When Less, In Fact, Is More

By Michael Walsh

Now that Oprah Winfrey and an army of soul-searching self-help authors are encouraging us to re-examine our inner lives as we approach the beginning of a new millennium, perhaps the time is right to take a look at our attitudes toward buying or building ever-larger homes.

A number of architects and authors across the country have been exploring over the last couple of years the idea that the small home can offer many advantages to living—and doesn’t necessarily mean living in a sandbox.

There’s nothing wrong with a big house if you can afford it. Real estate brokers are fond of reminding us that a house is, for most Americans, their single largest investment. But it also is their single largest expense. With low-interest mortgage, you can get "more house for the money." But you also get higher insurance premiums, higher property taxes; higher utility bills and higher maintenance costs, ongoing expenses that are bound to escalate in the future.

The simple fact is, a less-than-large home is more energy efficient, cheaper to furnish, easier to keep clean, and less expensive to operate, insure and maintain—even if it costs the same to buy or build as a big house. The difference is, if you spend less on extraneous space, you’ll have more to spend on architectural details, beautiful materials, high-quality furnishings and comforting extras –elements that make life easier and richer.

Monumental houses discourage thrift and encourage extravagance and excess. We feel compelled to fill them up, not just with the essentials, but with gadgets and gizmos and well, stuff, if only because there’s room for it. A smaller home is far less demanding. It encourages you to be selective about the things you live with and demands simple living.

A large house is wasteful in even more fundamental ways. Even if you can afford a 5,000 square-foot house, a home half that size could actually give you more space in which to live. Sometimes in large homes, hallways can account for up to 25 percent of the square footage. At a typical construction cost off $100 per square foot, the hallways alone in a 5,000-square-foot house could cost $125,000. And there’s the waste of the formal dining room and formal living room, space that are seldom occupied but for which you are paying out hard-earned dollars every single day of the year.

The fact is, we haven’t outgrown our houses. Our houses have outgrown us. In the past 35 years, the average size of new homes has ballooned from 1,400 square feet to 2,000 square feet; despite that the average family size has shrunk from 3.6 to 2.7 people. But in new-middle-class housing developments throughout the land, even larger homes, in the 2,500 to 5,000-square foot range, are now typical.

Take your pick of explanations for this: a thriving economy and seductive interest rates, social climbing, status seeking or blind allegiance to bigger-is-better thinking. What we need are not bigger homes that complicate our lives with debt and duty, burden and bondage, but smaller homes that coddle us, enrich us, give us sanctuary, emotional and spiritual comfort, and peace of mind.

Some elements seem to be universal icons of homeliness that can make a modest home live large: an open floor plan, a window seat, a screened porch, a fireplace, attractive natural materials, outdoor living spaces and objects that reflect personal passions and attitudes.

An open floor plan that combines kitchen, dining and living spaces caters to casual lifestyles. It requires less space, not more, because you eliminate the formal dining and living rooms. That alone could shave up to, say, 500 square feet or, at $100 a square foot, up to $50,000. It won’t seem smaller that three individual rooms because there won’t be any interior walls to block long-distance views, nor does it have to feel as cavernous as an airplane hanger.

For a coastal home in Maine, for example, Camden architect John Gillespie used a series of pine-needle green columns, dropped soffits, arches and ceiling beams to break down an all-in-one room into a more intimate spaces for cooking, eating and living. The table in the dining area is centered on the windows in the kitchen and the fireplace in the living room, stretching the views in two directions.

"This is a casual, multipurpose space where people can gather, mingle, move about, interact and participate in the rituals of cooking and dining and relaxing," Gillespie says. "That wouldn’t be possible if there were three distinct rooms with walls.

"Another Maine architect, James Sterling of Portland, designed an inviting peaked window seat for one of his clients. With windows on three sides, it’s a perfect perch for bird watching, reading or meditating.

"It’s a place where somebody can go outside, without going outside," he says. "It’s a personal retreat and refuge within a large room, very cozy and almost childlike.

"Because smaller houses should have abundance of windows to blur the distinction between indoors and out, forget a glass-enclosed sunroom and choose instead the breezy charms of a screened-in porch.Rob Whitten, a New England architect, designed a gazebo-like screened in room tethered to the house by only a section of shingled roof.

"It’s a different world out there," he says. "It takes you out of the house, away from the telephone and the television. It puts you in touch with nature but keeps you sheltered and secured at the same time. Twenty minutes on a screened-porch is like a vacation at home.

"Trimming the fat from a bloated floor plan can leave you with enough extra money for frills. Susan and Rene Theberge of Amherst, Mass., for example, splurged on a magnificent outdoor fireplace for their 1,700-square-foot home designed by architect Ross Chapin of Langley, Wash. Along with cedar shingles, wood siding and green trim, the fireplace enriches the look of the outside of the house, giving the deck the character of an outdoor room and conveying a sense of warmth even when there are no flames in it.

For her own home in Minnesota, architect Sarah Susanka, co-author of "The Not So Big House," used a peeled tree trunk for a floor-to-ceiling newel post at the foot of the stairs and then, to reflect her husband’s passion for sailing, employed a thick rope as a stair railing. The idea, she says, is to trade superfluous square footage for coziness, warmth, self-expression and elements that enhance your life.

"If you make a house smaller but still generic, it won’t have any more appeal than its larger cousins. A big house may offer capacity, but at the cost of comfort and charm. Size and volume have nothing to do with comfort.

"And bigger is definitely not better.Thinking SmallChange your mind and you can change your life, the gurus tell us. Whether you’re building or buying, think about your preconceptions and priorities: Going smaller is not about sacrifice. It’s making thoughtful decisions about what you really need to be happy.
  • Be willing to discard old notions about bigger is better. The bigger the house the bigger the burden. Simplify your life rather than complicate it.
  • Get some prospective. There are people living in hurricane-ravaged Honduras and Ecuador --- or in the alley downtown – who would be glad to call home the big box your refrigerator came in. Now, is a bigger house a necessity or and extravagance?
  • Develop an attitude of gratitude for what you already have: a roof over your head, walls to keep you safe and warm, central heat, indoor plumbing, furniture to comfort you, a kitchen to nourish you and electric lights. You have what you need. Now be careful what you wish for.

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