Talk about downsizing. The "small home movement" is a philosophy that finds homeowners opting for dwellings that are often less than 500 square feet--smaller, even, than what some would consider to be a small studio apartment.
Talk about downsizing. The "small home movement" is a philosophy that finds homeowners opting for dwellings that are often less than 500 square feet--smaller, even, than what some would consider to be a small studio apartment. (photo: Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images)

My house may be the size of some people's walk-in closets, but I'm not roughing it at all.

— Dee Williams, co-founder, Portland Alternative Dwellings

Each year Dee Williams speaks to hundreds of students in the Pacific Northwest, from first grade through college, and none of them aspires to live in a large home. Williams has taught them --- in the words from one fourth grader's thank-you letter --- that it's not the size of a person's house that matters; it's the size of a person's heart that counts.

That's music to Williams' ears because she lives in a house that's less than 100 square feet in size. Although Williams, co-owner of Portland Alternative Dwellings, a burgeoning design and construction company that specializes in tiny homes, may be an extreme example, many anti-McMansion homeowners are out there living small. However, after the economic crisis eases, will homeowners be willing to stay small?

Small-home advocates hope so, but they also know there will always be buyers for larger homes, and yes, even McMansions. They find some hope in a December 2010 report from the National Association of Home Builders that the recession has permanently altered what prospective home buyers want in a house. By 2015, surveyed building industry professionals said they expect homes to average about 2,152 square feet, which is 10 percent smaller than the average single-family home constructed in the first three quarters of 2010 but still anything but diminutive.

Bigger is not always better. That's the message North Carolina-based architect Sarah Susanka has been trying to get across since 1997, when her first groundbreaking book, "The Not So Big House," was published for a hungry audience of readers already tired of poorly constructed and aesthetically unpleasant housing developments.

Square Footage Inflation

At the same time Susanka was expressing her philosophy to homeowners, developers and architects with big appetites for big houses, another unofficial movement sprouted --- the small-house movement.

Yet while the size of an average household began to shrink, the square footage of homes began creeping upward, from an average of 1,400 square feet in 1970 to a peak average of 2,521 square feet in 2007, according to Census Bureau and NAHB statistics.

But then the economic crisis hit, and now media commonly bash the McMansion while embracing the small-home movement. The whole ordeal seems to have left some homeowners with a different type of house envy, one that has suddenly shifted from yearning for a larger home to begging for a smaller, more affordable lifestyle.

"Smaller living has received huge exposure due to the downturn in the economy, and it may have made people realize that a larger house isn't all that they thought it was going to be," said Greg Markov, a real estate agent and co-founder of HomeSmart's Phoenix Heritage Real Estate Group in Arizona. "But, it's not as though they'll go back to what was considered normal in the 1950s: small, three bedrooms and one bath."

Inching Toward Downsizing

Susanka's work, along with other advocates of the small-house movement, continues to garner attention. The media continually highlight comprehensive resources, such as Gregory Paul Johnson's The Small House Society and Kent Griswold's Tiny House Blog, both of which serve as gateways to the growing small-house community of homeowners, designers, architects and developers.

Marcov thinks smaller homes are getting more attention because people want to migrate closer to an urban center rather than live in the outer, and often inconvenient, suburbs. Homeowners know that moving closer to amenities means they must settle for smaller homes. Others are moving to smaller homes nearer their jobs rather than to the outskirts of sprawl, where it may take nearly a tank of gas just to get to and from work.

The Ideal-Size House

To further her cause, Susanka has decided that after laying the groundwork in the past decade with her books, it's time for her to tell the story a different way. Susanka is showcasing what's possible by using the "Not So Big" principles in a showhouse in Libertyville, Illinois, as part of that city's School Street development of single-family houses.

Small means different things to different people and Susanka's work is more about quality of design than about shrinking down square footage. Her showhouse is about 2,400 square feet, but she said that's just because she wants crowds to feel comfortable while walking through the space.

Asked how much square footage a family really needs to live in a home, Ross Chapin, architect and author of "Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World," offers this rule of thumb: Think about the rooms you and your family use every day, add up the square footage, and you'll be surprised with the answer. Chapin says very often, even homeowners living in a 4,000-square-foot house who do this calculation discover they have just 750 square feet of necessary space.

Williams used to own a 1,500-square-foot home, but realized she was not content, didn't feel healthy and needed much less space in which to live. Now, she feels deeply content because she has more time and money to spend on meaningful activities, her health has vastly improved and she doesn't miss all the stuff she used to have lying around.

"My home may be the size of some people's walk-in closets," she said, "but I'm not roughing it at all."

Big Benefits

The benefits of small living often outweigh those of living large. After all, Williams' utility bills often run under $10 a month, and her home peaks at just over 11 feet in height. At a time when energy costs are so volatile, it's comforting to know you don't have a soaring double-height entryway to heat. And by the way, the NAHB survey says that besides the living room disappearing from the blueprints, the dining room and the entry foyers will indeed greatly diminish in size.

When that happens, homeowners will feel more comfortable in their homes, but they won't quite know why. "Large spaces evoke a certain response," Susanka said. "When you walk through a state capitol building, you are filled with awe, but that's not the goal you want for your living room."

Besides the tangible upside of downsizing --- lower utility bills, less furniture to buy, reduction in cleaning time --- there's something much more important about a small home. It brings --- truly forces --- people to sit together.

Families living in larger homes tend to drift apart, Susanka said, then added, "I feel for little kids who live in huge homes." Susanka remembers walking into a home with a palatial marble bathroom for each of the homeowner's small children and thinking, "That kind of space is scary to a child; they must have felt so small in those bathrooms."

Luckily, not everyone wants an oversized marble bathroom --- but many still do. All agree that it takes more than the economy to make homeowners realize smaller is better. Sometimes, building a high-quality smaller home can cost more than erecting a poorly made McMansion. "It will take a huge social and cultural shift to have small living accepted by most people whose dream right now is still to have a large home," Williams said. "People are just looking at this as food for thought right now."

In fact, Chapin said that critics of pocket neighborhoods, or clusters of small homes, argue that such high-density housing in suburbs will look out of character in communities with larger homes and may burden school systems and other town services. Opponents have even said that smaller homes will attract poor homeowners into wealthier towns.

Chapin fights back by pointing critics to his book, which profiles a number of pocket neighborhoods that are home to smart, talented and even well-heeled homeowners who are simply fed up with overbuilt developments that lack soul. He also said that better-planned communities will attract and keep taxpaying homeowners rather than losing them to the sweeping trend of foreclosed and unsold developments.

Making McMansions Tiny

What will become of existing large homes that don't sell? The unanimous answer is that, over time, they will be re-purposed into co-housing, apartments and other sensible, service-oriented small spaces.

"Developers are converting empty, mammoth-McMansions into multi-tenant dwellings---sort of organic communities are beginning to form," said Kristen Richards, editor of ArchNewsNow.com, a website that tracks architectural tends around the world. "Whether they do become actual villages of sorts remains to be seen."

In fact, Mike Litchfield, curator of Cozydigz.com and founding editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine, has written a book, "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats," which discusses this trend, plus examples of how McMansions can help solve the country's housing crisis.

But for many, buying a smaller home is scary---after all, what will the neighbors think?

Until the repurposing of McMansions and infiltration of tiny houses takes hold, Susanka offers advice on how to survive living small when surrounded by bigness. "People still want bigger and better, but you have to live with conviction. As you do that, other people will follow what you're doing," she said. "They will actually begin to long for a not so big house."

  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images
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