Building Smaller to Live Better

Building Smaller to Live Better

“How did the American Dream become a dream about a big house?”


Remodeling the American Dream

In 2018, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060 report. The report states that the world’s consumption of raw materials is on track to almost double by 2060: “as the global economy expands and living standards rise, placing twice the pressure on the environment that we are seeing today.”

And yet, every year, houses get bigger and people – and the planet – don’t get any happier. 

As a collective we have a whole lot of house space that we’re not using, and it’s costing us a fortune financially, emotionally, and environmentally. 

Have we been going about housing wrong all along? 

Size matters: square footage and sustainability

Accessory Dwelling Units (aka ADU’s, aka “mini houses” aka “granny flats”) tend to be about 100-400 square feet on average. Now compare that to the size of an “average house” as defined by the American Institute of Architects: 2,598 sq. feet or (241 m2).

That’s a whopping 41 percent larger than the average size of a single-family home in 1973. 

ADU’s produce a fraction of the carbon emissions of average sized homes: 2,000 lbs of CO2 emissions per year as compared to an average 28,000 lbs per year for average homes. As builder Jug Tarr eloquently put it: “it doesn’t take a PhD in physics to see that energy cost is a direct correlation of cubic feet.”

So it’s easy to see how sustainability is a cornerstone of the “small house movement” (but for the record, tiny houses aren’t necessarily ADU’s, more on that here!).

Our big house dreams are effectively undoing decades of sustainable advancements in green technology. Policymakers are taking notice, and are considering placing caps on house size in some places. Cities are even beginning to incentivize ADU construction, so check out your municipality to see if there are any credits available to you if you’re interested in building one! 

The advantages of living smaller  

The benefits of a smaller home extend far, far below the stratosphere. 

Besides their small footprint, ADU’s have implications at several levels: by addressing density and suburban sprawl in our cities, by making multigenerational living more comfortable, by providing options to millennials and retirees and everyone in-between with no ability or desire to pay a mortgage for the rest of their lives.

On a micro-level, living smaller means:

Space to heat and coolMoney in your pocket each month
Maintenance, repairs, and upkeepTime to do whatever you want!
Physical spaceEmotional space
Family separation Family togetherness  
Time commuting to your parents houseTime spent WITH your parents (multigenerational living – made functional) 

Less anchor, more launchpad.

That said, all sizes are welcome 

In her pioneering book The Not so Big House, architect and author Sarah Susanka reminds us that “’Not So Big’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘small.’ It just means not as big as you thought you needed. The ideal size for your not-so-big-house depends on your financial situation, the size of your family, and your personal preferences.”

For a lot of people, dreaming smaller won’t look like building and living in a mini house. It might look like turning a bedroom into an office, converting an attic or garage, putting up a new shelf, or getting rid of clutter in the living room.

If you have a big house that you enjoy living in, whose spaces provide you material, spiritual, or emotional satisfaction––keep living your best life. You can still pay attention to the small spaces within a larger structure ––and dreaming smaller can improve the space you currently have. 

… But totally still get an ADU if you can 

If you have spare change to build 5,000 square feet, cut your size in half, and spend your savings on an architect, skilled craftspeople, and high-priced materials, and show off the gorgeous results.”

Shay Salomon

We’re not saying everyone should live in a 250 sq. ft. mini house, and we’re definitely not saying we don’t love and appreciate the spaciousness large houses bring to the lives of people who live in them. 

We believe the quality of square footage is more important than the quantity. In the words of legendary small-house author Shay Salomon, a house should “fit like a glove, not a warehouse.”

At the end of the day, how you inhabit and mold your space is your prerogative. No matter who you are or where you live, the key takeaway is this: bigger doesn’t always mean better. Smaller will always mean less stuff, and less stuff can be a great thing.

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