The Shrinking American House: A Sign of a Cultural Shift?

They say it’s a sign we’re coming back to earth as a result of the recession. And perhaps it signals a growing environmental awareness. Certainly, the loss of cheap and easy credit is a factor, as well.

Whatever the cause, we all have a reason to be thankful: the McMansion is losing favor with American homebuyers, according to data published in the New York Times magazine last week. This year, builders are marketing a new ideal of around 1,700 square feet — large homes by international standards but a relative cubby hole compared to the average of 2,500 square feet that dominated during the housing bubble.

Jason Tinkey at Network blog A Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong has taken a moment to contemplate our evolving preferences. It’s worthwhile to consider just how we got to the point where building a 6,000-square-foot home seemed like a good idea.

The McMansion, a relic of bygone days? Photo: ##http://www.re-nest.com/re-nest/news/mcmansions-out-of-vogue-for-nowwall-street-journal-6292009-088749## re-nest.com##

Our nation’s identity is closely linked to a frontier mentality, a notion that there is an inexhaustible supply of both land and resources. This would have made perfect sense to early settlers who happened upon seemingly endless tracts of virgin forest and vast herds of bison. Of course, we hit the west coast 200 years ago and have been steadily populating the gaps ever since, but the myth still lingers. Buy a house for your 2.5 kids, tend a chemically-treated lawn, drive everywhere even if you don’t need to, before eventually succumbing to suburban ennui. This is what “normal” people have done for fifty years in this country.

Of course, no one is really sure whether smaller houses are back to stay, or whether this trend will reverse itself in a future turn of the real estate market. But Tinkey thinks once Americans get a taste of more proportionally sized digs, the benefits will speak for themselves:

The house-buying public will, eventually, understand that bigger is not always better. I think that it’s a generational shift which is only beginning.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Greater Greater Washingon gives some thought to the ethics of gentrification. The League of American Bicyclists reevaluates the share of TIGER II funds that went to bike and pedestrian projects. And Steven Can Plan remarks on the success of yesterday’s counter-protest in support of the new Prospect Park West bike lane in Brooklyn.

  • RoyPS

    Is it just me, or is the formatting off on this article?

  • ChrisCo

    The square footage of houses isn’t very relevant, but for some reason it’s what everyone focuses on. What matters is the average lot size. Large average lot size is what contributes to sprawl – not large square footage.

  • Jass

    ChrisCo is right. You can have a large 4 story house (2 floors + basement and attic) and take up less space than someone who lives in a single story.

  • Al

    Not even average lot size. Someone made a good point a while back, that the average uber-sprawl Las Vegas house is built on a lot not much larger than many San Francisco lots (looking at satellite images of LV, I’m seeing 80×30, 100×40… on average a bit bigger, but not outrageously so, and some smaller). The difference is that there’s no provision for any method of transportation but driving. Sidewalks are not too uncommon, but they all meander for ages without getting anywhere, and there are simply no local destinations.

  • I live in a 3 story house, not counting the basement. It is on a narrow lot with a single car garage and a driveway. When we saw the plans for the house, we asked that the ground under the garage be excavated to serve as a storage room.

  • Fifth Avenue has some single-family six-story buildings. They’re rare and exceedingly expensive, but they’re there.

    ChrisCo and Al are right. I’d add that in addition to good sidewalks and small lots, it’s important to have high lot coverage, easily crossable roadways, and clusters of commercial development near transit stations.

  • Square footage is entirely relevant. Sprawl is part of the result and reducing it is important, but the energy needed to construct, maintain and temper a home is directly related to its floor area. Heating and cooling comprise the largest usage of energy in an American home. Lighting also makes up around 20%. Americans should definitely be working towards smaller homes that have less needless, extra space.

    However, elevated design practices that revolve around efficiency have to accompany this kind of an effort if its going to stick. More developers should be using architects that know how to maximize space rather than just pumping out a half-sized version of the regular, cookie-cutter house. Exploring multi-purpose rooms, collapsing amenities, integrated natural heating and cooling, and other tactics are key to making people impressed and pleased with less space.

    We should be taking this time to scale down the size of our homes but ratchet up the standard of quality.

  • interesting I have seen a link to those frontier style cabins that our fore fathers lived in – pretty much one room – not sure If I could live like THAT