Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA
Carl Bower Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA

The most recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that size does matter-at least when it comes to newly built homes. 

Data released in the fourth quarter of 2013 showed that the average newly built single-family home tipped the scales at 2,598 square feet, a new record in a three-year upward trend. That’s 1,000 square feet more than the average size of a new home built in 1973. And today it’s not uncommon for a dream house to be well over 5,000 square feet.

Why so big? What is the nature of those places we call home? Buying or building a place of one’s own is, for most of us, the biggest investment of our lifetime. So how do we assess its value and return on investment?

Some people start with pages of magazines filled with photos of perfectly staged spaces. Others get behind the wheel and drive around, looking for houses that speak to their dreams. The disciplined house seeker will be guided more by their checkbooks: Can they afford this? Will they be saddled with debt? What will it cost to heat and cool that two-story entryway and the extra-tall ceiling in the living room? And what will be its resale value down the road?

Those are not bad ways to think about house-hunting. But that equates investment solely in terms of dollars and trends. What about the intangibles? Isn’t your home a gathering place for family memories? Isn’t your home where you find comfort? And isn’t your home an essential unit of a greater community?

This is where the skill and training of an architect make a difference: Sitting down with clients, carefully listening to their life stories, taking in their values, and helping to redefine true resale value in terms of durability of materials, flexibility of use, relationship to nature and the neighborhood, character of place, and energy efficiency. These are the things that add value, instead of just more square footage. This is rightsizing in every sense of the word, allocating resources to their best use. There is neither a formula nor a checklist for the thoughtful homeowner and architect. There’s only the infinite variety of people whose uniquely messy and human stories are both an opportunity and a challenge. Here is where architects do some of their best and most important work.

Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, is the 2015 AIA President

Learn more about leadership in residential design at aia.org/CRAN.