Articles

Quest for Big Houses Ignores Other Values
By Dennis Goodenough

The Milwaukee Journal
July 28, 1991

As I talk to people about housing, I sense that many are apprehensive about building their dream home.  They seem to be trying to convince themselves that their lives can be transformed magically by simply moving into a bigger house. 

Could we be a nation of home buyers looking to improve the quality of our lives simply by increasing the quantity of our living space?

A study done for the national Association of home builders asked the question, "what would you look for in choosing a new home?"  The most common response: "a bigger home."

The group says the average size of a single-family dwelling was 1475 ft.² in 1964 and is 1850 ft.² today, and people want even larger houses.  About 2350 ft.² is what most really would like to have.

Why is this one facet of the American dream so deeply entrenched?

Buyers are so addicted to bigger is better thinking that they are willing to commute longer distances to work or live any new house that long will remain unfinished, the association says.  Physical size of a new home is the very last priority on which most people will compromise.

The Other Side of the Coin

Are not many new homes actually impediments to household efficiency because the owners compromised needs in favor of wants during the design process?  Can an increase in floor area truly compensate a family for the fast-track life necessary to buy, maintain and pay taxes on that bigger house?  Is the area even needed in the first place?

Quoting again from the association study, "the desire and need for larger space in homes with more amenities are based on values and lifestyle considerations rather than physical needs."

Could bigger is better thinking be a neurosis of the American lifestyle?  Are we chasing an American dream defined for us by "Dallas," "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and House Beautiful?  When did form follows function get displaced as the thinking that should be shaping our homes?

I am not promoting small houses to the point of austerity.  Rather, I am questioning the need for overkill.

There are happy people living all over the country in house trailers and yachts with very limited space.  I am sure none of them are brain-damaged from cramped living quarters, and no doubt many feel downright liberated.

Today architects and designers know far more about traffic flow in floor plan each efficiency than they did in past years, an average family size is smaller than it used to be.  Isn't it time to ask ourselves: Is all this extra space really necessary to make people happy?

Consider Energy Efficiency

Smaller housing addresses another concern of most homebuyers.  The second most common response to the association survey question, "what would you look for in choosing a new home?" was energy efficiency.

How does a contractor make a building larger and then expect it to use less energy?  If energy efficiency is a high priority in building a home, shouldn't physical size be a consideration?

In the final analysis, the trend towards larger homes is simply not sustainable.  Future economic forces spawned by dwindling natural resources are going to make smaller homes almost mandatory.

These forces already are at work.  On a recent trip to a local lumber yard, I learned that some cuts of lumber have doubled in price because of mill closings in the Pacific Northwest.  The United States for service tells us that the US is the top consumer of what in the world and that 30% of what we use is imported.

Let's face it.  The size of our homes is depriving the spotted owl of its home.  Is it wise to tinker with the dynamics of the natural world so that we can continue to build houses that are beyond our justifiable means?

Perhaps it's time to take a broad inventory of our true housing needs and Anas, is bigger really better or is it just a burden?