Small is Beautiful

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The average size of a new single-family house in the United States grew from less than 1,000 sq. ft. in 1950 to 2,521 sq. ft. in 2007, according to the United States Census Bureau. That was the peak year. By 2010, the average size shrank to 2,392 sq. ft., and experts in the industry predict that the shrinking will continue. 

The economic recession is surely a factor, with depressed home prices, lower sales volume, and decreased purchasing power among consumers. Demographic trends also come into play. Family size has been shrinking for decades, as people have fewer children, or the children grow up and leave the nest, or the family is a couple or a single person. The 2010 United States Census gives the average family size as 2.59 persons. Single-person households are now 27 percent of the total, up from 13 percent in 1960.
 
Economists said for years that lower and middle class income remained stagnant while home size grew. By no coincidence, personal debt soared, mainly in the form of mortgages. The news since 2007 has been full of stories about unscrupulous lenders and shady financial deals on Wall Street and in European capitals. The backstory is that many ordinary people borrowed too much money. A reckoning was due on a global scale.
 
Well before the meltdown, some designers and homebuyers showed a preference for smaller houses. In 1997, Sarah Susanka published The Not So Big House, a book on “tailoring your home for the way you really live.” An architect, Susanka elaborated the point that architects have always made: build quality, not quantity. She challenged the subliminal connection between house size and ego by asking clients, and then readers: “Why do you want so much space? How much space do you actually need?”
 
Very large houses and unique luxury properties always have been a niche market, often taking a long time to sell. In the current climate, they may linger for years and their prices have plummeted. At the other end of the price scale, small houses have been the most active share of the market for the past few years. Partly due to competition with foreclosed properties, prices have fallen here too, but not so dramatically.
 
Local real estate broker Pat Sury of Montague Miller & Company, says: “The buyers I see divide into two groups, older and younger. The older group is retiring, downsizing, often moving here from out of town. They want good construction instead of lots of square feet. They are buying high-end condominiums and attached houses. They like in-town locations, which tend to have smaller lots. The younger people, families with children, are looking at houses that omit the formal spaces—living and dining rooms—in favor of open floor plans. Both groups want green design, which often means smaller house size.”
 
Retirees, empty-nesters, and one- or two-person households are a growing share of the market nationwide. These people do not want to maintain more house than they need, or pay energy bills and real estate taxes for it. They are prudent about how much they spend, and they invest only part of their wealth in real estate. They have learned from experience, and they are savvy when it comes to construction. In keeping with a Puritan strain in American culture, some homeowners feel that restraint is a virtue. Excess and ostentation, exemplified by the McMansion, are out. Good taste is in.
 
The finished area may be less, but buyers still want features. The new small house typically has an upgraded kitchen, a luxurious master bath, and a high-performance HVAC system. Hardwood and ceramic tile floors are increasingly seen as standard, instead of an upgrade from carpet and vinyl. Appliances, light fixtures, cabinets and hardware are more pleasing to the eye and made to last longer. On the exterior, durable materials like fiber-cement plank, brick, and composite (a rot-resistant wood product) are preferred to vinyl and aluminum siding. Windows and doors, a large part of any construction budget, are ample and of high quality, brands like Pella and Marvin instead of no-name vinyl. Here, green design comes to the fore, favoring natural light and sealing air leaks to conserve energy.
 
The small house, then, is not all about saving money. It is also about style. Cottages, cabins, and diminutive dwellings of all kinds exert a fascination. The quirky cottages of Carmel, California, the Colonial-era houses of Cape Cod, and the bungalow (originally an import from India) are endlessly photographed and imitated. With their hand-crafted details, fine wood species, art glass, custom ceramic tile, and carefully chosen “boulders” in foundations and chimneys, these houses can be expensive.
 
Among the many books on the subject, here are two personal favorites. The American Bungalow 1880-1930, by Clay Lancaster (Dover, 1985) is the definitive history, with a wealth of photographs and drawings. The idea of the bungalow was so popular among all classes that it led to large houses of two and three stories. The small, mass-produced bungalow with the low, spreading roof is more typical. Dover also reprints catalog books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, showing hundreds of small, architecturally inventive houses.
 
Cottages by the Sea, by Linda Leigh Paul (Universe, 2000) describes 35 “handmade homes of Carmel, America’s first artist colony” with color photographs. From fisherman shacks to architect-designed showplaces, the Carmel cottages are a tourist attraction and an exclusive weekend getaway. Arched doors, rock walls, shingle roofs, and picturesque gables sprout everywhere. No two windows are alike, and there are plenty of them to take in the Pacific coast views. 
 
The so-called tiny house movement takes size and cuteness to the limit. As promoted by Jay Shafer in his website and book, the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company has dozens of well-crafted designs that resemble cabins, converted sheds and children’s playhouses. Some are mounted on wheels. They are sold as prefab kits for the do-it-yourselfer, or architectural plans. Shafer claims to have lived happily for years in a house of 89 square feet. His website shows models that range from 99 sq. ft. up to 3-bedroom models of about 850 sq. ft., in styles that recall Carpenter Gothic and Craftsman. A tiny house seems unsuitable for entertaining or raising a family, but as Shafer says, it will fit anywhere and it is cheaper to build and maintain than a standard house.
 
After Hurricane Katrina, architects produced a flood of cottage designs with dimensions and details that recall the traditional housing that was destroyed. Meant to be affordable, and in some cases to be mass-produced, Katrina Cottages are often delightful exercises in scale and ingenuity. The good life can be lived in close quarters, they imply. Historical reproductions and pattern book designs are an earlier attempt to infuse small, inexpensive houses with architectural detail and period charm. The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg inspired a rash of such houses through the 1970s, some of which are now due for a makeover.
 
The New Urbanism movement dates from the 1980s, well before the current recession. Conceived as an antidote to suburban sprawl, New Urbanist ideas are gaining acceptance in the development of new subdivisions, which in turn affect what is built. Simply put, the small lots favor smaller houses and more compact floor plans. The higher density (dwelling units per acre) requires public sewers instead of private septic systems, which means that county and town planning departments are closely involved. Green design advocates note that density encourages walking, reduces car trips, economizes utility lines, and stimulates neighborliness. Social engineering aside, New Urbanist housing often has a neotraditional look, with an economical use of space. 
 
Local examples of New Urbanist development include Belvedere north of Charlottesville and Old Trail west of Crozet. The new subdivisions contain a mix of housing types and prices, from affordable garden apartments to attached houses to larger free-standing houses, with vest pocket public parks to compensate for the small private yards. Kentlands, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was a pioneer in this type of development. According to Michael Watkins, one of its designers, in a talk in Richmond in 2011, property values and resales have performed better in Kentlands than in nearby conventional housing.
 
Attached houses, also called townhouses or rowhouses, are disparaged as monotonous, cramped, and lacking in social tone. Yet some townhouses feature varied facades, front porches, and luxurious interiors. The townhouse is in fact the ultimate in small-house living, with centuries of history behind it. Built at higher density, it reduces sprawl, which in turn reduces the infrastructure of roads and utilities, which reduces car trips and pollution, and so on. Multi-story design and party walls between houses reduce the exterior envelope, and therefore reduce the cost of construction and maintenance. As modern renovations show, the townhouse is capable of endless variations in interior layout. Stairs are inevitable, so this type of vertical living is not for everyone.
 
In the eastern United States, the nineteenth century was the heyday of the townhouse. Boston, New York, Philadephia, Baltimore, Washington, Charleston and Savannah all contain large areas of low-rise, compact and charming townhouses. Brick is the dominant material, with regional variations. New York is famous for its brownstone facades, while Boston is known for bow windows, and Philadelphia for fine details and limestone trim. Restored and updated, these neighborhoods are now very desirable, and prices are beyond the reach of the middle class for which they were originally built. 
 
Richmond, Virginia, boasts examples of townhouse development in the Fan, Church Hill and Jackson Ward districts. Historic Richmond Foundation has published three books on them with large color photographs: Richmond’s Fan District, by Drew St. J. Corneal, 1996; Old Richmond Today, by John G. Zehmer, 2004; and The Church Hill Old and Historic Districts, by John G. Zehmer, 2011. Restoration has come to Richmond, but it is still possible to buy low-priced houses in the Fan and Jackson Ward, the historic black center. A local specialty is the wrought iron used for railings, porches and roof crests. 
 
Charlottesville has few historic townhouses. It was too lightly settled to need that type of development in the nineteenth century. Small brick rows are located near the University of Virginia on West Main Street and isolated units in the grid of streets downtown. Most of our townhouses were built after 1950, on the edge of the urban area. As a result, they lack the convenience of neighborhoods like the Fan. Georgetown Green, Minor Hill, Stonehenge and River Run are pleasant and walkable, but you still need a car to live there. In the past decade, townhouse clusters were built in southern neighborhoods like Belmont and Johnson Village, within city limits but a long walk to the center. If the trend continues, Charlottesville may become a model for the green, small-size city. 
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