The pared-down house:
Recession, green movement prompt downsizing of the American home
By Karen Holcomb
When it comes to new home construction, less is more.
Americans, it seems, are opting for smaller, smarter homes as part of a trend dubbed “the downsizing of the American dream.” Ever since the recession began in 2007, going smaller is smarter. The McMansion, with its soaring ceilings and atrium-style great rooms, is being replaced with more modest, energy-efficient, greener houses.
“To be honest, everyone is trying to cut down on square footage,” said Todd Palechek, AIA, an architect who designs custom residential homes, renovations and additions in the Southwestern Ohio area. “A lot of things have driven it — the economy, Number 1.
“Back in the day, everybody wanted a two-story open foyer great room as soon as you walk in, and that’s sort of wasted space. People are getting away from wasted square footage and going with more practical square footage,” Palechek said.
That means eat-in kitchens or breakfast nooks instead of formal dining rooms, the elimination of formal living rooms, and using nooks or attic spaces for additional storage or built-ins.
“I’ve seen the introduction of multipurpose spaces, such as studies that can serve as a guest bedroom — or even a formal dining room, for resale purposes — if they are placed strategically,” Palechek said.
Statistics show that homebuyers and builders alike are embracing the smaller-is-smarter philosophy. New homes — which had gradually grown over the years to double the size of the typical 1960s residence — are shrinking. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average square footage of a new home decreased 51 square feet, to 2,422 square feet, from 2008 to 2009. And nearly 60 percent of residential builders said they planned to decrease the square footage of homes they constructed in 2010, according to National Association of Homebuilders.
It’s a trend Sarah Susanka could have predicted. Susanka, an English-born American architect, published the book The Not So Big House in 1998. In it, she advocated paring down living space into more efficient, people-friendly rooms with multiple uses for today’s lifestyle. Stuffy formal rooms, she wrote, “stand as a memorial to the way we used to live.” She urged homeowners to value quality over quantity and “build better, not bigger.”
For Susanka, now the best-selling author of eight Not So Big books, this philosophy was not a matter of economic necessity, but a lifestyle choice. She found it hard to truly relax beneath a towering ceiling more suited to a public space such as a courthouse. And incorporating natural materials such as wood and stone, recycled and salvaged items, screened-in porches and view-maximizing windows feeds a 21st century need to reconnect with nature. Concepts from the past, such as built-in bookcases and window seats, are now being combined with modern ideals, such as energy efficiency and sustainability.
Many new homeowners are jumping onboard. More than 8,500 homebuilders have constructed more than a million Energy Star qualified homes throughout the United States since the program began in the early 1990s. Energy Star guidelines, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can make a home 20 to 30 percent more energy efficient than standard homes. The guidelines include effective insulation systems, high-performance windows, tight construction and ducts, efficient heating and cooling equipment and Energy Star qualified lighting and appliances. Compliance with the standards must be verified by a qualified third-party rater.
Gayle Niehaus, a retired principal whose husband passed away several years ago, just doesn’t need the 3,300 square feet in her current dwelling. She plans to build a new home about half the size of the house she currently occupies with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
Her new house will maximize every square foot by incorporating multifunctional, energy-efficient spaces, including a “multipurpose room” that combines a photography studio, study and extra bedroom. A great room is planned, with an adjoining kitchen, porch and oversized windows to incorporate stunning views of her Southwestern Ohio farm.
It’s a page right out of Susanka’s book, with window seats, skylights, open-concept floor plan — and lack of formal spaces.
“We wanted to live small, which is the whole purpose of this house,” Niehaus said.
Experts believe the smaller-is-smarter philosophy will endure beyond the current economic crisis. As Susanka wrote: “It’s time for a different kind of house. A house that is more than square footage; a house that is Not So Big, where each room is used every day. A house with a floor plan inspired by our informal lifestyle instead of the way our grandparents lived. A house for the future that embraces a few well-worn concepts from the past. A house that expresses our values and our personalities. It’s time for the Not So Big House.”
Karen Holcomb is a freelance writer from Hamilton, Ohio