Friday, January 13, 2012

Downsizing America

Since U.S. Census Bureau data has been collected, houses have been getting increasingly bigger.  The average size single-family detached house in 1973 which was 1,525 square feet had grown to 2,248 square feet by 2006.  The most recent housing boom produced too much supply in some areas of the country, namely California’s Inland Empire and the suburbs of Las Vegas and Phoenix.  Typically, developers chose to follow the fashionable trend of “bigger is better”.  However, the flipside of this was too few new houses in places that more people would rather live, ie. the San Francisco Bay Area, due to a land-price boom.

During the Great Recession, downsizing has become a frequently used term, but mostly as it relates to a business survival strategy.  For sometime now there have been similar discussions regarding housing which have produced several architectural books, most notably “The Not So Big House” by Sarah Susanka.  My first house was a post WW II single-family detached house that was 1,000 square feet.  It was a two – bedroom, one bath dwelling that was comfortable for my wife and young son.  It was the perfect starter home for the G.I.’s coming home from the war to start their families, and it was equally suitable for my first home in the early 70’s.  These houses were mass produced at a frenzied pace and were fit into the new sprawling suburban development model of the era.  While we may now regret the overall effect of this rapid expansion, there is something to be said about the design of these first houses that should not be overlooked.

On a variety of projects over the years, our firm has designed one and two bedroom apartments and townhouses ranging from 620 square feet to 850 square feet respectively.  With carefully laid out open floor plans, strategically placed windows that bring in ample sunlight and interesting volumes, these dwellings become very livable.  Use of better materials, finishes and appliances can provide an upscale feeling not to mention a creative exterior design.

Since smaller houses can fit on less land, higher densities can be achieved and should be less expensive to build and sell. They also have a better chance of resale particularly in a down market. In the 80’s there was a movement towards zero lot lines and “zipper” configurations which made the most use of side yards. In urban areas, sophisticated loft type units and stacked townhouses have gained market appeal.

If we are to seriously move towards a more sustainable future, I see this as the next housing trend for our country.  It needs to be accomplished on a much larger scale to meet the needs of a diverse cross-section of our population. It is time to move into the 21st Century and respond to our changing lifestyle choices by promoting downsizing of dwellings and providing a variety of housing types that are smaller, more energy efficient and well-designed (also see

Your comments are always welcomed.

Submitted by: Tony Battaglia, Architect & Planner  

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