The Shrinking American Dream House
More and more people are looking beyond the ordinary for ways of building that express their creativity and values.
This story from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Spring 2002 Issue of YES! Magazine.
In my first “real” job after college in 1981, I worked at an architecture firm that designed custom homes for a new high-end development. These were six-bedroom, seven-bathroom homes with grand entries, great halls, entertainment centers, exercise rooms, wine cellars, even separate maids’ quarters. As a junior engineer, I rarely met our clients, so I never learned why their dreams were of neo-Tudor mansions and Gone With the Wind plantations. Coming from a frugal New England background, I soon recognized that the dreams I was helping to make real were not dreams I valued.
In the early 1990s, I became fascinated by “sustainable” architects who raised concerns about the environmental impact of everyday design decisions: How can we preserve natural resources despite the need for more buildings? How can we minimize construction waste? How can we reduce the toxicity of building products? In 1997, I launched a freelance practice to design residential remodels from a sustainable perspective. But in spite of the slowly growing interest in sustainability, I became discouraged. Too often my clients based their decisions on initial costs rather than long-term durability or doing good for the environment. Too many people still wanted “big” more than “green.” I felt an impending doom that the glaciers would melt before sustainability became mainstream.
This past year, though, I’ve gained a sense that architecture is on the brink of a massive change. My impressions come from several fronts. Smaller homes are gaining popularity. People are embracing sustainability as a means to address issues as diverse as human health, social justice, the energy crisis, and global warming. And the alternative architecture movement shows that more and more people are looking beyond the ordinary for ways of building that express their creativity and values. On all these fronts, people are reshaping the American dream house, introducing new concepts of what is possible and thinking harder about what they really want.
Shrinking the dream house
In August 2000, I went to Nicaragua to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity. The local teacher, nurse, and tailor with whom I worked felt fortunate to build two-bedroom, 500-square-foot houses for their families. Returning to the United States, I was asked to design a 1,500-square-foot addition to the 1,000-square-foot home of a near-retirement Silicon Valley couple. This set me off on some statistical research. The average size of a new American house doubled between 1940 and 1997 while, simultaneously, household size decreased. Thus, while in 1950 we provided about 300 square feet per person, we now provide 800 square feet.
The allure of bigger houses, however, may be fading. Sarah Susanka’s books, The Not So Big House and How to Create the Not So Big House, have become best-sellers among home improvement titles. Susanka, a Minnesota architect, writes what we all know to be true: that those great halls, formal dining rooms, and grand entryways in big houses remain deserted. People congregate in kitchens or seek intimate niches such as window seats or breakfast nooks. Susanka suggests that, in designing or selecting new homes, we eliminate or shrink the rooms that we rarely use. She shows houses where living, dining, and kitchen areas are smaller and blended together, and she describes strategies for creating cozy homes that are made delightful by their efficiency, imaginativeness, and attention to detail.
Architects and developers are proving the marketability of smaller, more carefully designed homes. Architect Ross Chapin and developer Jim Soules, for example, took advantage of a “Cottage Housing Development” zoning ordinance to create the Third Street Cottages in Langley, Washington. This cluster of small, detached houses doubles the population density yet maintains the style of a residential neighborhood. Chapin notes: “If people hear ‘850 square feet,’ they think, ‘There’s no way I could live like that!’ Yet when people walk into one of the cottages, they say, ‘This is wonderful! Look at all this space!’ With 9-foot ceilings and high windows bringing in light, the perceived space feels much larger than your typical house with … poor organization and closed-in space.” The cottages are achieving resale values comparable to the average cost of 1,500-square-foot Langley homes.
Sustainability as a new ethic
The strongest force driving the adoption of sustainable design is concern for the health effects of environmental pollutants. Sick building syndrome and multi-chemical sensitivity are now recognized ailments. In my role last year as a volunteer at the Berkeley, California, Green Resource Center, I answered questions the majority of which were from people looking for ways to make their homes healthier. They asked about least-toxic cleaning materials, ways to eliminate asthma-exacerbating molds, and about paints, caulks, sealers, wallboard, particleboard, carpets, and flooring that do not off-gas. Many of these people were undertaking major renovations because they’d become allergic to their own homes.
Coming in to the Green Resource Center to look at less-toxic building components, many folks were attracted by products made from renewable or recycled material. The step from caring about their own homes to caring about the larger environment was obvious to these homeowners. They readily saw value in bamboo flooring that looked and performed like laminated hardwood but could be harvested in six, not 60, years; sustainably harvested woods that did not deplete rainforests; tiles made from recycled glass; and insulation batts made from denim scraps.
The next largest contingent of resource center patrons were those who had questions about electricity and energy efficiency. Even before California’s energy crisis, people wanted to know which of the various suppliers offered the cleanest electricity. They asked about best strategies for improving the energy efficiency of their homes. As the energy crisis loomed, I referred dozens of callers to local installers of solar photovoltaic and hot-water heating equipment. Even though the payback period for residential photovoltaic is still estimated at 20 or more years (factoring in state rebates), Gary Gerber of Berkeley’s Sun Light and Power reports installing 58 new photovoltaic systems in 2001, compared with 10 in 2000.
An emerging alternative architecture
As a student, I thought of architects as visionaries, creators—or at least midwives—of the human-made environment. I learned that design was “the art of making dreams come true.” Yet in the first 20 years of my career, I found myself increasingly unable to say whose dreams I was birthing. While the gated deluxe neighborhoods and the block-filling housing complexes for the elderly may have been the dreams of homeowners, architects, and developers, they seemed to be the impoverished visions of people, myself included, who dreamt in lockstep.
The wake-up point for me was a day (in the middle of a year that I spent designing seismic bracing for a firefighter dispatch center) when I discovered the multivariable fifth-root equation for calculating the withdrawal strength of a nail. I realized then that the details of architecture had distracted me from any overall purpose. I believe that conventional architecture today is uninspired because we are all too distracted by minutiae.
Some of us, however, are looking beyond the normal alternatives, perhaps because of hard-learned, “been there, done that” experiences. A contractor friend told me of clients who undertook renovations in hopes of pleasing a spouse and of their letdown upon finding that the new bathroom or kitchen did not save the marriage. My workaholic cousin told me of the expensive hammock she bought to answer her dream of having more leisure but never found time to use. These are people who have found that material goods are not the dream.
Instead, many folks are looking for new dreams. Some of these people found their way to the Alternative Construction section of the Green Resource Center library. Browsing how-to books on bamboo, strawbale, cob, and adobe construction, they found that they loved the look of traditional materials, the solid, thick, sculpted, plastered walls with built-in niches and benches. They liked the color and textural variations of natural and hand-placed materials. Even more, I think that these would-be builders envisioned themselves engaged in construction.
Adobe enthusiast and author R. C. Rodgers writes: “The adobe house is for the very rich or the very poor, not because of the expense of the materials or the complexity of construction, but because of the expense or availability of labor. Adobe construction is labor- and detail-intensive. You must be rich enough to hire out the labor, or poor enough to have the time to do the labor yourself.”
Yet a quick browse of alternative construction websites reveals dozens of testimonies from people who eschewed conventional construction to spend thousands of hours researching, designing, convincing local building officials, and toiling on their unique homes. Some of them were especially drawn by the lure of freedom from debt: spend a year or five building a small cob cottage rather than endure the wage slavery of a 30-year mortgage. Others fell in love with the process of low-tech building, of working with friends, children, and grandparents; or working alone, placing bales, mixing mud, making decisions along the way, shaping dreams.
Peter Marchand, a field biologist who built himself a 700-square-foot home nestled among sandstone bedrock in a remote section of Navajo County, Arizona, wrote in Orion magazine: “One by one I chose the rocks. Brown on red, red on gray, I scrambled 250 million years of geologic history. I fit them and cemented them, and closed the gaps around the sandstone outcrop. … I worked alone, with hand tools and native instinct, drawing upon experience I had accumulated from watching other builders and tinkering with my previous homes. It was creative carpentry, to be sure, but out of it emerged an inherent vitality, a soul, expressed in every rock, plank, and pillar.”
Building the dream
Though I haven’t tried building with mud or stone, I’ve participated in the remodel of my own home. Working on my house gave me a heartfelt appreciation for the time and effort needed to create things. I was, by turns, inconvenienced and irritated, awed, and grateful for the workmanship done before me. I gained connections to my neighbors who stopped to watch, the laborers who worked alongside me, the local tradespeople and the material suppliers. I am proud, now, of my emergent carpentry skills and of this house in which I belong.
Twelve months ago, somewhat discouraged by my one-person-cross-tide architectural practice, I decided that I needed to work for a while at something totally different. Thus I became a YES! intern and came to write this article. In the process, I changed my mind. I’ve learned that I am not alone, that far more people than I imagined have dreams of buildings that excite me. Even more, in this process of writing, I also have been building my own dream. My hope is to infect you too with my wish for a future where American dream houses are both resource-efficient and delightful, where the principles of sustainable design are commonplace, and where people eagerly, passionately participate in building their own dreams.