Sunday, March 19, 2006

Smaller Houses

Apparently, my "don't spend money on housing space you don't use" philosophy is part of a larger architectural movement centered around architect Sarah Susanka's "The Not So Big House." You can read more about it at the previous link or in this article. The article hypothesizes the following benefits:

But why think small, you ask, besides just modesty? Experts say that the more modestly proportioned home has many advantages:

Less use of materials. A smaller house doesn't only use fewer natural resources, it requires fewer large furnishings to fill it.

More comfortable. "Humans have a tendency to want to nest just like other animals, so big cavernous spaces just aren't as intimate and comfortable as a room that's scaled down to a person's size," says Kodis. In other words, Versailles may be impressive to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. A lot of today's 5,000-square-foot homes are designed to overwhelm, not welcome.

More efficient. Smaller spaces are cheaper to heat, and take less time to clean.

Addition of pleasant details. People often can't afford to do much customizing to big houses -- there's simply too much of them -- but in a small house you can redirect money to add delightful touches. Susanka, for example, added handsome (and costlier) cherry veneer on the door to her work studio, an extra touch she sees every day that makes her happy.

World peace? OK, maybe not. But "smaller space keeps you more connected with your family," and leads to better family relations, suggests Kodis.

While I, obviously, am a fan, whether or not smaller houses become the norm depends on the magnitude of those benefits relative to the costs of foregoing larger houses (and I would love to see research estimating the size of the benefits and costs -- specifically the effects of house design on family relationships). Currently, I think much of the appeal of large houses stems from preferences for conspicuous consumption. That is, people want to signal their success to others.

For those interested in fostering a small house movement, the question becomes can smaller, higher quality houses adequately substitute for noticably large (but lower quality) homes. This can occur only if the smaller houses increase the utility homeowners get from consuming my own home by enough to compensate for lower conspicuous consumption, or, alternatively, if one can invest the savings from consuming fewer square feet in ways which offset or increase individual status (e.g., by increasing home quality in easily observed ways so that conspicuous consumption doesn't fall). (Alternatively, small houses could become more common if, somehow, overall demand for conspicuous consumption falls -- i.e., if collectively people stop judging people based on the size of their home.)

Size works as a status signal because it can't be faked and is easily observed. I question whether or not higher house quality shares these properties. Many elements of house quality are not obvious to visitors and, worse, are not visible to random passersby. Further, some, though not all, investments in quality can be faked to some degree.

Thus, for small houses to become the norm, I think they likely need to provide higher utility to their owners directly by providing a better housing experience (and part of this may be that they increase density and lead to better neighborhood amenities) or by costing less money.

I may be wrong though. Housing conventions may receive a large shock as baby boomers seek smaller retirement or second homes. This may give the small house a big boost by increasing demand for them leading to more interesting small house designs. Further, it may generate a larger stock of these small, high quality homes. This might make it easier for people to get used to thinking about living in smaller spaces and allow people to become better at distinguishing among them. This would allow people to demand smaller homes without taking a hit in their desires to "keep up with the Jonses."

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