Creating the Not So Big® Inspired Home: Right Sizing the American Dream
In March of 2009, Time Magazine presented a powerful message on its cover employing a very simple yet poignant graphic. A single large, red button with the word "Reset" on its face appeared in the center of a large blank background. The subtext read "The End of Excess, Why This Crisis Is Good for America." For me, there could not have been a more timely message. In this critical period of human history, we sit at a painful crossroads which calls for fundamental soul searching. That crossroads is the confluence of three historically convoluting and global events: the economic crisis; the energy crisis; and the climate crisis. Together, they represent a searing siren's call to reexamine our collective trajectory. The message could not be clearer or more disturbing, and the stakes could not be higher.
The message calls for a fundamental shift in our thinking. According to Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, the challenge is to understand that "more" and "better" are not synonymous. We have accepted - and, in many cases, aspired to - the notion that more and larger and bigger always equal ‘better.’ When I rent cars during my travels, I am curiously amused by Ms. Hertz or Mr. Avis when asked if I would like a complimentary "upgrade." Without exception, that upgrade always involves a larger car. As a self proclaimed "greenie weenie," I chuckle and chide the rental agent. In my mindset, you see, an "upgrade" would have involved a smaller, more compact, and more fuel-efficient car. But that practical vehicle is seldom on the lot.
This same thinking has permeated our thoughts about shelter. A bigger home has always been the American dream. Buy, hold (for on average five years), sell, move up… repeat. That’s our path to prosperity, isn’t it? And why not? With housing values appreciating wildly – historically as much as 25% per year in some markets! - this was a smart economic play. Linked to this thinking was the concept of purchasing as much "square footage" as one could possibly handle…or possibly more! “Living large" was accepted street cred for living the "good life." In fact, the size of the average American home has more than doubled over the past half-century. Recent statistics from the National Association of Home Builders show that the average American home grew from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,479 square feet in 2007: a 250% increase. Ironically, while we were busy building ourselves larger homes, we were shrinking our household size. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average number of people living in U.S. households has dropped almost one whole body each time the country adds 100 million citizens. Further, when the 300-million milestone is reached, that number is projected to be at a new low of 2.6 people per home - parents, offspring and extended squatters included!
Enter the housing bubble crash. In the face of that devastating real estate development, everything changed. U.S. Census data shows new homes started in the third quarter of 2008 were actually 191 square feet smaller than those started in the second quarter at 2,629 square feet. Fourth quarter homes were yet 286 square feet smaller than those in the third quarter, down to 2,343 square feet. For the first time, American house sizes were actually decreasing. That trend towards diminution has continued.
This idea of a smaller house has actually been brewing for quite some time: about twelve years, to be exact. In 1998, Sarah Susanka published a paradigm-challenging book entitled The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live. In that book, she introduced the concept of reassessing what we were building as "home" and why exactly we were building it. She looked at the 'five gables to the street' plan book designs, with their soaring atriums and immense living spaces, and questioned whether these "Starter Castles", "Hummer Houses" or "McMansions" were really what we wanted to be living in. Just as important, were such monstrosities really what we should be building? She correctly observed that we were building purely for square footage and visual impact with little concern for the actual human experience of occupying those spaces. What she advocated was a new way to build: smaller and with greater quality as opposed to larger and cheaper.
Coincidentally, the greenest thing we can do is likewise to build not so big. In the LEED® for Homes™ program, the USGBC actually modifies the certification point credit threshold for homes using a sliding scale based on the home's size. The required threshold for a specific certification level is lowered for a smaller square footage home of comparable number of sleeping rooms. Conversely, it’s raised for a larger one. Why? All things being equal, a smaller home consumes less energy and resources over its life span than a larger one.
As a residential designer, I regularly introduce the idea of designing and building a Not So Big® Inspired home to my clients. The first response I typically confront is the question "Well, Michael, what do we have to give up?" My answer is always the same: "Only one thing: square footage." Of the many design approaches we employ to reduce size without reducing function is the concept of rethinking “room.” If we can understand that a home is not a collection of rooms, but a series of spaces for human activity, we can radically change our design solutions to get more out of the same square footage.
Another approach involves having a single space perform more than one function. A prime candidate for this is human circulation areas I call “traffic space.” A hallway is a prime example. All that a hallway typically provides is a space for you to move through between destination rooms. The rest of the time, however, you get to heat, cool, and pay taxes on that traffic space while it performs no function whatsoever! If we can find ways for circulation spaces like hallways to simultaneously perform other functions, our clients win! There are a number of other design approaches we utilize that in some instances rely on environmental psychology and - in others – on good, old fashioned Cartesian geometry to help smaller spaces “live large” without being large.
I will be presenting a special, in-depth, course through Earth Advantage Institute discussing this philosophy in greater detail. I’ll provide actual examples of real life projects and challenges….and the real life solutions we applied. The course is entitled Creating the Not So Big® Inspired Home: Right Sizing the American Dream. The course is free and will be offered on Thursday, September 20th at 5:00 pm at EAI. Here is a link for more information: http://www.earthadvantage.org/education-events/introductory-level-100-200/creating-a-not-so-big-inspired-home/
Come see for yourself how living "small" can actually be living "large"… the true, new "green". I hope to see you there!