But residential designer Eric Hughes has few regrets about prioritizing detail, organization and high-end materials over sheer space in the update of his own 1950s ranch in Grand Rapids, Mich. Hughes and his wife chose quality and intimacy over a big expansion of their 1,300-square-foot home -- 900 on the main floor
CHICAGO (MarketWatch) -- Sure, he's been heard to grumble about the home's lone bathroom, shared between two adults and three kids.
But residential designer Eric Hughes has few regrets about prioritizing detail, organization and high-end materials over sheer space in the update of his own 1950s ranch in Grand Rapids, Mich. Hughes and his wife chose quality and intimacy over a big expansion of their 1,300-square-foot home -- 900 on the main floor and another 400 in a finished basement that holds his professional office and a playroom -- that they bought four years ago.
Hughes, owner of Image Design, is a self-described disciple of architect Sarah Susanka and her "Not So Big House" book and lecture series. While the Not So Big philosophy applies specifically to housing design, it is part of a broader movement in society that attracts those who prefer to "think outside the box."
For many smaller-living advocates, it's all about thinking green. They're going for less land use and more energy savings, at times with so-called microhomes that often contain less than 1,000 square feet of living space. Others, like Hughes, are after the practicality of a modest footprint in an established neighborhood and the cheaper living expenses that typically come with it.
"In a lot of cases, houses are not fitting the way people live anyway. People feel isolated from each other. We're all only so big, and human scale is so important," said architect Marc Vassallo. "We won't find such a shock upon shifting to a smaller house if we admit we need one good space to watch TV ... not three."
Susanka likes to say that it's not even always about living small, rather about living "right-sized."
"At first it was about cost savings. I was leaving a big design firm to start my own business," Hughes says. "Now, I'm a big advocate of quality over quantity, making smart decisions. A client survey I've conducted shows some 80 percent never use their Jacuzzi tubs after the first month. I say, don't design your house around selling it. Maybe what you really wanted was a great shower."
Twice as much house
For now, the statistics show that Susanka's brethren still form the minority. Figures from the National Association of Home Builders and the Census Bureau indicate square footage has more than doubled from the era in which the Hughes home was built, even as families in general are getting smaller. In 2005, the average floor area in a newly constructed home hit an all-time high at 2,434 square feet. Thirty years ago, the average was 1,645 square feet.
Despite this new high-water mark, some in the building industry focus on the fact that square-footage growth may be stabilizing; last year's figure is close to the 2004 average of 2,349 square feet.
Other stats make a similar case. In a recent poll of some 7,700 of its members by home-improvement reference service Angie's List, 47 percent said they live in a home under 2,000 square feet, while just 7 percent said their home is more than 4,000 square feet. Some 63 percent in the Angie's List survey consider their home just the right size.
There are those for whom living in a large "McMansion" is still the best route. They wouldn't dream of trading in multiple-stall garages, two-story foyers, and thousands of square feet. To this group, higher costs in cleaning, maintenance, utilities and taxes are worth it.
But since a home is likely the single largest investment most U.S. families will make, many new homeowners may not even have their own needs and likes in mind when they build or buy.
"There's a preoccupation with resale and the building industry doesn't usually help matters," Raleigh, N.C.-based Susanka said. "We're building rooms that made sense 100 years ago. But do you really need a family room and a living room?"
Scott Ervin and colleagues at St. Paul, Minn.-based Alchemy Architects have a different idea about building. They sell a series of modular, prefabricated homes and offices known as the weeHouse. Launched in 2003 with a cabin built in Pepin, Wis., the line is recognized for its signature rectangular form, flat roof and glass walls.
"Our clients tend to have a sophisticated design sense; they span the range between those who can afford any house they want and those just hoping to be able to own their own home," Ervin said. What they are all intrigued with, he said is "the idea that a limited kit of parts can actually increase the creativity and exploration of how a building fits on its site, not limit it."
Susanka says she's seen a shift in the Not So Big movement since her first book hit eight years ago. Motivation for building smaller then was often driven not only by a certain design aesthetic but also by limited budgets and so was typically reserved for those just entering the housing market or for empty nesters downsizing from the family home.
Susanka says she's now writing for an audience that spans the economic spectrum and a range of ages; empty nesters make up about 25 percent of her current audience. And, she advises clients to consider roughly the same budget they'd have allotted for a bigger house, instead spending more on the details.
The Not So Big philosophy typically calls for building about one-third less in square footage than homeowners think they need. But the plans and models in Susanka's portfolio, found at www.notsobig.com, can range from $120 to $400 per square foot in construction costs.
Susanka stresses the importance of discussing costs with a builder or architect regardless of a home's size. She says this may take on greater importance if building under the Not So Big mindset because a builder and a homeowner may not be on the same page, particularly if expanding on typical and widely used builder specifications. There may be hidden costs in a Not So Big home's many details, she says.
Yet it's just those details that make a smaller home live much larger. And details in the Not So Big world start long before home accessories and furniture are put in place. Often that means thinking beyond the builder's standard offerings in room arrangement, particularly placement of interior walls and in the plans for circulation spaces such as hallways, or rather, a lack of hallways.
Susanka says much impact can be gained in adding more dimension to a room. She does this by delineating space with arches, partial walls and with color and lighting changes. Graduating ceiling heights or separating rooms by pushing the traffic flow up or down a few steps between rooms can also make a difference. Often a third dimension comes in the smallest of touches -- a display niche at the end of a hallway, a row of cabinets carved out of the wall that holds a staircase. Repetition of elements, using the same shapes for instance, can go far to tie a whole house together and bring order.
Susanka also champions using the often-forgotten spaces: maximizing dormers with not just a window seat but a seat with a fold-out bed, turning a stair landing into a library with floor-to-ceiling shelves.
How a home relates to its setting also factors in the Not So Big philosophy. For some homeowners, an established neighborhood, usually featuring narrower lots and smaller existing homes, but often found near shopping districts and other amenities, means they don't have to sacrifice a comfortable and rewarding lifestyle by living in a smaller space, say the experts.
Condo developers also have this in mind as they're creating and reinventing space for the growing group of empty nesters and baby boomers now considering their housing options, says David Tufts, CEO of Coldwell Banker's The Condo Store.
This group may want to let go of space but not quality. Whether in a condo, townhouse or single-family dwelling, this demographic is after smart and carefree living, but they also want interior choices. And for the most part, they're getting them, Tufts says.
Tufts, based in Atlanta, says he's seeing traditional moldings, uniform high ceilings and other elements in condo buildings giving way to streamlined design and more use of glass and partial walls, a trend he believes allows occupants more flexibility in using smaller footprints.
Increasingly popular in smaller condo design is use of "swing" rooms, he says. That is, fewer rooms designated with a sole purpose -- bedroom, for instance -- but instead given more than one purpose, such as a combination den and guest room. Increasingly tech-savvy boomers and retirees want their units wired throughout, allowing for a floating office, of sorts, rather than having one room for this purpose. On-site storage, if not in-unit storage, is no longer a perk but a requirement, he says.
"It's a conscientious decision, a trade-off. Giving up space for lifestyle and time," Tufts said.
Susanka is also betting on an evolution from thinking about Not So Big as design to thinking about lifestyle. Her latest book, "The Not So Big Life," is due out in May. "My books have been about living in three dimensions. This brings in the fourth dimension. And that's time," she said.