CSCS Green Card

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