Wealthy homebuyers in China embrace the McMansion

An American export has turned out to be a surprising hit in China: the McMansion.

Though "McMansion" may not be the kindest term for this Chinese architectural phenomenon, that's the case: Wealthy locals in Beijing and other cities have become smitten with Western-style houses that are huge (even by U.S. standards) and in planned subdivisions. And they're farming out the design work to American architects.

Not unlike in certain U.S. communities, such homes have become a way of advertising their success for well-to-do Chinese, according to Chip Pierson, a principal of Dahlin Group, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based architecture firm that has designed many of them. The homes are also perceived by the buyers as a safe haven for cash — usually very large amounts of cash, he said.

In an edited interview, Pierson explained how these well-heeled buyers' tastes favor a vaguely French chateau look, with a hefty dash of "Downton Abbey" thrown in:

Q: How involved is your architectural firm in Chinese residential design?

A: Our firm has spent 35 years in development and homebuilding for Fortune 500 companies, some of America's biggest homebuilding companies. We've been involved in developments all over the country.

I've been working in China personally since 2001, when a Chinese employee of ours led us to become involved with homes for expatriate housing there. Now we are designing homes for communities whose residents are going to be Chinese.

Q: What is the attraction of the Chinese to these Western designs?

A: More people in Chinese cities live in high-rises than in single-family homes. The idea of a single-family villa, which is what we call these detached homes, for the Chinese buyers was incredibly unique. Nobody had built single houses for individuals there since the 1930s.

As the United States' economy went down from 2006 to 2010, the Chinese economy went up. As their economy grew, the middle class grew, and they began investing in real estate — homes like these.

At the peak of the market over there, our company hired 45 people in the U.S. to do design work for Chinese buyers, which is the opposite of what most people would think — they'd think, you're offshoring work and talent to the Chinese, but actually the Chinese are offshoring their work to American architects.

Stylistically, in the bigger villa projects, some of the designs are contemporary, but many are very European. If you think back to the early development of what became the wealthiest American suburbs, (the grand mansions) they built were a takeoff on their vision of traditional European style. That's the trend for the single-family home in China now.

Market researchers in China say that these buyers prefer styles (derived from) the old houses in France and England. The people feel that the styles of the English and French are more "wealthy looking" than Spanish or Mediterranean styles. Think of "Downton Abbey" or Fontainebleau. Those are perceived as the homes of royalty. Homes in Spain or Italy, they perceive those homes as more casual.

And they want to show that they have money.

Q: How much money?

A: The villa houses we're building are generally 3,500 square feet to 7,000 square feet, and that excludes the basement, which isn't usually included in the salable square footage.

The largest houses cost about $2.8 million.

Some of these homes are being purchased by investors and some of them will be second homes. Lagoon Manor, for example, is a 600-unit development we're doing that's in the northeast part of Beijing, though from the heart of the city it's about an hour-and-a-half drive because of the traffic.

China has its own way of handling financing. Your first home (purchase) will require you to put 30 percent down, your second would require 50 percent down, and if you bought a third, you'd have to do it all in cash.

Not all of the developments are exclusively in that (highest) bracket; we're doing some master-planned communities that have a mix of town houses, six-story condo buildings and high-rises, some of which have units that are from 250 to 800 square feet.

Q: And for these big villas, what do you get for that sizable price tag?

A: The homes are of concrete construction. Even the roof pitches are concrete panels — there's almost no wood in the construction.

The interiors are built to a European construction model. You buy the shell and finish the interior yourself. The outsides of the homes are completely finished, but you open the front door and it's a light bulb.

Europeans do that a lot – when you buy your condominium, for example, you may buy your kitchen from Ikea, and that's how the Chinese are doing it.

In a large house, there will be a formal living room, formal dining room and a Western kitchen that's pretty much for show. Behind that will be a Chinese kitchen, where all the oils and preparation work are going to be done.

The people who will buy these houses, if they live in them, will tend to have a maid and a cook who live there; we also design rooms for the help.

Q: Is there any kind of local backlash — complaints that the more traditional Chinese architecture would be more appropriate?

A: There's some of that. There are some traditional Chinese homes being built in Shanghai and Beijing, and some that are traditional Chinese materials in a contemporary style. But they don't sell as well as the European ones.

housingnews@comcast.net

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