Virtues of the small home

Virtues of the small home

A few years back, the homes editor of the Seattle Times wrote that she was increasingly hearing something like this from homeowners who were downsizing and loving it.

“I clean the house in half an hour and go do something fun. Why do I need more than what I have here?”

Why, indeed? Starting in the 1950s, American homes have been on a growth binge, bloating to a record 2,598 square feet for the average new single-family house in 2013. In 1950, the average was 983 square feet.

It’s easy to document the whopping increase in natural resources needed to build and sustain that vastly bigger house—the wood, water, sand, petroleum-based plastics, fuel and so on, most of these finite or non-renewable.

But the hidden sustainability issue, the one few of us seem to talk about, is the drain on our one most profoundly non-renewable resource: time.

A large home inevitably demands more human resources to keep it going: more housecleaning, more yardwork, more window washing, more painting, more nagging repairs.

And more time spent working to earn money to pay the big mortgage, insurance, utility bills, and replace the mower that’s already wearing out.

Henry David Thoreau pointed this out more than 150 years ago. The first chapter of Walden is an impassioned argument for simple living and the freedom that comes with it. “Our houses are such unwieldy property,” he wrote, “that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”

In just the last few years, small houses—some of them really small, like 200 square feet—have acquired cachet. The future American home looks smaller and more efficient, although a trend hasn’t yet registered in the statistics. But people are talking and thinking about them.

The home designs in The Highlands at Langley range from 900 to around 1500 square feet. Far from being confining, these spaces are designed to be liberating. Rooms serve multiple purposes, living can spread out onto a welcoming front porch, and maintenance issues and heating costs are minimized. With electric heat, each room has its own thermostat, so heat can be used only when and where it’s needed.

One of the great architects of the 20th century, Mies van der Rohe, had a favorite saying: “Less is more.” He was talking mainly about ornamentation—­he believed that pure and simple building forms were more expressive than overdecorated ones. A century later, we’re learning that it may also apply to the spaces inside our buildings. When they’re intelligently designed and built with quality materials, they can enhance our lives much more than merely big, meaningless square footage.

And give us more time to live.

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