Modern Housing and House Size: Do We Need This Much?

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Photo: Dean Terry

In the 1950s, I grew up in a house with a formal living room and formal dining room, which were used only for entertaining and holidays. On a daily basis, we ate in the kitchen and watched tv in the ‘study’. There was an extra room (originally a bedroom that became a walk-through room), which was a sewing room and my dad’s office. The house was easily over 2500 square feet. There was a 2-car garage and a large screened-in porch. The one acre yard was beautifully landscaped and maintained.

We had money. My dad was a dentist. The extra space and immaculate yard said, ‘Look at me! I’m rich!’

My best friend, Gail, lived across the street in a modest house. As you walked in the front door, there was a small entry and a closet. The living room was right there in the center of the home, the kitchen off to the left, and three bedrooms and a bathroom were to the right. The basement had been made into a rec room. There was no formal space for entertaining, and the house was probably 1500 square feet. A small screened-in porch was off the back, and there was a 2-car garage. The yard was an acre, and grass and trees grew wild on it.

Do closer quarters equal closer families?

Gail’s family was very middle class. Her dad worked in a foundry, and her mother also worked. The family was very close. My mother never worked, and our family was very disconnected. I think our houses showed our different places in society, and things aren’t any different today, 50+ years later!

There is a trend among educated, progressive homebuyers to buy or build small. Smaller homes use fewer materials in building, produce less waste, and use less energy. They are easier and less expensive to maintain, and they keep family members connected. There are so many reasons to build small!

Over the last several decades, though, homes have been increasing in size while the number of occupants has been decreasing. That is counter to the environmental movement.

Family sizes decreasing, family home sizes increasing

(Infographic via Click to view in full) Even if the trendline for the average house size in suburban areas has risen exponentially from 1950 to the 2000's, there seems to be an indication that the era of the excessively large house may be over in the 2010s. Nine out of ten NAHB builders surveyed indicated that more recent building projects have been smaller scale, possibly in light of the recession. In other spheres, the fears and insecurities of the average person living in the United States due to the perceived threat of terrorism post 9/11 may have been a factor in the ballooning size of homes in the suburbs up until now. But, the ideal of a 3000+ home is now less desirable, although a 2000-2600, which is the newer ideal for people now, is still a lot of house for the shrinking family unit.

In 1970, there was an average of 3.1 people residing in a home of 1400 square feet, which is 452 square feet per person. In 2002, that number fell to 2.6 people living in 2204+ square feet, which has almost doubled to 848 square feet per person What gives!? Why do we need so much space? What is happening within the family structure and our society that is creating this?

Large homes are still a sign of affluence and success. They also offer a sense of safety. The drawback to extra space is that there is less family interaction. Kids used to share a room, and now they each have their own, with all the amenities – phone, tv, computer. Parents’ rooms are now placed on the opposite end of the house.

Common spaces, like the living room and kitchen, aren’t used as much for social gatherings. Technology has created the seeming need for a media room for movies and video games. Many people have home offices for telecommuting, another way to add space and disconnect from people.

Why are families getting smaller as houses get bigger?

Families are shrinking, because children move out sooner, whereas they used to stay home until they married. Many households have only one or two people in them. People are putting off having families for economic or even environmental reasons. More and more women are working and opting out of parenting, or having only one child. Some people feel there are too many people on Earth, and are deciding not to have children at all. Infertility is on the rise, too.

The high cost of living and of raising children is slowing down reproduction rates, too. I find that odd. People don’t want to have children, because it’s too expensive, but they are willing to have a bigger home that costs more to build, heat/cool and maintain? We are so self-centered!

Economy and smaller homes

I hope we get away from that trend and start to build smaller homes. I actually think that when the housing industry picks back up, people will want a smaller home that is more energy efficient.

This economy has made people aware of what they truly need and what is excessive. They are also more aware about the environment and how it needs to be preserved. Having fewer children is an earth-friendly gesture. So is living in the amount space you need with no extras – how did we get so spoiled?!

[Ed: for more information about this trend of bigger homes and social disconnection, particularly in the suburbs of North America, check out the word on the recent documentary film Subdivided. ]

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.