So you’ve found a great piece of property and now you want to build a house. Before going any further you might ask yourself: how big a house do I really need? Well, it depends who you ask.
The building industry, which tries to set the trends and provides much of the new housing in this country, has a standard product (3 – 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, two car garage) that assumes that everyone has the same spatial needs and financial resources. Unfortunately, this marketing-oriented philosophy leaves increasing numbers of us out of the equation, forced to buy homes that are bigger and much more extravagant than we really desire or are able to afford.
On the other hand, there is a growing sense that this attitude to our housing needs is no longer appropriate, given the amount of land, energy, and materials required to build, heat, and maintain such houses. While these concerns have led just about every other major industry to rethink their products by downsizing and improving efficiency, the housing industry has been very resistant to change. Despite huge changes in the average size and composition of the family, the building industry is still geared for the hypothetical “average” family unit- which now requires more than twice as much floor area as thirty years ago. We think there is a solution that could work for many people: the small house has become an attractive alternative.
Recently, our office has been hired to design several small homes-two-bedroom houses under 1000 square feet that can accommodate one to three people in a contemporary lifestyle. Obviously, on a global scale, 1000 square feet is far from a small house, but given trends in our culture this represents a radical departure from the standard expectations. And with building costs currently running $80 and up per square foot it, suddenly allows a whole new group of people to enter the housing market with less initial investment and lower financing and operating costs.
It also reduces the amount of regular maintenance while freeing up more land around the house for gardening and recreation activities. In our area, it is a welcome response to the very limited land base; these houses can fit comfortably as infill and onto difficult lots.
Perhaps more unexpectedly, the choice of a small house can have a beneficial effect on your lifestyle. It is an opportunity to simplify, unburden, and become more focused about what things and activities are really valuable to you.
Of course, doing more with less demands a much more intensive approach to planning the spaces, circulation patterns, and defining elements in a home than is the norm. Every foot of floor and wall area needs to be considered, with particular attention paid to specific objectives.
There must be adequate and convenient storage, to reduce clutter while keeping our essential toys and the objects of everyday life conveniently at hand.
Small rooms are made to feel bigger with partial walls, strategic placement of windows, vaulted ceilings, and by making use of carefully designed outdoor spaces to extend the visual and functional dimensions of the interior.
Spaces must flexibly accommodate multiple uses, such as in a kitchen where food is prepared, people sit to eat or congregate during parties, plants grow, and craft work is undertaken. We should attempt to reduce the space required for each function in a house to an efficient minimum (laundry, for example, can be accommodated in a closet rather than a separate room) and take advantage of space-saving appliances and storage systems.
This may sound like a novel approach. Yet, how successful we are in this undertaking is measured by the same criteria as in any other house: have we found a place for the inhabitants and a reasonable amount of their stuff? provided room for the activities of daily life, plus gatherings and entertaining? created a space that is comfortable, peaceful and beautiful? and has all this been accomplished staying within real financial limits?
A small house may not be for everyone, but if you are daunted by the spiraling cost of building, concerned about the impact of our consumer habits on the environment, and open to a more flexible use of your living space this may be an option worth considering.