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Living Less Large
The American Dream Comes to Its Senses

The American Dream: A spacious house in the suburbs, 2.5 kids, an SUV in the driveway and a big backyard. And a dog.

That was the intent, anyway. Far too often, though, the reality is segregated uses; wide, sidewalk-free streets; and oceans of mediocre and soulless -- albeit large -- drywall and plywood castles, built to last not much longer than their mortgages. Sporting vibrant coatings of beige, tan, fawn and ecru, they deliver the space at least -- plus sprawling expanses of backyard lawns brooded over by ledger boards bolted high on the exteriors like grim smiles, waiting for decks to someday be installed.

This brutal landscape we're creating is contributing to increased social isolation, according to a study published in American Sociological Review in June 2006. In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide important matters, the study reported. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all. Why people have fewer close friends is unclear, says Robert Putnam, a Harvard public policy professor and author of "Bowling Alone" (Simon & Schuster, 2000). The chief suspects? "More people live in the suburbs and spend more time at work."

More Americans are voicing that sentiment and doing something about it when they build a new home, says Gopal Ahluwalia, a market researcher with the National Association of Home Builders. "Ten years ago, quantity was the key. Now there's a definite trend toward quality features. In 1970, the average home size was 1,500 square feet; in 2005 it had grown to 2,436 square feet. During that same period, family size declined from 3.51 members to 2.59. So now, as the U.S. population is growing older, the cost of energy is rising, and maintenance issues are becoming a factor, some people are saying they want more amenities, instead of paying money for the space. It's a definite trend."

Conover Commons, a cottage community in Redmond, Wash., offers “sensibly sized” homes
that cater to a broad cross-section of homeowners. Photo by Ross Chapin

Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., and author of "This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), says that according to his research, statistics have not yet completely caught up with the downsizing trend. "It's in that hazy area of the anecdotal and thus can be labeled a myth," he says. "But 70 million aging baby boomers are an important driver for downsizing/rightsizing: They want to be part of a community for their own lifestyle needs, and urbanism and neighborhood are being recognized as the key amenities. So, it's not only moving into 2,000 square feet in a simplified layout that jettisons formal living rooms and other spaces that aren't really used, it's making sure that smaller home is in a neighborhood where you can walk out the front door and get to a park, a store, etc. It's only in that context that downsizing is for real."

Who else is driving the trend? Several demographic segments and a healthy dose of economics are each playing a role. Besides the retiring baby boomers, empty nesters are downsizing and young singles and marrieds are looking for starter homes. Issues of land affordability and energy conservation are bringing the issue to top of mind for many Americans. And the latest nudge came from Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out thousands of homes along the Gulf Coast and prompted federal, state and local governments to figure out how and where (or whether) those homes should be replaced - and how they might do so in a cost effective manner.

We haven't always lusted after large. Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., measured a mere 150 square feet; he lived there comfortably from 1845-47. He furnished the interior with a bed, a table, a small desk and lamp, and three chairs ("one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society"). While at Walden, Thoreau walked, studied, wrote, traveled and even hosted an anti-slavery fair. He strove to reduce his needs and to work efficiently. "The cost of a thing," he said, "is the amount of what I will call 'life' which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears Roebuck and Company sold approximately 75,000 kit houses in the U.S.; most of these mail-order homes were traditional, efficient designs not long on square footage, which helped to keep constructions costs in check while providing attractive quarters for middle-class Americans.

For example, "The Carlin," a two-bedroom Craftsman-style home, weighed in at approximately 600 square feet, with a generous front porch to expand the usable space. In 1918, The Carlin was dubbed a home "for better class workers"; its kit cost $1,172 and included all the material to build the house, excluding cement, brick and plaster. Today, The Carlin and other Sears kit houses have become treasured pieces of Americana, spurring historians and homeowners to rediscover some of the thousands of unidentified Sears homes scattered across the U.S.

The desire -- some might say need -- for more sensibly sized homes didn't end when Sears stopped selling its kit houses. While the 1980s saw an increase in larger homes that targeted the baby boomers and status-seekers, the 1990s ushered in architect and author Sarah Susanka and her "Not So Big House" book series. Susanka's message, which stressed quality materials and human-scaled interiors, touched a nerve among "cultural creatives" (see sidebar) who were not being served by the production building machine.

"Gradually, people are understanding that bigger doesn't mean better," says Susanka, who believes the most recent trend toward moderate living has been 20 years in the making. "People knew they wanted better homes, but they didn't know that quantity wasn't the solution. More people are realizing this now and are looking for a better alternative."

Susanka sees the home-size backlash as inextricably bound to another issue: A pervasive attitude in American culture that "big and busy" is good. From our supersized soft drinks to our frenetic pace of life, we are a people on whom the true meanings of scale and productivity are rapidly being lost. Susanka's upcoming book, "The Not So Big Life" (Random House, May 2007), applies her ideas about living spaces to time and how we use it to bring meaning to our lives. For Susanka, there is a connection between the two -- and a need to communicate it.

"What I hear from people and see in their eyes is that their inspiration comes from learning how to make the fabric of their houses reflect them back to themselves. The shapes of the spaces, the characters of the spaces and the structure itself need to resonate with the characters and personalities of the family members living there."

That's a pretty tall order for a production-built house, and one that's a little tricky to wrap one's head around.

Craftsman-turned-writer Jim Tolpin would agree. Tolpin, the author of "The New Cottage Home" (Taunton, 1998) and "The Seven Secrets of the Cottage" (Sterling, spring 2007), and one of the founders of the so-called "Cottage Movement," takes a sometimes unscientific view toward living spaces and what makes them work, although he supports his books' assertions with his own research, as well as digging into findings in environmental psychology and evolutionary psychology. In the end, though, his conclusions are largely visceral: "If things feel right, they probably are right," he says.

Tolpin has built and lived in cottages his whole life, and understands why people love them. "[Cottages] are more human in scale and proportion, which to me means that they elicit in us an acknowledgement that these spaces are made for us," he says.

Tolpin's research of cottages included separate interviews with men and women, during which he asked them what was important in their homes. "I got very different answers," he says, "but after awhile I could almost predict them. The women looked in at how the interior lived and how they were going to live in it; the men looked out, paying attention to what the exterior looked like."

In spite of this difference, however, a universal reaction reigned when interview subjects looked at romanticized images of cottages: They smiled.

Why? "Because cottages satisfy on a gut level," says Tolpin. "Sometimes a house seems intellectually right -- it has all the elements going for it that are intellectually satisfying -- but it doesn't mean you want to live there. That's why you find people living in funky cabins on beaches, with sand coming in the door every day. They're nuts, right? And they love where they live. They're smiling."

Tolpin sees the trend toward moderate houses as one driven by people who are reevaluating what's important to them on a gut level, rather than an intellectual or status-seeking level. And for him, it's a work in progress, one that is shifting the cultural focus from the individual to community life.

"We don't like living alone. Not really. So this cottage movement is evolving into community living, not just individuals finding what they truly want in a house."

In Redmond, Wash., one such cottage community is almost complete, promising a higher quality home, neighborhood and lifestyle. Composed of a planned 25 highly detailed, two- and three-bedroom cottage homes (1,500 to 1,800 square feet, some offering finished lower levels for an additional 500 to 900 square feet) surrounding a garden courtyard, Conover Commons is another in a series of similar neighborhoods that have sprung up in western Washington over the past several years, beginning with Third Street Cottages in Langley, a small town of 1,100 on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. Designed by Ross Chapin Architects (RCA) of Langley and co-developed by RCA and Seattle-based The Cottage Company, Conover Commons is the first project built under the city of Redmond's Innovative Housing Code, which allows for smaller homes on smaller lots, prohibited when the conventional Euclidean zoning codes were the only law in town.

The cottages bear the mark of an architect and developer who "get it": Front porches, private yards with low fences, flowerboxes, wood floors, free-standing stoves, Craftsman-style cabinets, paneled doors and skylights are just a few of the common amenities. The community also offers a commons building with a separate commons room for larger gatherings, almost 5 acres of permanently protected woodland bordering the neighborhood, and a separate parking area for residents.

Linda Pruitt, a Cottage Company co-principal, bristles at the term "downsizing," insisting that Conover Commons residents -- as well as residents of other cottage communities that The Cottage Company has created -- are coming for a variety of reasons and are not necessarily living less large. "Some are moving into smaller spaces, some are moving into larger homes. All are looking for higher-quality architecture, better interior finishes, better building systems and spaces, and a better living experience," she says. "For them 're-sizing' is a more appropriate term. It's an enhanced experience, a significant lifestyle choice."

As for who these residents are, good luck trying to categorize them, says Pruitt. "The baby boomers might be contributing to the shift in the conventional market, but the reality here is that people who buy our homes run the gamut, from new couples who want to have their first baby, to people who have been around 50+ years."

Pruitt's co-principal at The Cottage Company, Jim Soules, is also a proponent of the "re-sizing" terminology. "We need to educate the public and build good models of moderately sized houses - not 'small' houses," he says. "And we need more good models of cottage communities to set the standard, so when people come looking, they can see the result."

Soules points to a growing number of planners and cities trying to find alternatives to 3,000-square-foot homes that are out of scale with their existing neighborhoods. "There's a general interest in many cities for more variety of housing choices, particularly with infill in existing neighborhoods," he says. "But it needs to be a well-designed, quality product, and that can be a challenge. How do you legislate good design?"

Soules works with architect Ross Chapin for designs that complement the Conover Commons goal of simplicity and moderation. Chapin, who has 25 years of cottage design under his belt, says that the market for well-designed, richly detailed homes has never abated. "We've never lacked for work, and during the last 10 years, there's been a big upsurge for cottage homes," says Chapin.

Still, Chapin is a realist when it comes to reading the market. "I'm seeing two movements out there," he says. "One says, 'Bigger is better. I've worked hard my whole life and I deserve the most that my money can buy. The other movement is, 'Small is beautiful. I've worked hard and I don't want to be tied into 'honey do' lists that fill up my evenings and weekends. I'm more interested in quality friendships, entertaining and traveling.'"

For Chapin, the cottage communities he helps to design -- he calls them "pocket neighborhoods" -- serve a deep need in our modern society. "We have a fragmented culture with families extended across the country. Earlier in our history, our needs were 'held' by the extended family that lived close by, within walking distance," he says. "In today's society, we don't have that. We are so far afield from that safety network it's sickening, it's crazy-making, it's dysfunctional.

"I think people long for a home environment that 'holds' them. If you come home to a cavernous box, with acres of drywall and furniture that has to be outscaled to fit the space, it's not cozy. It doesn't hold what a person needs to recharge, to feel rejuvenated.

"And as for the economic aspect, a smaller, well-crafted house will likely cost the same as a larger, boxier house that lacks detail. Quality of space is the thing -- one's rapport with the house. It's not about square footage, it's about livable square feet."

New Urban Builders of Chico, Calif., is creating plenty of livable square feet in its relatively new neighborhood, Doe Mill. At just 48 acres, the community is already primed for better living on a more moderate scale. R. John Anderson, New Urban Builders' vice president of design, says the market for sensibly scaled homes is alive and well.

"It's a great opportunity for us as builders. A light bulb goes on when potential buyers come into the neighborhood; another one goes on when they step into the individual units. Doe Mill is a lot like old, established neighborhoods, where the emphasis is more on the neighborhood and less on the house. In new, conventional construction, it's often more about the house and less about the neighborhood," says Anderson.

"We're finding a market for 'smaller but better.' People really want the opportunity to throw as many upgrades into the house as possible. It's not about square footage; they're saying, 'I'm going into a house that's a home.'"

Anderson points to two examples of ways people use the money saved by going smaller. Some decline the detached garage option, saving themselves $20,000 and allowing them to qualify for financing. Others take that $20,000 and sink it into high-end kitchen appliances and cabinetry. "On an 890-square-foot bungalow!" Anderson says with some surprise.

Anderson also singles out what he calls the "Sarah Susanka buyers" -- the cultural creatives -- and pays close attention to their desires. "I think a lot of this in the near term is plumbing the depths of that market and understanding that customer," he says. "It is not about commodity square footage. The Sarah Susanka buyer is looking for more attention to detail, more opportunities for personalizing deliberately and thoughtfully. That buyer also pressures you to deliver the other amenities, such as shopping, transit, outdoor recreation, etc. They're more high-maintenance buyers."

By all indications, the shift toward more moderately sized homes is here to stay. The myriad reasons include economic, social and a simple return to reason: Human beings simply aren't designed to thrive in built environments that are out of scale to their general proportions. We may not articulate this fact often, but we know it. We feel it.

Sarah Susanka believes the trend is a long-term one. "We're reassessing what we need, what supports us and makes us feel the most whole. And that's not a fad; that's not going to go away."

Author James Howard Kunstler ("The Long Emergency," Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) says the decision to live in smaller, better-designed homes and communities may not be one we will make entirely on our own. "There's a popular argument that the suburban sprawl way of life is okay because the public likes it," he says. "But as we enter the age of a permanent global energy crisis, it will not matter whether people like this way of life or not. It's coming off the menu. Events will compel us to make other arrangements -- and this means returning to more traditional land-use patterns and to different kinds of housing types."

To find out more about the people, firms, books, neighborhoods and homes included in this article, consult these sources.

Conover Commons neighborhood:

New Urban Builders:

Sarah Susanka’s books and services:

Ross Chapin Architects:

Sidebar One: How to Spot a Cultural Creative

Author Paul Ray coined the phrase “cultural creative” to describe a new demographic
group emerging in America and currently making up about a quarter of the population.

Unfettered by age or economic brackets, cultural creatives “don’t ascribe to the general values that we see reflected in the marketplace or the mass media,” says author Sarah Susanka. “They generally have better-than-average educations and have no interest in impressing the neighbors; they simply want to live with integrity.”

Cultural creatives seek beauty, balance and harmony in their lives, but not out of any sense of altruism. They do it because they perceive themselves as part of the planet. Just as they wouldn’t harm their right hand with their left, so to their choices are based on what is best for themselves, their neighborhood, their country, their planet. It’s all part of the same thing; it’s all part of their mindset. They buy organic food and clothes made from organic cotton, hemp and bamboo; they choose free-trade coffee; they vote their conscience.

Cultural creatives seek well-being and health at all levels. And they understand that these begin at home.

Sidebar Two: Who’s Being Served?

The state of new construction in the United States is a sorry one, if you consider what’s being built vs. who’s trying to buy it. In 2005, the average home size was 2,436 square feet, a snapshot of a trend that continues to move relentlessly upward. Now consider these statistics:

• 30 percent of home buyers are single-person households (9 percent single men; 21 percent single women).

• According to the Bureau of the Census 2005 American Community Survey, 27 percent of U.S. households are single persons.

• Less than 25 percent of American households are nuclear families, but nuclear families represent
a higher percentage of home buyers than any other segment.

• 61 percent of home buyers reported that there were no children under the age of 18 residing in the home, according to the 2005 National Association of Realtors Buyer Survey. Translation: The “nuclear family” accounts for, at most, 39 percent of new and existing home sales.

Source: Todd Zimmerman, co-managing director, Zimmerman/Volk Associates, Inc.,