Our lifestyles are evolving. People marry and have children later, or not at all; budgets are tighter; the environment is strained; fully a third of US households consist of just one person. Now those changes are taking a solid form: smaller, smarter houses.
New Haven architect Melanie Taylor does a brisk business selling floor plans as small as 575 square feet.
In San Francisco, Donald MacDonald pushes the limits even further with a design enclosing a mere 240 square feet, intended for a single occupant.
More typical are new designs are around 1,000 square feet. McGill University architecture professors Avi Friedman and Witold Rybczynski attracted international media attention after building a model house of that size on campus. Their modern rowhouse is only 14 feet wide, yet comfortable inside.
"Fourteen feet is narrow for a house, but it is not narrow for a room, and for an eat-in kitchen 14 feet square is spacious," Witold Rybczynski wrote after finishing the project.
Buyers obviously agree; hundreds of Rybczynski and Friedman "Grow Homes" have been sold in the Montreal area.
Prices are lower for a small house, which appeals to a generation of home buyers who can’t rely on the swelling economy that helped fund their parents’ mortgages. And there’s less house to clean, which makes sense for time-strapped two-earner families.
Besides saving money on construction materials and labor, this approach saves money on land. Avi Friedman and Witold Rybczynski’s design cost just $35,000 to build and $60,000 to buy, including land and development costs.
Melanie Taylor’s 575-square-foot models are being built in the southeastern US for as little as $30,000, and 800-square-foot versions range from $35,000 to $80,000 depending on options.
Financial constraints are not the only force pushing people to buy smaller. Small is becoming stylish, Melanie Taylor said.
"Even people who can have whatever they want are doing this," she said. "People have realized that it’s really gross to (play) the ‘whoever has the most toys wins’ game."
Environmental consciousness is built into the smaller houses, whether buyers are looking for it or not. They require less building materials and take up less open space. Since they can be placed closer together (even sharing exterior walls in the rowhouse example) they require fewer roads and less utility infrastructure.
Smaller houses also use less power for heat and light. Besides helping to save the Earth, that saves money for occupants.
Many of these innovators also cluster their houses. That way they share common open space and create a sense of community. Melanie Taylor said she started designing small houses just because she likes them; only later did she recognize that they made ecological, economic, and social sense.
"It’s a case where what’s best for the environment works out in the ‘real world’," she said.