The Shrinking House: Downsizing the American Dream

Home ownership has long been a symbol of the American Dream and for a while there, we SUPERSIZED it. But since the recession, we’ve been downsizing it.

Source: Builder Magazine

The median home size in America was near 2,300 square feet at the peak of the market in 2007, with many McMansions topping 10,000 square feet.

Today, the median home size has dropped to about 2,100 square feet and more than one-third of Americans say their ideal home size is actually under 2,000 square feet, according to a survey by real-estate site Trulia.

“The whole glow of bigness kind of wore off all of a sudden,” said Sarah Susanka, an architect and the author of “The Not So Big House”book series.

Builders are responding by chopping out rooms that people just don’t use anymore, particularly formal living rooms and sitting rooms.

“You’re not having the king and queen of England to dinner but Joe and Kathy from next door — and they’d prefer to be in your informal space!” Susanka said.

Even media rooms, game rooms and libraries are on the way out, added Boyce Thompson, the editorial director for Builder magazine.

Every year, Builder does a concept home that represents where the market’s at. This year, it was called “A Home for the New Economy,” which weighed in at around 1,700 square feet – and, interestingly, was only designed virtually. (Take a virtual tour.)

Instead of having a formal living room and a family room, the Home for the New Economy has one big “great room” and instead of a home office, an extra bedroom on the main floor doubles as a guest room/home office—or even an in-law suite. They were even careful to chop out unnecessary hall space.

“The key today is to provide flexible space,” Thompson said.

So, instead of a game room, you may have a gaming area in part of your great room. Instead of a library, you may have a reading nook.

The “proliferation of bathrooms” is also on the way out, Susanka adds. For a while there, it seemed, every room had its own bathroom and people just didn’t use them. It’s time “to bring some sanity back to the equation,” she said.

But just because a house is small, doesn’t mean it has to feel small. Architects are finding all kinds of design tricks to make a home feel bigger, from varying the ceiling height — seeing that a ceiling is higher in the next room makes it feel even bigger — or putting a direct line of sight to an outdoor space like a porch or deck. As your eye sees past the room to the outside, the space feels bigger.

The Front Porch Makes a Comeback

It’s not just the inside of the house that’s changing, it’s the outside, too. The yards are smaller, with many developments favoring shared green spaces over big private yards.

And, the front porch is back. Builders are increasingly moving the garage to the back of the house and adding a big porch on the front.

Seeing a big porch through the dining room, and a shared green space beyond that adds to the illusion that you are getting more — and it makes you want to get out there and reconnect with your neighbors.

At the height of the market it was all about “suburban sprawl,” with everyone in their back yards, with their own deck, their own swingset, their own pool — and barely knowing their neighbors. Today, the buzz word is “smart growth” — smaller more sustainable communities that really have a sense of community.


That’s partly because it’s better for the environment and community building, but there’s a more practical reason.

“Most households now have two people working,” said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “Who wants to spend their time cleaning their house … or taking care of big yards … when they have kids to take care of?”

He said a magnet on his daughter-in-law’s fridge sums it up: “A clean home is a sign of a wasted life!”

It’s not just young people, either — empty nesters don’t want to spend their weekend mowing the lawn either!

This shift is evident in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, a new urbanist community built on the site of the old airport, which is meant to bring that suburban, small-town feel into a neighborhood within the city limits.

Here, their yards are tiny by design and no one has a pool — not even the million-dollar homes. Instead, they have an 80-acre shared park, aptly named Central Park, smaller “pocket parks” that become shared yards and three — soon to be four — public pools.

The Friday Afternoon Club

The concept may seem offputting to some, who may not think they want to know their neighbors. But there’s a sense of community there that you scarcely find elsewhere, with passersby saying hello to families on the porch and making plans to head out to a pocket park to play, or attend a free concert or movie in the park.

“People have just accepted the tradeoff,” said Denise Gammon, a vice president at Stapleton’s developer, Forest City Enterprises. “They think, ‘I don’t have a big, private yard, but boy do I have this amazing range of open space that’s completely accessible to me,’” she explained.

“It creates a really cohesive community,” added Heidi Majerik, the director of development at Forest City, who lives and works in Stapleton. “We get 1,000 to 2,000 people at weekend events and there are tons of informal events like the Friday Afternoon Club, where people bring out chairs, wine and appetizers and the kids play,” she explained.

“There’s a lot of movement toward neighborhoods like this,” Susanka said.

Susanka is currently designing a home in a similar neighborhood, Libertyville, Ill., just north of Chicago.

Neighborhoods like Stapleton and Libertyville are more densely populated but more vibrant, highly walkable and have charming downtown areas — something the next crop of homebuyers is demanding.

“Gen Y is looking for that kind of vibrant downtown flavor with smaller homes,” Susanka said. “They realize that there’s a value to being connected to one another but still maintain their privacy. There’s a balance between privacy and community.”

This new love affair with the front porch reflects that desire for community, and extends into the downtown area.

“They’ll go from their house down to the local restaurants, which then becomes like a part of their house,” she explained.

It's 'Back to the Future': Green Edition

It feels a lot like “Back to the Future,” with this return to small-town life. But there’s one major difference: Energy efficiency.

If it’s one thing the recession taught us, it’s to stretch our dollars further and no where is that more evident than in energy consumption.

Energy consumption has moved from an option when building a new home to the standard when it comes to appliances, windows, furnaces and climate control.

“People are really concerned after the energy scare of 2008 — they’re worried about what it’s going to cost to run their house,” Thompson said. “No one wants a gas guzzler — especially because it impairs resale down the road.”

Among the energy-smart options you may see down the road, that are just being experimented with now, are master controls for a home’s energy efficiency(much like the master control for the lights, heat and stereo) as well as private wind turbines in the backyard that may be connected to the grid — or take the home completely energy independent.

Of course, there will always be some people who want that big backyard and the fact that land prices are so cheap right now will make that more accessible for those who want it, McIlwain said.

One thing’s for sure: The memory of the recession will continue to impact the decisions people make when it comes to the home for years to come.

People are asking themselves, “How are we going to make this house in proportion to the next economic downturn, so that we’re not out on a limb?” Susanka said.

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