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July 28, 2005

The Way-Too-Big House

I've been noticing that older houses in my Seattle-area neighborhood are being steadily replaced by much larger mansion-sized structures--one of which is large enough to be an orphanage. Apparently this is a national trend: the size of new single-family homes has more than doubled since the 1940s (from 1,100 to 2,340 sq.ft.), according to a recent article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (see full pdf here). Combining this with the trend towards smaller households (from 3.67 to 2.62 members), authors Wilson and Boehland find that:

In new, single-family houses constructed in the United States, living area per family member has increased by a factor of 3 since the 1950s.

This has several environmental implications.  Larger houses not only use more building materials, but may also consume proportionally more.  Larger houses that include higher ceilings, complex designs such as extra wings, and other features may mean that material use increases proportionally faster than square-footage.

And building out has more impacts per square foot than building up because the increased impervious footprint generates more storm water runoff, taxing sewer capacity.

Not surprisingly, big houses also require more energy to heat and cool. Good insulation and green building techniques can only do so much for conservation.  When the authors calculated heating and cooling costs for a small, poorly insulated house and a well insulated house twice as large, they found the small house still used almost a third less energy.  So size really does matter, as Clark has also blogged about.

What has caused the trend?  Wilson and Boehland cite several factors.  Some zoning laws and development covenants mandate minimum house sizes (but some now also mandate maximums).  Mortgages for new houses often specify a minimum ratio of house value to land value. And until 1998, tax laws required home sellers to buy a house of equal or greater value unless they wanted to pay capital gains taxes on the appreciated value of their old house.

Wilson and Boehland also suggest that the notion of "bigger is better" may be inflating house sizes (see Alan’s post on up-sizing the American dream).  But a big house can also be lifeless: quantity without quality.  Instead of adding extra rooms, new home builders could invest in the details that give houses their charm (moldings, built in cabinets, granite countertops) and spend more for green details (better insulation, water-saving devices, sustainable materials).  They’d save money on energy bills and reduce their environmental impact.

Personally, I'd rather spend my home time reading in a bay window seat than cleaning an extra 600 square feet of house.

Posted by Jessica Branom-Zwick | Permalink


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Another good post Jessica. A lot of folk's parents have counseled them to buy the biggest house they can afford.

Big homes, in my experience, also are lifeless on the outside, rarely contributing to the public realm (perhaps because the owners are away all the time, or inside cleaning).

We'll know soon if our zoning ordinance passes, but we are controlling maximum building size in residential areas by limiting maximum footprint and Floor Area Ratio (so you don't get a huge box on a small lot).

Posted by: Dan Staley | Jul 28, 2005 12:56:45 PM

wow, average single family home was 1,100 sq ft? that seems very small by today's standard. i think small is the new big, though.. a smartly designed compact house is a beautiful thing.

Posted by: colorless green ideas | Jul 28, 2005 1:07:14 PM

With heating/cooling costs as much as they are now, it's so much smarter to buy a smaller home. All the people I know call those humungous homes "McHouses". :-)

Posted by: Kate | Jul 28, 2005 1:22:39 PM

It is amazing how houses have ballooned. In fact the designs seem to have done just that in many McMansions. The outsides are basically a huge box, with small and very fake rooflines and trim. The outsides of these houses are not meant to be used but rather are dolled up to appeal to a 'style'. It's interesting that houses are becoming more and more a shelter from the outside world and less about a place to live in the world. It's obvious from the exteriors and reflects on our sense of community.

Interesting also that design no longer incorporates airflow since our houses are climate controlled, making us far more dependant on A/C and heat. In older houses rooms and windows were designed to create breezes. Try that nowadays. Most houses have no long connecting hallways to funnel the breeze, no large eve overhangs to shade the windows and reduce solar heating during the heat of the summer days, etc...

Despite the comfort of AC we have lost a very simple answer to power consumption. If houses were designed for the weather we could do without our A/C and heat for at least a few extra weeks a year. I would venture to guess that most modern houses are using one or the other almost constantly throughuot the year to regulate temperature.

I won't get into our reliance on stickbuilt houses rather than more durable and eco-friendly materials. And how long will the current batch of outer ring houses last. Certaintly they are not going to be around in 100 years as the building is not nearly as sturdy as older houses.

Posted by: Jens | Jul 28, 2005 1:31:50 PM

One more partial answer to the why question: realtors. We tend to trust them as advisors on how to buy a house, where, how much to spend, and sometimes let ourselves get talked out of being too creative or progressive in our tastes because we'll be sorry if we limit resale potential. Their invisible vested interest: getting us to spend as much as we can in a neighborhood where prices are going up.

One realtor friend is perplexed that her profession is not more widely reviled for pushing consumers in the opposite direction from everything smart growth urbanists stand for.

Posted by: Cary | Jul 28, 2005 7:38:23 PM

Great post. Reducing the size of a house is the single most effective thing one can do to limit its environmental impact, both in inital resource use and operating energy. I must say though that your remarks apply most accurately to conventionally designed and built small and large homes. Most of the research and editorializing on home size has been done by people outside of the Northwest. Here in Washington we at least have about the best (most stringent) Energy Code in the United States. New homes here use less energy than old homes.

I think those that have spoken of the increasingly fortress-against-the-world, insular nature of contemporary houses have nailed it. We need more room for all our stuff, and all the activities we might have done in the "third place" before.

Wide overhangs aren't as effective in western Washington as they are in other parts of the country. You'd still get overheating on sunny days in the shoulder seasons, spring and fall. Exterior operable shades are better.

Stick buiilt houses--done correctly using advanced framing techniques which reduce wood use by 25% or more, and ideally Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood--are perfectly appropriate to the Northwest and eco-friendly.

Increasing sophistication of structural engineers' approaches to seismic danger in the Northwest has increased wood use and the cost of houses as well.

Here in the Northwest we have many designers, architects, builders and suppliers who are proficient in green building. We certainly have the knowledge base to build smaller and greener, if not the will. Have a look at the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild web site http://www.ecobuilding.org and the Green Pages listing of members.

Posted by: Rob Harrison AIA | Jul 29, 2005 5:14:48 PM

The pressure to build a larger house looms large. My wife and I are building a custom home on the east side. We have a "small" lot (over here that means 7500 sq ft) and wanted to build a "small" house.

During our first design pass we kept adding features to the home because of pressure to make it acceptable for the resale market some day. That meant having a living room, a completely separate and dedicated guest room, and large utility rooms with lots of extra storage. When the bid came back too high we refocused on our original goal of building a “small” home.

We now have a combined guest room/living room/library, a shared office (yes Honey, I’ll keep my desk clean) that can eventually be turned into a dedicated bedroom, a large front porch for sitting out front, and a more efficient floorplan on the main level.

Since Beaux Arts requires a 2 car garage the entire structure is just at 2200 sq ft. The main house comes in at just over 1700 sq ft - large by traditional standards but relatively small for current standards.

Despite being a very comfortable living space for we get funny and concerned looks from friends and family wondering if it’s “too small”. Maybe – I think. But compared to the 700sq ft flat my wife and I occupied in London, this house is… Well… A mansion…

(Eco-features to be included: High fly-ash content in all concrete, minimize concrete use, some advanced framing techniques to be used to cut down on lumber, high efficiency boiler, heat recovery ventilation, and all wood, cork, and linoleum flooring – no carpets. A rain garden will soak up storm water from the roof and hopefully prevent overflow into the storm sewer. I’m hoping to use reclaimed lumber for the windows and some FSC certified lumber – still looking into these items. I also plan to purchase Green Tags from BEF to offset all electricity and natural gas used in the house.)

Posted by: Matt Leber | Aug 1, 2005 9:28:18 AM

Seems like bigger houses also allow people to disconnect from their neighbors. Instead of spilling out onto the front porches or into nearby parks we retreat to the air conditioned corners of our too big rooms.

We live in a 1300 sq foot home. Perfect for my husband, myself and our daughter. Even with another child or two I'm not sure we'll want more space.

An added benefit? Company doesn't stay for too long....

Probably preaching to the choir but the Environmental Home Center looks like it has helpful things for those interested in ecofriendly additions/renovations to their homes...

Posted by: Rachel | Aug 1, 2005 1:26:48 PM

Bigger houses provide affordable non-commuting
housing for the nanny and other live-in help.

I agree personally with the preference for
amenities over raw size, too.

'bay window seat than cleaning an extra 600
square feet of house.'

Posted by: Coruscation | Dec 24, 2005 5:12:15 PM