top of page

Are Chicago Home Buyers Starting To Believe Less House Is More?

Stroll down any side street in the Lincoln Park and Lake View neighborhoods and you will see lots of “McMansions”—those gaudy multi-million-dollar homes that have taken over two or three 25-foot city lots.

They were built on tear-down sites that formerly were occupied by humble frame homes, 2-flats and 3-flats once owned by blue-collar families who were gentrified out of the neighborhood

Read the real estate listing: “Retro-Victorian or modern architecture, 10-foot tall ceilings, two or three fireplaces, butler’s pantry, wine cellar, giant “open-concept” granite and stainless-steel kitchen with adjoining family room. A big deck with bridge to a second garage deck for entertaining.”

But how much house do you really need? Chicago’s rising wealthy class want it all. They consider 5,000 square feet a small house. Why not 10,000 square feet if you can afford it?

This writer lives in a newer 4,000-square-foot home on the North Side, and over the past few year—after the kids moved out—it was apparent that there are bedrooms rooms we rarely use. A fireplace we never light. A view we never enjoy

Apparently, the McMansion-fad nationwide is starting to fade, especially among empty nesters. Profit-oriented new home-builders, who are always sniffing the winds of change, are targeting smaller, more affordable houses in 2019—the new normal on construction sites, predicted Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.

“As builders shift towards lower-priced homes—since labor, land and material costs are rising—they can easily find buyers,” Yun noted. “Building McMansions will be problematic in the future.”

One of the big complaints in Chicago is the shortage of affordable abodes. We are not talking about “Tiny Homes,” the trailer-like dwellings with less than 500 square feet of living area. What’s wrong with a 1,400-square-foot 3-bedroom single-family home or duplex with 2 baths?

With thousands of city-owned vacant lots sitting unused on the South Side and West Side, perhaps our next mayor should focus on incentives to lure builders and young first-time buyers to affordable smaller homes in these areas. Affordable urban in-fill homes

The time has final come to use some “good old-fashioned common sense” to design and build affordable, energy-efficient houses for urban in-fill lots, said urban architect Hanno Weber, co-designer of the “Court House,” an innovative design planned for the thousands of vacant in-fill lots that dot the city.

Weber, who was an adjunct professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and is a principal of the Chicago-based Hanno Weber & Associates Architecture/Urban Design, created the Court House several years ago for city’s Department of Housing and Department of Environment. The plans likely are gathering dust in a closet at City Hall.

Ideally designed to be developed in groups of four units on two side-by-side 25-by-125-foot city lots, Weber said the Court Houses can be built today at a cost of about $200,000 each, not including the land, and could be marketed to home buyers for a retail price of $240,000 to $250,000.

Each 3-bedroom, 2½-bath Court House has 1,400 square feet of living area configured two rooms deep on three levels.

Designed as slab-on-grade construction, the garden level of the home features a foyer with closet, kitchen, dining room, powder room, laundry and mechanical room. French doors open from the dining room to a spacious and private terrace walled with recycled brick.

A central stairway leads to the second level of the home has the living room, the master bedroom, a linen closet and 2 full baths, which are built in a separate module “back-to-back” with the baths of the house on the rear of the lot. Two additional bedrooms are in the attic, or loft level of the home.

View a site plan for a cluster of Court Houses, and you’ll see four attached single-family homes with steeply pitched roofs each built on an outside corner of the two lots, like Medieval carriage houses grouped around a protected 30-by-30-foot courtyard.

“The central courtyard is key to the design of the Court Houses,” Weber said. “It’s all about control of your castle’s inner world, and the protected courtyard gives these homes daylight and security.”

Access to the traditional-styled stucco homes is through a 6-foot-wide gated court way that is shared by four homeowners. Parking for four cars is provided at the rear.

“The basic house is a compact, well insulated (R-21 walls and R-38 roofs) space that is configured to provide daylight to all spaces and natural ventilation and convection, supplemented by attic exhaust fans,” Weber said.

Each house benefits from the sharing of an existing urban infrastructure and utilities, concentrated plumbing services and the utilization of “energy-star rated” windows and doors, and appliances as well as non-toxic, recycled and ecologically sustainable building materials, Weber said.

Energy efficiency also is achieved through a heat pump system for heating and cooling the houses, with supplemental gas heating in winter. “In addition, solar panels on the south side of the steeply sloping roof, unshaded by adjacent houses, are capable of generating 6,000 Kilowatts per year,” he said.

“The basic house-print of two rooms on three levels separated by a straight-run stair, offers a dwelling envelope that can be rotated to face the sun,” Weber said.

“Rooms on the sides of the open stair well create a dwelling section that engenders convection and gives form to a central utility core housing duct work, flues and vents,” he said.

Perhaps the most important concept of urban in-fill housing is to utilize every inch of existing land and infrastructure.

“We should not waste the essence of the city—vacant land, the streets, utilities and infrastructure that are already there,” Weber said.

For more information, on the Court Houses, visit: or email architect Hanno Weber at:

For more housing news, visit Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit

“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”


Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014

By Don DeBat

  • LinkedIn - Black Circle
Don DeBat's RSS Feed
Recent Posts

Site Sponsors & Affiliates

bottom of page