Less Is Not Little
Last week I was on a panel about small home design at the Builder Show in Orlando organized by Gale Steves, author of Right-Sizing Your Home and former editor-in-chief of Home magazine. I talked about how our understanding of what is small — and what a small house should contain — has changed, from Gothic Revival cottages of the 19th century — like the
one in Eldon, Iowa (photo courtesy State Historical Society of Iowa) made famous by the painter Grant Wood — when clients had pitchforks and a small
house meant two or maybe three bed chambers and no bathroom in well under 1,000 square feet (painting image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago) to Craftsman style bungalows of the early 1900s, when middle class commuter suburbs burgeoned and pitchforks gave way to briefcases, and one bathroom per house became the general rule. Larger small houses of the 1920s might have had three or four bedrooms but only one bathroom and perhaps a powder room in roughly 1,600 sq. ft. A profusion of plan books like
this one by Los Angeles architect Paul Williams targeting the small home appeared right after World War II. In the early 1950s popular designer/developer Cliff May compressed the sprawling ranch house concept into his Low-Cost Ranch House idea, which was typically 3 bedrooms and 2
bathrooms in 1,675 sq. ft. See how the carport storage wall and the planter define the entry, and how living room and breakfast area open to the courtyard. The galley kitchen is still somewhat removed from the main living space but opens easily to the breakfast area. The master bath is minimal, with just one vanity. The design was simple, contemporary, and incorporated outdoor space to create a feeling of spaciousness. These and similar modern ranch house plans took off, helping to shape post war suburban America. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rising land costs and higher expectations – i.e. more bathrooms, double vanities, three car garages — led to smaller lot sizes and the need to maximize space by building two story plans packed with amenities. A burgeoning interest in luxury amenities, fueled by expanding credit, led to the over-built McMansion phenomenon we all know. Lots shrank and houses grew. According to census data the average American home grew from 1,660 sq. ft. in 1973 to 2,392 sq. ft. in 2010.
We surveyed a targeted group of our customers earlier this year and asked what they considered small. More than 1,000 prospective plan purchasers responded. Seventy percent of them defined small as 2,000 sq. ft. or less.
They want their largest spaces to be the Great Room, Kitchen, and Master Bedroom. The Dining Room is essentially extinct as a separate room. Most respondents feel they can minimize space in Other Bedrooms and Baths.
So, have we come very far from the early 1950s, when industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames first put into practice their famous phrase “to make the best for the most for the least” ? Yes, I think so. Because we are re-appreciating and re-learning that concept. Today’s small house has improved. It’s a little larger but also more flexible, energy-efficient, and comfortable, like Plan 537-3
One last note: real estate columnist Katherine Salant reported on the panel in The Washington Post. I hope you can check it out.