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Trading Space for Place

By Cathy Janus

As I lay in bed one sunny Saturday morning, I reflected on the previous week. Work had been a bear. The tiny clinic where I worked had been overrun by the latest wave of the flu. Patients had not only kept their appointments -- an unheard of feat -- but they brought every other sick student on campus with them! My husband had spent a similar week at his job. We were ready to relax.

What would it be? Play tennis? Ride bikes? Picnic in the park with our daughter? Visit with friends? Sounded delightful but ... a half acre of lawn needed mowing, and if someone didn't vacuum soon, even the dust bunnies would start complaining. Those two tasks alone would take all day. There had to be a better way.

It was at that exact moment we decided that our fun-to-work ratio was way out of whack. Where was the advantage to living in this big house with this huge lawn on this gaping cul-de-sac when there was a world of exciting recreation to experience? We were ready for a change.

As with many of our contemporaries, financial stability brought us to larger and larger homes. Suddenly, there were formal dining and living rooms for a family who generally entertained in the kitchen; more bathrooms than people; and a yard that was watered all week and tended all weekend. In her book The Not So Big House, architect Sarah Susanka points out, "We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space. Instead of focusing on the quality of the spaces we live in, we tend to focus on the quantity. But a house is so much more than its size and volume, neither of which has anything to do with comfort."

Fortunately, a job transfer sent us back to the Washington, D.C., area and on our quest for a simpler lifestyle. The goal was to find a home that was more compact but still inviting. A home where every room had a useful purpose. The yard had to be small and manageable, one in which attempts at landscaping were not lost in the vastness of the lawn. Oh, and could we have a really cool neighborhood where stores, restaurants and movies were within walking distance? The search brought us to Kentlands, a traditional neighborhood development (TND) in Gaithersburg, Md. It also brought a lot of other folks with the same ideas.

Elena Nacamuli lived until recently in a large duplex in a congested area of Northern Virginia. Living with a disability made upkeep of her home difficult. Tired of finding time for yard maintenance and concerned about the environmental effects of the chemicals, Nacamuli was overwhelmed. Now, in her newly built TND townhouse, she is ecstatic, "It was such a chore. I had three levels but was only using two. Logic just told me it was time to shrink."

Nacamuli found the TND concept fascinating. Interested in a European concept of villages, this smaller, more urban area provided her with the features of community she desired. Facing a lovely park, surrounded by other townhomes as well as many larger, single-family homes, she now feels safe walking her English bulldog. Her home, and therefore her life, is more manageable. "I look forward to the fall and winter now. I no longer have to rake leaves or shovel the driveway."

When Lisa Van Pelt-Diller, a busy stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Noble, decided to downsize, they chose to stay in the same neighborhood. The disruption of their two very active boys' lives had to be minimal for this move to be a success. Their decision was a financial one. How could they have Lisa continue to be at home full-time with the children without overtaxing Noble? The answer came in the form of a cute little bungalow in a courtyard just a short distance from their current Kentlands home. Same school district, same swim team, same friends -- the kids were thrilled. As an added benefit, the new house was closer to the business district of their TND. The boys don't always need a ride from Mom to get places now. With lots of friends and neighbors on the way, they can safely be more independent and walk to the store or movies with their buddies.

Moving from a 4,200-square-foot home to one with only 2,100 square feet of space was a cleansing experience. "We got rid of so much stuff we never used. It was the best thing we could ever have done," said Van Pelt-Diller. In the old house, there were rooms that were seldom entered except to clean. The living room had become "a museum." Now, with every inch of space being used, the house seems warmer and more inviting. (According to Van Pelt-Diller, "The only thing that got bigger [with the move] was the dog.")

With housing costs cut in half, Noble Diller is certainly happier. In his area of their finished basement, he keeps "every tool known to man" and is relieved to have the time to use them.

Do they ever miss a bigger place? Of course. Entertaining, especially during holidays, is a challenge without a more formal dining room. There is no deck or Jacuzzi to enjoy in the evening after dinner. But was it worth it? Absolutely, say the Dillers.

There are certainly many more reasons people downsize in their living arrangements. Healthier lifestyles, smaller families and financial prosperity have created an atmosphere that supports an active retirement. As nests become empty, the opportunities for our aging population abound: travel, social clubs, sports, hobbies, to name a few. Spending time cleaning and maintaining a large home is, for many, becoming increasingly less appealing even before the nest is emptying.

Of all the industrialized nations, the United States provides the least amount of vacation time for its workers. With this in mind, many people are willing to give up space for the ability to just pick up and go.

Simpler lifestyles allow for more time and resources to explore other options, making it easier to find a sense of comfort in our over-stressed world.