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  • Writer's pictureTim Rhodes, RA., AIA

The Smaller House

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

How You Can Have More in Less

Part I

“Sustainable” is Nonsense and Smaller is “Green”

Our grandparents grew up and raised your parents in a house about a third of the size of yours. They raised a family of four in it. According to the National Association of Homebuilders the average American family of 2.6 persons today lives in at least 2,687 square feet or 1,033 square feet per person. Our grandparents raised larger families in just 983 square feet (245 square feet per family member) and I grew up in an average house of 1,500 square feet in the 1970s.

The most easily quantifiable reason to live in a smaller home is its inherent efficiency. Small is the most inherently “sustainable” and our houses are growing larger each generation, indubitably consuming more materials, labor, and energy.

Three thousand square feet is the lower end of many single-family homes we are approached to design. We preach “smaller is better” and design what is desired. We work hard to create smaller, more human spaces within, to break down the “scale” of the houses we design.

We all live in smaller dwellings; the average residence of the architects I work with incorporates 367 square feet per person. We live in and understand smaller spaces and we know that it is easier to live in “smaller” homes comfortably.

Many of us recognize that in building todays larger houses we have lost something important. The homes of the past are often sought as better places to live despite their smaller size. In the doubling and tripling of home size during the lives of the last three generations, new homes have sacrificed quality, detail, and scale (the term architects use to describe the size of a space in relation to the size of the humans who live there). We have lost the comfortable warm materials we most value at the same time that we have sacrificed the spaces that encourage social gathering and connection, real livability.  It turns out that the size of spaces is intimately connected to the comfortable use of those spaces.

Big homes are getting more expensive too but surprisingly not for the reasons most assume. Anyone buying a home in our metropolitan area (as in many cities) will testify that the prices of the houses they are viewing are going up. Yet, surprisingly, the average cost to build a house today has not increased in the last forty years. The average cost of the construction of production houses currently is about $115-$120 per square foot, again according to data from the National Association of Home Builders, about the same as it was in 1970 when adjusted for inflation. Developers are building much larger houses at the same cost per square foot. The increase in the cost of our houses is due to the increasing size, not the cost of the labor and materials used nor the cost of the energy used to produce, move or to join the materials.

There is an ironic relationship between house size, efficiency, and quality, however, that is overlooked. The larger the houses we build, the more we must reduce the cost and quality of the parts, and the more maintenance they require while their very lives are shortened requiring huge investments in energy to demolish and replace them. The smaller the houses we design (at a given construction budget), the less quantity of materials and more quality of materials that we can incorporate and the less energy we need to build, maintain, heat and cool them. Smaller homes built with quality materials last longer too. Inherently, smaller, more energy efficient homes use less energy at all parts of their life cycles and, because they are around much longer, continue using less energy farther into our children’s futures.

In a related correlation, cheaper materials used only for energy efficiency wear out and fail more quickly. Much has been made of the importance of “sustainable” houses; the term is currently fashionable. Building codes (including the increasingly strict codes in the Pacific Northwest) are requiring houses to be more “sustainable”. This primarily means more energy efficient, less wasteful of the air inside that is heated and cooled by oil or gas or electricity, more water efficient. This is important; in 2015, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, about 40% of total U.S. energy consumption was consumed in residential and commercial buildings, or about 39 quadrillion British thermal units.

Yet as our homes have grown in size we have focused only on energy efficiency; very little is done by our building codes to decrease the size of the American house or to reward smaller homes. Building big houses is assumed to be an American right and bigger homes with more space, appliances, use more energy. The American Physical Society reports that “Energy consumption has been growing despite improvements in efficiency. As compared with 30 years ago, Americans have larger homes; (and) more air-conditioners, televisions, and computers; and a variety of other devices that use energy.”

And the very efficacy of the energy codes that define our large houses has been questioned. It is “tremendously difficult to prove empirically” that building energy efficiency codes actually result in energy savings, argues economics Professor Dr. Arik Levinson of Georgetown University. Levinson reported (that) he found no evidence that building codes themselves reduced energy consumption.

As our building codes try to facilitate energy efficiency they often do not encourage better, more durable materials; many of the more energy-efficient materials that are encouraged are shorter-lived (vinyl doors and windows are an example). The less expensive and less durable materials that we are building with allow larger houses to be more cheaply built. The “green” certifications encouraged by our codes (and, in some cases by those designing and selling the homes) are given to houses that often enclose 4, 5, 6 thousand square feet.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “sustainable” as “able to be maintained at a certain level” or “conserving ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources”. At a federal level the Department of Energy details a “whole house approach” to “efficient home design”  referencing the house construction and systems without even mentioning the size of the house. Our homes are designed (as required by codes in many jurisdictions) only to conserve the energy and that they require to live in. Their size and the resulting materials and energy that they require to build is not governed or, often, even discussed.

The huge investment in each house built can be measured four cycles; the manufacture of the materials, the hauling and erection of those materials, the maintenance of the materials and systems, including heating, cooling, cleaning, re-finishing and renovating, and the final demolition and second hauling of our homes to the land-fill. As the size of our homes increases three-fold “embodied” energy we use to make their components, to haul the materials, to erect and connect the parts, to clean and maintain the spaces, and to eventually demolish and remove them increases proportionately. Measured this way, the ability of a home to be “sustainable” or energy efficient is inverse to its size. The smaller the house we live in the more energy efficient it is.

Small Homes are inherently “greener”. And the better materials able to be incorporated in smaller homes (given a fixed construction cost), not only last longer but are often warmer and more intimately human, making smaller homes more comfortable places to live. Think about sitting with your morning coffee next to a thin vinyl window with particle board trim and then picture a cozy window seat next to a window built from warm natural fir. Smaller, better connected, more humanly scaled spaces are inherently more pleasant, more contented places.

Part II of this series emphasizes the many human reasons to build smaller homes. Part III discusses strategies for designing the spaces that we are most attracted to.

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