This is actually a Lets Blog Off topic from August of last year, but in looking through past submissions I saw this one and was intrigued by the questions it asks: Have people in the developed world learned a lesson during these times of economic uncertainty? Is living small really the new living large? If so, what does this new smallness look like and if not, why not?
From here we can really go anywhere we want. A simple google/bing search will drudge up enough results to sufficiently waste at least one afternoon surfing through. But I think it’s important first to talk about what “living small” means and what the different “buzz words” are talking about.
“Micro Living” is the first “buzz word” I’d like to talk about, because it tends to get a lot of press in the media and is a bit “sensational”. Micro living is essentially postage stamp living, or the idea that one can build a functional home that can be transported by any standard vehicle and placed on any site (even a city sidewalk – they really are that small) and contain all a person needs for daily living. I don’t really agree with this because…well, I like to stretch my legs and be able to rise to a full standing position when I’m in my home. But for those who go for that kind of thing, hey, there’s a market of people designing “homes” that are extremely small (typically less than 100 sf), portable and for very reasonable prices.
Tiny Living is the next step up in this notion of “living smaller”, and to me is a bit more reasonable goal. Tiny homes are homes that simply pare everything down to essentials only. While still “tiny”, but not necessarily “micro”, these homes tend to be built on a flat bed trailer, or some other very small modular width. Your essential public/private functions are, for the most part, separate and contained. These homes typically will not work for more than two people…unless of course you have two of them side by side. Then you’re good.
Now we come to simply “living small”, which for me is where the majority of people can reside comfortably even if you’ve got a growing family. Because, the idea of living small, does not necessarily equate giving up on essential creature comforts like a separate kitchen and bathroom but rather a new way of looking at how we use space in a home and also finding small changes we can make in our lifestyles to do more with a little less.
In America, back around the 1950s, the average American home size was between 900 and 1200 square feet. For most of us today this is pretty small (in our current mode of thinking, or the Big Mac Mentality). Now, let’s put ourselves in the mindset of the 1950s family and see how that stacks up to today.
Post WWII America was booming. GI’s were back in the states mostly safe and sound, coming home to long lost girlfriends, wives, mistresses, whatever, and starting families. And, as our baby-boomers are proof of, starting these families QUICKLY (I mean, seriously if you had just come home after spending a year or more with 10,000 men what would YOU do?). And they needed housing. Thus started one of the greatest construction booms in our history. But these were not ordinary houses being built. Many of them were being built based on modular, pre-manufactured systems, which means they were not overly large, as I mentioned, and compared to older homes were more efficient in energy usage (now that we have central heat and air) as well as the usage of space (who doesn’t love those old appliance ads?).
And, looking back, life for the average middle class working family wasn’t much different than today. Though, yes, mom was still home taking care of the family while dad was out “bringing home the bacon”. But anyway. You still had your average family living in the suburbs, commuting in to town to work or to play or to shop or to do any multitude of things that could not be got in the suburbs.
Fast forward to today and our lives are not overly different, yet the suburbs are full of homes often times no smaller than 2,000 square feet, being occupied by a husband/wife team with no kids. At some point you have to scratch your head and ask “uh….wha?” Where have we gone wrong? For me, it’s a mental shift that took place slowly as America became more and more prosperous, we naturally wanted more “stuff” to display our prosperity. As my generation is moving into the driver seat, so to speak, a new mental shift is taking us in the opposite direction – and for the better.
So, what does living a small life look like today? Is it real? Is it achievable for the “average joe and jane”? I say abso-friggin-lutely. I mean, seriously, we don’t need a lot of the “fluff” that makes up modern homes today. While, sure, it’s nice to have “space”, but is it really necessary for how you live your life? When a home is the largest investment you’ll ever make as an individual it should reflect your personal lifestyle, be adaptable to changes in your life (wife, kids, inlaws, etc), be efficient to maintain and be responsible to the environment and it’s impact on your surroundings. Why not put all of those things into a home that is also space efficient and beautiful? These are the questions that are being asked by a new generation of homeowner and are being answered by a new generation of architects, designers and builders looking to transform our built environment into something more economical, ecological, beautiful and unique.
So, yes, we’ve learned our lessons, living small is the new living large and it looks gooooood. 🙂
I find this a fascinating topic that deserves more space. I am beginning to find a push back to the NSBH mentality (one I generally hold). There is one architect in Florida who is openly against the small house idea. http://bit.ly/lHwVbH. He also commented on an AIA discussion at http://bit.ly/l87TCd. The post he responded to was in line with your comments about micro-living. I may have to think about addressing this as well since I am passionate about small houses and the fact that 1) you don’t really NEED a 3 car garage 2) you don’t need a 2,500 square foot basement unless that’s your entire house 3) unless you have a litter of kids you don’t need a 5 bedroom house and 4) family room AND living room…really? Sorry in advance if I rip off my own comments for my own blog post. 🙂
You’re right, this is certainly a hot topic these days, especially when you look around at the residential market and you see all these salt box developments that are either mostly empty or only about 10% built. I was even reading an article the other day about a sub-market that has emerged where builders buy up unfinished subdivision projects for pennies on the dollar and finish them. The rub comes when homeowners who had already bought in are not getting many of the amenities they expected…that’s another story though. The point is, these developments are failing because, 1] few middle class people can afford the homes that are built in these developments, 2] there is a new generation of homeowner/homebuyer that is looking for something more creative than the 5 floor plan and elevation options that are out there currently, and 3] this same new generation is looking for more responsible and efficient homes to purchase.
I don’t fault John Henry for his point of view. He’s entitled to his opinion just like everyone else. What is unfortunate about his point of view is that, designing smaller, more efficient homes is simply good architectural practice. Even if your client wants a 5,000 square foot home, it should be designed to the highest and most efficient quality not because of some popular market trend like “being green” or even to get an extra $3/sf out of the client’s budget, but simply because it’s good practice, and as architects it is our job to provide the client with the best product we can.
It really gets my panties in a wad when architects come out decrying smaller living as “foolish” or “fringe” or a “fad” or whatever. I don’t think it does a service to the profession at all and, to me, actually hurts us in the eyes of potential clients. We should put ourselves in a position that allows a client to come to us with any project and we able to adequately educate them and guide them to the best choices for their project, simple.
I kind of meandered all over the place with this. Sorry, it’s early and I haven’t had coffee yet. :-\