The Elusive Small-House Utopia Is Still Pretty Big

If I say ‘small house,’ what comes to mind? A super wee micro-house or something like this? Or do you think of a structure containing roughly 1700+ sq. ft. of floor space? Because, hey, it’s not a McMansion, so it must be small, right? I got to thinking about this subject after reading The Elusive Small-House Utopia, an article about Builder magazine’s latest concept home and what it means for building trends in general.

That concept house, the Home for a New Economy designed by Marianne Cusato, measured in at the size of the average American home built in 1980, or around 1700 sq. ft. Then the housing market went insane, and soon it became not unusual to see newly built houses hovering out the 6000 sq. ft. mark!

When Cusato sat down to devise the Home for the New Economy, she tried to consider how families actually use their living areas. She started with a simple, symmetrical three-bedroom plan, excising extraneous spaces — the seldom-used formal dining room, for instance — while enlarging windows wherever she could and adding a wraparound porch. A result was a house that was compact, comfortable, bright and energy-efficient.

Sounds tasty, right? But at 1700 sq. ft., does it really seem particularly small? Maybe I’m just coming at the article with a bias – my house tops out at 1100 sq. ft. and we think that might include the finished basement – but even when I hear that in 2007 the average American house surpassed 2500 sq. ft., 1700 still sounds like a lot of space for the average family. Not huge, but big enough for comfort.

“Everybody hates the Calvinist sacrifice; they just don’t want to hear of it,” says the architect Andrés Duany, a founding father of the New Urbanist movement and a mentor of Marianne Cusato’s. Duany argues that the sprawling homes of the last decade actually met a need, albeit imperfectly, by reproducing internally what suburban communities lacked: an exercise room substitutes for a park, a home theater for the Main Street cinema. Buyers will only accept smaller homes, he says, if their surroundings compensate them.

So let me ask you, my lovely readers, what you think small means when it comes to housing for, say, a family of three? How much space does a person really need, anyway?

10 Responses to “The Elusive Small-House Utopia Is Still Pretty Big”

  1. Leane November 15, 2010 at 7:24 am #

    My house is the same size as yours, and that includes my at-home massage office! The thought of cleaning and heating anything larger is daunting.

  2. MissPrism November 15, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    Houses are generally smaller here in the UK – ours is fairly average, and just under 700 sq ft if I’ve added it up right. It is technically a three-bedroom house, but you could barely fit a single bed in one of the “bedrooms”. My partner and I find it a little cramped at times. I would love to have a laundry/utility room, rather than having to have the washing machine in the kitchen and an indoor clothesline in the dining room (outdoor clotheslines not being much use in a British November). And even more, I wish the kitchen were large enough to cook sociably – it’s 5′ by 9′ and most of that is countertops and appliances, so only one person fits in there at once. One more room and we’d be a lot comfier, I think.

    Still, there are several families of three or four on the same street, in what look to be identical houses, so we can’t have it so bad.

  3. Christa Terry November 15, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    @Leane Oh, tell me about it. Whenever I find myself getting a bit envious of friends whose houses are bigger, I remember how much we already spend on energy and so on. And how much time my dad in his bigger house spends cleaning every day. Clears my envy right up!

  4. Miss Prism November 15, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    Christa – I said something that offended the Manolo spam filters months ago and I haven’t been able to comment since! I’ve submitted this one using a different email address, so if it gets through is there any way you can release me from comment purgatory?

  5. Christa Terry November 16, 2010 at 8:35 am #

    @Miss Prism Oh, yuck. Sometimes the Manolo spam filters get all kinds of crazy and we lose comments. I got another comment from you, under another email address, so that one made it through (just needed approval). I’ll run it by The Manolo and see if he can put you on some kind of safe list through WordPress. Thanks for letting me know!

  6. Christa Terry November 16, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    @Miss Prism Once upon a time, I lived in Berlin, and it felt like a lot of the homes – at least homes close to urban areas – were similarly small. Our kitchen was like a closet, and the bedrooms were very small by U.S. standards. On the other hand, the bathroom (which contained the washer) was huge and luxurious by U.S. standards. While my kitchen isn’t as small as yours, it’s still an eat-in (and we have no dining room) so one thing on the table for the distant, distant future is sacrificing some driveway for a somewhat bigger kitchen.

  7. pjs November 16, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

    I think what defines big or small is relative to what your neighbors’ houses are, no matter where you live. We have a family of four and a dog in 1800 square feet, built in 1970. It is only crowded for a large party, but plenty of space for us. I think of it as medium, but many new builders here in the Pacific NW (of the US) would consider it small. But I would find anything larger to be, well, too large.

  8. MissPrism November 17, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    Thank you very much Christa!

    I love eat-in kitchens (because I hate having to choose between cooking and talking to guests) so an extension is on our wishlist too. I hope when you do yours you’ll blog the whole process so we can learn from it!

  9. Kai Jones November 18, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    I’ve lived the last 20 years in a 3-bedroom, 1-bath house with 1168 square feet. We started off as four (two adults and two kids) and it was fine until the kids were teens. The reason it works so well is that the bedrooms are tiny (I think the largest is 10 feet by 10 feet, the others are 9 feet by 10 feet) so most of the floor space is public: huge living room, large dining room, and big kitchen. Also the hall is very short because one of the bedrooms opens directly off the living.

    Arrangement of the spaces makes a big different when you have small square footage. We really wanted a second bathroom, especially when the kids were teens. And our house was often the house all the teenagers gathered at (watching tv in the living room or playing games–RPG and board–in the dining room), which was fine with us parents–we liked having them around and could retreat to the bedroom or kitchen if we wanted.

    It was also small enough to be easy to keep clean and tidy most of the time. And small enough for a close family, but room enough for that family to be mostly introverts. That’s another issue, small houses are great for extroverts, but people who need more alone time have to have a room with a door to shut ourselves away in.

  10. Jessica November 27, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    Ditto Kai’s comment that layout of space means sooo much. We live in 1000 sq ft., 3 people and another on the way! Our house has 3 bedrooms, 1 bath, living room, kitchen, pantry, and dining room/laundry room. That’s eight rooms! Considering that the kitchen is walled off from the dining room, and the living room is connected only by doors to other rooms, its very mouse maze like! But we make it work and really, right now with a 14 mo. old its a blessing because cleaning takes no time. I can’t imagine we’ll move into something huge next time around because it will seem so…..huge. I will be happy when I do have space to actually entertain company though, that is the one big downside to small house living. Unless you live somewhere where you can entertain outdoors most of the year.