Smaller Vs. Bigger…A Follow-Up…

7 03 2011

I’ve enjoyed a number of hits on my “note”, posted recently on facebook, regarding the ever-increasing size of the American house.  It also caused me to ponder the issue a bit more and to dig just a bit deeper.

I noted, in my previous diatribe, that the average American house, in 1980, was 1,740 sq. ft. and that, today is 2,500 sq. ft. indicating an increase of 760 sq. ft.  Now, to many, this does not appear to be a large increase but, let’s look at it from a different perspective; according to the US Census Bureau, there has been an average of 1 million housing starts per year since 1980 (though it has been half that over the last couple of years).  With that many housing starts, one could suggest that we’ve overbuilt, each year, by 760 million sq. ft. or 17,447 acres (not including associated area requirements for streets, etc.).  To further exacerbate the issue, this indicates that, over the 30 year period we have, perhaps, overbuilt by 523,410 acres or 818 square miles (the state of Rhode Island has an area of 1,214 sq. miles).  If you took this exercise back to post-WWII when the average house size was only 1,000 sq. ft., the numbers would be mind boggling.

Now, to be fair, some of the new houses were constructed to replace existing structures but, to ask the more important questions: how much of our agricultural land have we surrendered to “bigger”?  How much of our scenic open space have we surrendered to “bigger”? How much wildlife has been pushed toward extinction for “bigger”?  How much of our natural resources have been depleted for “bigger”?  As argued in the previous “note”, these houses have been built, in many instances, as cheaply as possible in order to remain affordable and feed our insatiable appetite for the “status house”. Unfortunately, these cheaply built houses will also have to be replaced sooner, will have more maintainable cost associated with them, and just simply don’t provide much more than shelter.  And, we are talking about extra square footage in this “note”; if we added in the cavernous volumes of space that we now construct with our soaring ceilings, etc, the true waste would be magnified several times over.

Please also keep in mind, that we are talking averages; yes, some families do need more square footage and space but, in the overall scheme of things, Americans have allowed this issue to become out of control.  Sure, due to an expanding population, we need to add to our housing stock, we just need to be mindful of “right-sizing” instead of “over-sizing”.  The “status house” has become a driving force in our culture and, if this issue doesn’t reverse itself, we will use up all that this planet has to offer.

As an architect, I too have been guilty of designing houses for clients that are too large; it was, perhaps, too easy to get caught up in the design and lose sight of the bigger picture.  I realize, now, that less really is more and that, by working together, we can reverse these detrimental trends of overbuilding.  It is not too late, I believe that Mother Earth will work with us to save our planet, and together we will create a better place for all of humankind’s future generations.

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