How small a space do you think you could live in—happily and for a long period of time?
We went out looking for small residential projects for this, our annual issue devoted to sustainable design, and we found a handful of nicely executed, not-too-big dwellings for our feature report. None of them exceeded 1,500 square feet.
All are remodels. And, even more impressive, their owners resisted the powerful, human urge to supersize them. One house—a project in San Antonio—did grow by about 1,000 square feet, but it started at only 500! It's probably no surprise that the smallest bump in square footage was in our Australian house—a mere 75 feet. Other countries always seem to figure these things out first.
But maybe our country is catching on. Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, the median house size dropped—from 2,277 square feet to 2,219 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Seems impressive. I read a newspaper story about this trend quoting quite a few architects who thought it signified a major cultural change. It's nice to think so. But, being the optimistic skeptic I am, I had to check the numbers myself. I looked for previous drops in house size (the Census tracks back to 1973 online), and it's obvious the dips reflect the state of the economy more than any real paradigm shift in the way Americans wish to live. Guess when the last substantial decreases were? Yup, in 1991 and 1981–82—recessionary years.
Except for those hiccups in the economy, the American house has bloated relentlessly larger each year. The last time the median house size was solidly, consistently in the 1,500-square-foot range was in the early 1970s.
Are we ready to roll back our typical house size to that '70s sweet spot? (Coincidentally, the '70s were also the last time we thought seriously about the environment and our consumption of natural resources.)
Properly designed, that amount of space can feel luxurious—unless you're Octomom and family. I happily lived through the go-go late '90s and early oughts in an 850-square-foot converted garage. Even when I added another person to the mix, it still felt ample, especially in the warmer months when we could spread to the patio. The only thing that made me feel claustrophobic in the place was the litter box. Needless to say, it's never been so well-maintained.
Ah, the power of the Internet. I just looked up Octomom's house size: The new home she bought this spring is, by most reports, 2,583 square feet—about 50 square feet larger than the western U.S. average for 2008. Surely if her family of 15 can make do with 172 square feet apiece, the typical, shrinking American household can get by with less than it's consuming.
Chances are it will have to, at least in the near term. Builder/developers aren't likely to return to their biggest house plans for quite some time—not while banks are tightening lending to them and to their customers. And custom clients are apt to watch their square footage closely, too, as they try to limit their exposure in this volatile market.
All this offers an opportunity for enlightened architects to demonstrate how large small can really live. If you do your jobs properly, no one will feel the need to supersize again, even if the good times start rolling once more.
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