Friday, December 14, 2012

Small is Beautiful: The Trend Toward Smaller Living Spaces

I’m always amazed when I pass a home in the area where I live that looks like its owners are vying with the Beverly Hillbillies for garish opulence.   It’s not just the bad taste that many of these overblown suburban monstrosities typically evidence—although I must confess that most do disgust my sense of aesthetic propriety—but it’s the waste of resources needed to build and sustain such housing that really troubles me.

The McMansion trend around the country was one that boomed during the period in which oil and gas were cheap and mortgages were being offered to anyone who could sign on the dotted lines.  The eighties and nineties saw the peak of the McMansion trend with developments springing up overnight in what was formerly farmland and older homes being razed to make way for newer, more ostentatious structures. 

Just to give you some idea of how big our homes have gotten over the past fifty years, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), in 1950 the average house size was 930 square feet; in 2007 it was 2,521 square feet.  The average home, therefore, almost tripled in size during a period which saw average family size shrink.  More toilets for fewer people seemed to be the mentality up until recently.   

But, thankfully, the trend towards “bigger is better” appears to be changing now that Americans are finally becoming aware that the costs of heating, cooling, and maintaining huge homes in a period of economic uncertainty and rising oil prices is not all it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, there seems to be an anti-McMansion trend out there on the part of prospective homeowners.   The real estate website recently reported that more than half of Americans say that 1,400 to 2,000 square feet would be their ideal home size—still larger than the typical home of the 1950s but nothing like the garish monuments to conspicuous consumption that were becoming the suburban norm in the 1990s.    Current trends seem to be bearing out this downsizing paradigm:  In 2010, the average home size dropped to 2,377 square feet and it is predicted to fall to around 2,140 square feet by 2015.

The high cost of heating and cooling homes is certainly driving this trend.  But we should not underestimate the desire of younger Americans in particular to live much more sustainable lives than their parents.  Indeed, smaller homes are not the only things that are currently in vogue:  new homes are also being built using recycled materials, making use of passive solar designs, and often come equipped now with water conservation devices and Energy Star appliances.  It’s not that home builders are suddenly becoming more ecological; it’s that they realize that green home design has become attractive to prospective home buyers.

There are other advantages to owning a smaller home, besides the ecological benefits.  Smaller homes are typically more affordable than larger ones, which means that you can pay off your mortgage much quicker.  A smaller house also means less to clean and maintain, which gives homeowners time and more money to do other things.  Finally, because space is limited in a smaller home, homeowners are less inclined to give in to consumeristic spending urges, because there just isn’t the space to store unnecessary stuff.  Again, this means more money in the homeowners’ pockets and less stuff that will eventually end up in a landfill. 

As someone who believes that any living space over 1,500 square feet is a colossal waste of space and precious resources, I’m delighted that Americans are finally coming to their senses.  Now if we can just get rid of those damn SUVs!

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