Luxury Homes That Are Better, Not Bigger

By Katy McLaughlin

The WSJ Mansion team takes a look inside the movement toward small but luxurious homes. Photo: Wiqan Ang for The Wall Street Journal.

"When Joanne and Bruce Montgomery built a vacation home on Washington's Whidbey Island, they thought big: sweeping views of the Puget Sound, mahogany-framed windows, heated Brazilian teak floors and other high-end amenities. Their budget was an ample $875,000.

The only thing they skimped on was size. The house measure 1,888 square feet -- downright tiny in the luxury real-estate market.  think smaller has many more advantages than larger," said Ms. Montgomery. "You want to have a place that is beautiful but not overbearing on your life, especially if you have multiple homes." The couple—he is a pulmonologist and pharmaceutical entrepreneur and she is a retired nurse—also are finishing construction on a 4,000-square-foot primary residence in Medina, Wash., perhaps best known as the site of Microsoft MSFT +1.19% founder Bill Gates's 66,000-square-foot mansion. The Montgomerys' $800-per-square-foot budget, including landscaping, could buy a house at least 50% larger in the neighborhood, said Lisa Whittaker, a local broker for Coldwell Banker Bain.

Luxury in American homes has long been defined by size—a newly built home grew from an average of 1,660 square feet in 1973 to over 2,500 square feet today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Now, top-end real-estate brokers say more clients want to shave off square footage and give priority to luxe finishes, green building and smart design. Of course, some high-end homeowners define "scaling back" as going from 14,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. But others, like the Montgomerys, find that 2,000 square feet, well designed, can feel like an indulgence of space.

Last year, Heidi Brunet, a mortgage banker in the Peninsula area of Dallas, built a 2,085-square-foot home with soy-based, energy-efficient insulation, stained concrete floors and a $48,000 LED lighting system.Though she economized on size, Ms. Brunet said her dream house wasn't cheap: It has  It has an $8,000 Miele refrigerator, a $57,000 plunge pool and $35,000 in landscaping."For what I spent, I could have bought a McMansion for sure," said Ms. Brunet, who declined to specify the total budget for her house. "I wanted the house to be everything I needed it to be and nothing more."

She splurged—in terms of both space and dollars—on a 1,000-square-foot deck, the pool and the yard because, she said, "the outdoor space is really where I spend my time."Ms. Brunet's instinct to design her house around the way she lives is the cornerstone of a design movement perhaps best summed up in "The Not So Big House," a series of best-selling books by Raleigh, N.C.-based architect Sarah Susanka. After more than a decade of writing about thoughtful use of space, in 2012 Ms. Susanka built her ideas into a "Not So Big Showhouse" in Libertyville, Ill. During the six months when the 2,450-square-foot house was open to the public, it attracted 8,000 visitors. It sold for $750,000. Ms. Susanka also recently released a "Not So Big Bungalow" kit with basic building components for a 1,600-square-foot bungalow.

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To see Sarah's Not So Big Bungalow and School Street house plans click here.

Originally Published in The Wall Street Journal

03/01/2014