When Less Is More
October 20th, 2010

Lots of people who are knowledgeable about such things have been saying for a long time that the current American model of suburban sprawl is unsustainable.  It is inefficient and heavily reliant on fossil fuels.  It is predicated on the existence cheap and easy capital.  And it collapses under even moderate economic pressures.  However, throughout the world time has tested and proven a couple of other models – the big city and the small town.  What do these formats of civilization bear in common?  Ironically, size. 

Sure, big cities look nothing like small towns on the face of it.  But if you dig a bit deeper you’ll find some keen similarities.  City dwellers might get to know their doorman just as rural folks might know their mailman.  Both are accustomed to shopping from independently owned shops (the corner bodega and the general store are not such a far cry from each other).  And neither one probably lives in a 7,000 square foot McMansion with 15 bathrooms and vaulted ceilings. 

The modern-day suburban scenario seems so normal to us now, but I wonder if history will see it as the outlier.  I wonder if we will return to lives that are smaller in scale than the existence many of us live today.  Conveniently, I’m not the only person with this query.  Boyce Thompson, the editorial director of Builder magazine, shares my curiosity.  So he commissioned the design of a new concept home - Home for the New Economy - which was debuted at this year’s International Builders Show.  

As explained in this article, at just 1,700 square feet this concept home is smaller than the American average by 800 square feet, and smaller than most suburban McMansions by a factor of two or three.  The virtual tour available on the website reveals a home that is cozy in an electronic rendering, but which could feel cramped when filled to the brim with the typical family’s full array of accoutrement.  Nevertheless, a commitment to ridding one’s life of unnecessary excess could render this type of space quite livable.  The description of the master bedroom indicates it is designed to be “a place of rest and privacy, not a palatial retreat or mini-theatre…”  Something about the scale and scope of such a room really appeals to me.

But there is always a “but.”  And the “but” in this case is what we ask of our houses.  In addition to shelter, electricity, and safety, we ask our homes to say something about us.  We ask them to identify us in some way.  Successful.  Minimalist.  Showy.  Modest.  Modern.  Traditional.   And so on.  We see our homes as an extension of ourselves and all that we have accomplished in life thus far.  It’s a tall order.  And as our homes have become proxies for ourselves they have ballooned in size such that many are about to burst.  (Or be shuttered by foreclosure, as the case may be.)

I am no expert.  Nor am I wholly innocent in this game.  (We expect to outgrown our current home in the next four or five years.)  And yet I wonder what it will take for Americans to change our paradigm.  What crisis of faith (or net worth) must we endure before we will divorce our egos from our addresses?  At what point will we reassemble ourselves into an existence that is sustainable.  At what point will 1,700 square feet feel adequate for a typical family?  I don’t pretend to know.  But I do intend to watch and find out.

8 Responses to “When Less Is More”

  1. Jan Says:

    I’ve got a great soapbox on this one: the works of James Howard Kunstler, who wrote Home from Nowhere, The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind, and The Long Emergency…this last one is about “peak oil.” He’s obsessed with what happens when we begin to run out of cheap fossil fuel. It’s a scary and fascinating read, and I do believe that a declining supply of cheap oil is what will move us to what Gale’s describing. And actually, today, I got two new books by Kunstler, that are novels about what life might be like in that new time. He’s a very cranky, thoughtful, and disturbing writer, but who knows…maybe he’s a 21st century prophet.

  2. E Says:

    I’m pretty sure I don’t ask my home to identify me. My home is and has been about a comfortable setting where my family and friends can gather without being too crowded, too filled with things, too messy, etc. I do what I can to conserve – close up spaces that aren’t being used at the time – and there is no doubt that I could happily make do with less; however, having lived in a huge city where land was at a minimum, I adore the space the Midwest has to offer me. Most of us have to sacrifice something to pay for other things that we more greatly desire and for me it is space. I’d happily do without my unnecessary excess that fills nooks and crannies, but I love my unquestionably over-sized home. Interesting thoughts – little just isn’t my cup of tea and I’m thankful I live in an area that allows me my big mug of life.

  3. Gale Says:

    E – Knowing you as I do I don’t think the arguments in today’s post really apply in your situation. Most of these above-average sized homes are only acommodating average sized families. If you had purchased that home as a family of four things might be different. But with six children your situation was not the same as most people’s.

  4. E Says:

    Agreed but most of my over-sized family has moved on and I’m still happily living in my over-sized house(other than when I have to clean bathrooms). I’d guess that I’ll always be guilty of more house than I need – maybe as a result of life in Hong Kong – maybe as a result of living on a farm and having all the space in the world and possibly emulating that in my life today – or maybe just because?

  5. Anne@lifeinpencil.com Says:

    I think urban places are very much akin to small towns in the way they encourage walking, local stores, local restaurants, etc. It’s a more sustainable way to live, but of course, I like big yards and lots of green space and hate smog and concrete, but also can’t imagine living totally rural. A dilemma.

    As for house size, I’ve always been drawn to cottage-like places that feel cozy. BUT I like my stuff. Another dilemma. With a move to a new place on the horizon, one of my big deciding factors was choosing a place where I could walk to things. I may always be a suburban girl at heart, but I’m going to try and take some steps (no pun intended) towards a more manageable existence.

  6. Eva @ EvaEvolving Says:

    Gale, this line hits the nail on the head: “In addition to shelter, electricity, and safety, we ask our homes to say something about us.” At some point in the last half-century, Americans started assigning a cultural value to homeownership, and by extension the size, age, neighborhood, decor, design of a home.

    I heard recently – although I can’t remember where – that the rising generation of young adults no longer sees cars as a status symbol, which is quite different from previous generations. And that gave me some hope, that things might be changing gradually. There’s a practicality to it, a growing awareness that shiny fast cars (or huge homes) aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

    My husband and I live in a small house – about 1600 square feet – and we love it. But it’s a lot easier to love it without kids and all their toys and clothes. I know that my parents grew up in houses this small, with more siblings than a typical family today. So we know it can be done, we just need to change our thinking!

  7. BigLittleWolf Says:

    My sons and I have been living in a home that is just under 1500 sq feet. The real issue is storage, rather than livability per se. But more than anything, many of us are also asking our homes to be our workplaces. And that adds an entire layer of requirements that small spaces don’t account for easily.

    Notice I said easily. I believe it’s a challenge, but possible. Well, theoretically…

    Frankly, I could do with a bit more space, but not that much. I genuinely love the coziness, and it’s costly enough to heat and cool a space of this size, much less a larger one.

  8. Shawna Says:

    Wow. Wow again. There are six of us, occasionally seven when someone else needs a place to stay who live in 1200 square feet. And trust me, it doesn’t feel particularly cramped. Though four of the six of us are rather small, and I might feel differently when they are teenagers.

    And very occasionally I dream of rumbling around in an enormous house with empty rooms and quiet spaces. Food for thought. For sure.