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Why Bigger? – The Changing Role of the Home

by Nic Darling on October 23, 2008 · 23 comments

in Design,Philosophy

We know that one of the reasons home sizes have increased is linked simply to the desire to own more. Home buyers, in many cases, simply want larger houses just like car buyers seem to want bigger cars and fast food buyers seem to want bigger meals. However, based on the conversation surrounding my last post, there seems to be at least a subset of people interested in smaller homes (and perhaps smaller cars and meals to go with them).

So why aren’t these smaller homes built? What other factors have pushed us toward more square footage per person rather than less? Is the inflation of the American home simply a result of our tendency toward conspicuous consumption or are there other causes behind our bigger, bigger, bigger mentality?

Topic 1: The Home has a New Role (or Three)

The way we live has changed significantly in the last 50 years. I would argue that the American nuclear family has become increasingly isolated and insular. This has benefited the economy (I’m told) by creating a more mobile, flexible workforce, but it has drastically changed the way we form communities and maintain family connections. It has also changed our idea of the home and expanded the role a house must play.

The modern house is not simply a home. It is a hotel for visiting relatives who no longer live close enough to return to their own homes after a visit. It is an entertainment center for people isolated 10-20 miles from the nearest movie theater (or even 1 mile without a serviceable sidewalk). It is food storage for cooks who live 15 irritating minutes from fresh produce. It is a gym, an office, a pool, a spa, a bar, etc. . . .

Many of those amenities that were once mainly available in public, shared space have been moved into the family home. This is both a reflection of our country’s (now questionable) affluence and our movement toward less attachment. The car is often seen as a key element in the creation of suburbia, in moving people away from the places where they work, shop, learn and play. I would argue that houses and their features are equally significant causes. Huge refrigerators and the kitchens to house them have increased the distance from which we can live from our food supply. Televisions, and more recently home theaters, have decreased our need to seek public entertainment, and houses, as they have become both our private and public space, have grown to reflect our increasing reliance.

Now, I am not arguing for some reversion to past times. I am not advocating throwing out your TV or making your parents sleep in the yard when they come visit. I am simply saying that smaller homes are aided by a certain idea of community that may have been stronger (out of necessity) in the past. I am suggesting that smaller homes must come with a certain amount of community planning that hasn’t taken place during this era of the McMansion.

So what do you think? Is the growth of the American home linked to our move away from public space? If so, is a move back toward more shared amenities a necessity for smaller living? Do I need to go to the local pub to play pool rather than down to my basement? Do I have to walk to the butcher rather than to the chest freezer in my garage? Lay it on me in the comments.

Next time: Topic 2 – Show Me the Money: How the Market Demands Big

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Why Bigger? - The Changing Role of the Home | Manufactured Homes
October 23, 2008 at 4:57 pm
Do We Still Want Such Big Houses?—Space and Efficiency VS. Square Footage « Ecogayle's Blog
November 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Irina Woelfle October 23, 2008 at 8:02 pm

I handle public relations for Sarah Susanka of Not So Big House fame as well as Marianne Cusato of Lowes Cottage fame. We are seeing a significant increase in the purchase of these smaller house plans. And of course the news media is picking up on it as a trend. We’re also seeing a trend toward valuing community over house size and preferring a closer proximity to downtowns vs. the “drive til you qualify” approach we’ve seen over the years. Thanks for your post.

2 lavardera October 23, 2008 at 10:15 pm

Bingo Nic

3 Scoats October 24, 2008 at 8:07 am

I think you nailed the reasons.

Regarding a home pool table or dart board, going to the pub is more fun. It’s better than playing by yourself at home or trying to get people to come over.

For solitary things like working out or watching movie, the advantages of doing them with others are fewer.

4 kirby grimes October 24, 2008 at 12:43 pm

social engineering one job ,architecture another.
don’t get into the Corbu mentality.
stick to the task at hand in urban philly.
in our ny area IRC requires R10 slab edge insulation
its a tuff detail to accomplish w/finishes on top.
if your priority is energy saving, you dropped the ball !
program & design the building for the goal
then you can socialize.
i see you thinking kids.

5 lavardera October 24, 2008 at 1:04 pm

The task at hand..hmm, you mean like complete sentences?

6 Ryan October 24, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Architecture and our social behaviours are inseparable.

7 chad October 24, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Congrats kirb on being the first person to annoy me enough to ban from comments. Constructive criticism in complete sentences that is relevant to the post ant hand is appreciated…

8 Misty October 25, 2008 at 6:21 pm

I definitely think changing roles has played a part in families thinking they need more space, like a home gym, separate office to work from home, etc. Unfortunately I think people are realizing that they don’t actually end up using all of that space, yet they are paying for it, which is why we are seeing a downgrade. We are one of those families, though I’ve always been a proponent of not wasting space (we have 4 kids and no family room or basement, haha) that is currently trying to downgrade. We love Susanka and are taking a lot of her suggestions into account, and hope that other small builders like Jay Shafer continue to move towards building for families and not just singles and couples.

Can’t wait to see this project completed!

9 Scoats October 26, 2008 at 9:18 am

1) Having recently moved from a very small house to much larger house, I must say I greatly enjoy the extra space. I wouldn’t want more space but do enjoy what we have. 24/7 access to my Craigslist’ed bowflex is nice.

2) I do think home design does need to considered in relation the neighborhood and society. You made a good case for going carless and eliminating garages for the two houses. That said, are the 100K and 120k houses unneighborly by not having front porches?

3) Regarding stuff. A large volume of my stuff are books, CDs, videotapes and DVDs. With Netflix, video on demand and MP3s, I dont’ really need or want any of that media anymore. I do need someway to stream MP3s around the house. Maybe providing a computer nerve center should be considered in future 100K projects.

10 Grant October 26, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Well, you’ve summarized my reasons for building a bigger house quite well. I appreciate the recognition of the relevant issues. Social engineering on a much larger scale is required to make smaller homes become the norm again. However, I am certain that you are going to find an under-served “niche” customer base.

The home you are building “probably” “makes sense” within the context of the social fabric surrounding it. There is good public transportation. There is plenty of public social space easily accessible. And if going to a public gym, a public bar, a public pool hall, etc. doesn’t interfere with sufficient available family time then wonderful! This is why such homes are mostly relegated to retired couples, young couples, or families with stay-at-home moms and more “free” time.

The fact is, most families work more hours than ever these days. A 40 hour work week with only one bread winner (like “back in the day”) quite frankly doesn’t lead many families to even be able to afford a $120K house. This has created a major shift in housing priorities from the earlier generations.

When people actually went to work at 9 am and got off at 5 pm, a stop by the gym in the morning and a stop off at the pub after work, still left the same amount of family time (or more) than we tend to have today. And quite frankly, “back in the day” society put up with a lot more absenteeism from the husband/father than is acceptable today.

With my work schedule, if I am going to spend time with my wife, kids, and grandkids, I need the “entertainment space” within the walls of my own home, because time has become much more valuable than the increased cost of my mortgage.

Significant social engineering would be required to revert society to less work hours and more family time before people will consider once again spending the “time” to travel to entertainment. Even then, I’m not sure if it really makes sense. Do you go to the pub and play pool with your buddies over a beer (like men used to do “back in the day”) or do you stay at home and play pool and darts with your own wife & children???

Do you go to the gym (while you hire a baby sitter or put the kids in day care) or do you have a home gym?

Furthermore, work hours have followed “professionals” into their own homes. So do you monopolize a bedroom or family room, or do you build to also have a private office that doesn’t disturb the routine family functions of other rooms in the house? With both parents bringing work home, do you have two offices? Or do you just rebel against modern professional business roles and refuse to take work home, only work 40 hour weeks, and stagnate your career and earnings potential?

No more need for a cell phone bill. Forget about affording a cable bill. Just return your cost of living to the lifestyle of the pre-1950′s. But also reduce your productivity and earnings potential to pre-1950′s levels as well.

Great in theory! Hard to find a “professional” job these days that permits such a lifestyle in actual practice. And some of us just don’t find career satisfaction merely being “sales associates” at a strip mall.

So yes, the home does have new roles, and for a lot of “broader” reasons than just suburban sprawl and distant relatives. And yes, those are also very valid and significant reasons as well, as you have expounded. Additionally, a smart real estate investment can be the BEST way of growing wealth and securing future retirement.

Another complication is that schools are frequently funded according to the local tax base. When you move into a larger home in a more expensive neighborhood, the higher tax base in that community also tends to result in better schools. “Professional” neighbors also tend to raise children to value an education, which significantly affects the quality of the peer group at school. People buy houses where the schools are good. Generally, the schools are best where homes are big and expensive.

As such, I don’t see the masses of “professional” families moving into smaller homes any more. Young professionals without kids (or a very young child), likely, as a “starter home.” Retired couples with small families or nearby families, probably. Non-professional families seeking affordable housing, certainly.

11 Nic Darling October 27, 2008 at 9:51 am

Scoats: In order

1. I agree that some of the additions we have made to our big homes are impressive. 24 hour access to exercise equipment, games and spa-like bathtubs is very convenient, but as I said before . . . use justifies space (at least to some extent). While you may be an exception (and I would guess you are since you brought it up), the vast majority of bow flex machines and weight sets gather dust. The same goes for giant tubs and pool tables (I have always wanted one) once the novelty has worn off. And, even if they didn’t, sometimes (by which I definitely don’t mean all the time) it is worth it to sacrifice a bit of convenience.

2. I think the current form of our 100k homes is only a beginning. There is, as always, much to be improved. The lack of a front porch, however, is an effort to fit into the surrounding landscape. Our home is already “odd looking” by traditional standards and a porch in a porchless neighborhood would only increase that oddity. Also there is the question of expense and building additional non-living space. On the other hand, I do think we need to think more about the way our homes interact with the neighborhood and it is something we are definitely talking about.

3. Affordable technological additions are a constant topic of conversations. Computers, since their inception, have been about reducing space. I am sure they have a role to play in future 100k homes. I will also admit to a personal weakness for books (the real paper kind), and this will either require some sort of intervention or some very creative storage solutions.

12 Nic Darling October 27, 2008 at 10:38 am

Grant: Wow, I hope I am making the all-to-common mistake of misinterpreting the tone of your comments because otherwise I am disturbed by your prejudices. Perhaps you can clarify . . .

Your assumption that all public entertainment is bar related confuses me. Perhaps it is my own fault, but I assumed enough knowledge of various social opportunities that I could simply mention the few my social status and inclination lead me toward (with tongue firmly in cheek). Dense living environments, be they cities or towns, are full of opportunity for family related activity in the public space. Parks, museums, community movie nights, church events, public gyms, various athletic courts, etc. All accessible by foot, bike or public transit. Much of this needs to be built up and rejuvenated but it exists. Your characterization of the small home dweller as an irresponsible, absentee parent is absurd. If that was not your intent I apologize, but realize that this is the suggestion of your tone.

To move on . . . by professional, do you mean wealthy and if so, why not say so? There are many professions (teacher comes immediately to mind) that take plenty of work home, value education and live in relatively small homes (at least compared to the giant homes of your “professionals”). There are also many non-professionals that value education but sadly are unable to move to neighborhoods that have a monopoly on the best opportunities for learning. Your argument seems to suggest otherwise.

A home, as in a single house in which you live, is not a investment. It is an expense. Real estate beyond that home can be seen as a sound investment, and I would recommend it to those that can afford it. The home you live in, however, is an expense and a larger less efficient home is a bigger expense. It is difficult to argue the value of a bigger more expensive home when that belief has served, in large part, to plunge our economy into the current economic crisis.

Lastly, to briefly defend the exact types of homes we are building. The average American household is 2.6 people, meaning a very large number of households consist of two or less people. There is no reason 2 or even 3 people can’t live comfortably in 1200 square feet, yet no one builds these homes. Some of the reasons are those described above, some are economic as you mentioned, but if we want to live responsibly it has to change.

Again, I apologize if I misunderstood your comments. I understand your desire to defend your choices, but I would ask that you understand the opportunity for a different set of decisions.

13 Grant October 27, 2008 at 1:18 pm

Yes, the “tone” of my comments was misunderstood… Understandable from a simple post.

The examples I used were primarily confined to the comments in the original blog post (pool table, local pub, etc.). The public parks, walking trails, and gardens didn’t come up in the original post and obviously aren’t part of the “architecture” of a large home, although they can become part of the landscape.

And no, I did not intend for “wealthy” and “professional” to be synonymous. It is more likely “white collar” and “blue collar” and perhaps even more so “managerial” and “day laborer.”

The main issue was/is the significant difference in use of the home between those who of necessity bring their work home with them, and those who clock out and leave work at work. The proportion of Americans who leave work at work has declined considerably. And the relative pay for those who clock out and leave their work at work, is significantly lower.

In the past when smaller homes were more prevalent it was much more common for the “middle class” American to leave their work at work. The intrusion of work hours (for most middle class and higher Americans) into traditional “family time” and “personal time” have had a HUGE impact on what makes for an ideal home. That is what I was trying to get across. Not some kind of erudite class warfare.

You should be consciously aware that sort of like reverse-racism, there can also be a sense of reverse-socio-economic elitism, where class prejudices act in reverse, and things are intentionally “labeled” as “wealthy” as a means of attacking them. This is equally as offensive, and such prejudices disturb me!

Rather than trying to defend my own choices, as you misinterpreted, my primary goal was to provide more of a socio-economic explanation of the “shift” nationwide in what kind of a house has become prefered by the masses. The role of “parent,” in addition to the role of “bread winner,” has changed for both father and mother. These changes have led to “shifts” in how we use our homes. Modern homes reflect these shifts.

Modern society has fewer hours to spend with family and in the home. The home has “morphed” to maximize the hours available at home with family and to reduce the need to go elsewhere in the few hours available for family R&R. The additional rooms are an effort to keep a home livable and comfortable in the midst of the demands of our modern world.

Mom and dad each need quiet space to “work at home.” They don’t want to just exile the kids to a public park, or worse yet send them to the mall. So, kids’ dens and parental offices get built to meet the conflicting needs. Yes, this results in a reduction in parent/child interaction, but it is the required work that is the causative agent, and the rooms merely attempt to make less than ideal circumstances more livable.

We can “judge” those who bring work home with them and suggest they should find another job, but how many non-manual labor jobs that pay a truly middle class or better income, come with set 9 to 5 work hours and 40 hour work weeks, where you leave your work at work when you clock out??? Not many… If you don’t want to take your work home with you, you will have a hard time living a middle class or higher lifestyle in the America of today.

I tried to “downsize” from a 3000 sf house to a roughly 1800 sf house when we went from a family of 7 down to a family of 3. It hasn’t worked well for us. I have no place to work without exiling my wife and granddaughter from “shared space.” This daily problem is further aggravated by far flung relatives gathering for holidays with no place to comfortably stay.

We are ultimately going to go the larger scale house route, for many of the same reasons so many other Americans have done and are doing the same. But I see no reason to “defend” my choices. I owe no explanation for “my” choices to anyone. I was only trying to reflect and explain the socio-economic shifts that have created the trend towards McMansions.

You can argue, all you want, that we should go back to simpler, smaller homes with the requisite increase in family interaction. But for this to be feasible for and reasonable to the “masses,” the modern expectations of the work place have to also change. These days, it is rare to have a “managerial” job and not take our work home with us. We also have less hours at home than prior generations (mostly due to longer work hours not necessarily longer commutes), and the time we do have at home is precious, and we want to make the most of it and reduce the need to leave our homes any way we can.

And yes, teachers also take their work home with them, which is a great example of why this isn’t merely a wealthy versus “other” economic distinction. Additional rooms make these modern realities more “livable” for parents and children. While such a home is frequently not affordable on a teacher’s salary, in two income households, it often becomes within reach.

So what is “living responsibly?” This is a term that is heaviliy laden with “judgment.” Is your definition the only one?

Is a 9,000 sf “zero energy home” irresponsible merely because it consumes lots of materials and land to build? What if it is built with smart contruction technologies that allows it to be built with renewable/recyclable materials at a cost almost 50% lower than standard construction practices? Is it still irresponsible? What if it is built to last 500 years, whereas a 1200 sf home is only built to last 30 years… Which is more responsible then?

On a separate note, I would CERTAINLY argue with your assertion that your home is not an investment. My primary residences have been my BEST investment vehicle and have added more to my net worth than any other investment in my life. No house I have lived in has ever been an “expense.” So far, I have made a significant profit on all 4 primary residences that I have owned. I have made more money on my primary residences than on my so-called “investment properties.”

I am not talking speculative investment that led to the housing bubble and evaporation of paper wealth. I am talking about smart investing in a “hard asset” that also has practical daily use.

Yes, a larger home leaves you less money to invest in a retirement fund, but the equity in your home can make for a significant retirement fund in and of itself, and can be enjoyed everyday of your life until you “cash in” the investment by selling it. With a reverse mortgage, you can even continue to enjoy it after cashing in… My real estate investments, including my primary residence haven’t lost a dime in value as a result of the economic crash. Stock market investments haven’t performed nearly so well… As for me, I’m glad I “invested” more in my postive value home and less in a negative value 401K.

These socio-economic “realities” drive many Americans to “invest” in bigger homes with every “comfort” that they can “afford.” These investments yield excellent returns, as long as they are not in a “bubble market” that pops.

With your 100K Home, you are coming from an alternative, competing, and likewise valid paradigm. Smaller families in very expensive areas to live, such as inner cities, need to learn how to live well in a smaller and more affordable space. I applaud this effort. It certainly meets an under-served need. But I’m not sure that the masses entrenched in the realities of today’s world are going to choose this different set of decisions.

I certainly understand the motivations of those who choose to live big in a small space. I would ask that while you provide a much needed solution to the 100K Home set, that you try to also understand the valid motivations of others that lead them to a different set of decisions than you. Otherwise, using your own words, I am disturbed by your prejudices.

Don’t let your prejudices blind you to socio-economic realities. Housing today is different from the 1950′s because how we use our houses has changed substantially. I thought you did a reasonably good job explaining some of those dynamics in this blog entry.

But rather than merely a move away from shared public space and the implied de-emphasis on social interaction, I think one of the primary drivers of modern homes is actually an effort to keep families at home to interact with one another during their all too precious and fleeting “non-work” time. rather than family members going their separate ways to the gym, to the theater, to the restaraunt, to the pub, to the public swimming pool, etc. We build all of these things into our homes to keep family members closer to one another thereby generating more opportunities for all too rare family interaction. We build offices into our homes so that when we bring work home, we don’t have to unreasonably drive family out of the home.

I think the motivations are much more positive and not so much isolationist…

But maybe I’m just an optimist and don’t see as many “sinister” motivations behind the building of bigger homes.

I certainly agree that we need to work towards sustainability, control of life-cycle costs, and wise stewardship of limited resources that shares, rather than selfishly hoardes, wealth.

14 Nic Darling October 27, 2008 at 1:54 pm

Grant: I appreciate your comments and the depth of thought you obviously put into them. I will not respond in full at the moment to everything you have brought up as much of it is to be discussed in future posts.

I will say, as I have said before, that denser, more compact living is not going to appeal to everyone, but we are going to need it to appeal to a growing majority of us in the coming decades (for a wide variety of reasons beyond just energy efficiency).

Also, I believe there is a balance somewhere between the McMansion and the minimal, and that improvements in design can reduce the amount of space needed for the same “comforts”. Hell, I have always wanted a pool table. I like the comforts of a separate space to write and work. However, I find that simply tacking on rooms and space to address those “wants” lacks consideration and imagination.

What I really like about your comments and an area in which we might find much common ground is the connection the homes we live in have to the greater trends in society. It is not our houses and cars alone that are unsustainable. It is our lifestyle. It is the way we work and play. Real adjustments are beyond the scope of our meager efforts, but perhaps our efforts (both of ours) will be a sentence in a larger essay on sustainable change.

15 Scoats October 27, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Wow what a great volley of ideas. I think a sense balance might be missing from the discussions.

1) The typical modern exurban mcmansion is stupid. Office, living room, dining room, the pompously named great room, eat in kitchen, 4 bedrooms, AND the sitting room off the master bedroom overlooking the great room. I don’t know about you, but I only have one ass, and can only sit in one room at a time. For most people, some of these rooms should be omitted or merged with others. As-is these homes are very wasteful both in construction, furnishing, and heating/cooling.

I’d love to be able to fit into a tiny house, but I don’t. My house is a bit large for two, but we do get very good use out of our space. We both work at home a lot, and this is a good balance for us on a personal level.

2) I love living in a village environment and being able to walk places that are worth going to. For a very long time, people who wanted to live in more traditional walkable areas (such as cities) had to endure lower quality of living, all the while subsidizing more wasteful living areas. It’s nice to see city/town living getting more popular.

3) Our homes have been marketed to us as our largest “investment”. Nic is right; that’s silly. It’s an expense.

Like all expenses, what you want to pay for is a personal issue. I choose not to have a house with a master bedroom sitting area. Isolating yourself from the rest of your house and your family seems silly to me. I do choose to have our laundry on the 2nd floor rather than in the basement, and that costs me something, which I don’t mind paying for.

4) I appreciate your decision on the front porch. It sounds like you made a well reasoned decision. One of the many reasons why I picked my old house is the front porch. For me it is usable living space. When we have parties, people tend to congregate there weather permitting. I have the only open front porch on my very small block, it would be preferable if others were open as well.

5) While I live in a densely populated urban neighborhood, I do not live walking distance to a gym. If I lived near one that had hours that were convenient for me, I probably wouldn’t have bought the bowflex.

6) I respect what you do Nic, and you wish you very well. Maybe a 100K brand house isn’t for me, well that’s OK. There are many for whom it is perfect. One size need not fit all. 100K is another great thing that makes me proud to be a Philadelphian.

7) Regarding your book collection, how about a series of continuous high shelves in several rooms? Assuming a 8 foot ceiling, if you put the shelves 6’6″ off the floor, it should be out of the way of most people and make sure of mostly wasted space. Hang a 3 step folding step ladder on a wall and you are solid.

There should be a balance between having no possessions and having too much junk. I have some rules I try to enforce, anything not worn in 12 months must go. Anything not handled in 3 years must go. I have been making exceptions for books.

16 Rob October 31, 2008 at 1:46 pm

I will say it, all things being equal, a 9000 sf house is INCREDIBLY irresponsible, for land and material resource use alone. If one person chooses to withdraw from society and fund there own, mini city, they are essentially stealing funds from the greater society that would help fund all of the things they now have in their home.

Take for instance a movie theater, if everyone goes out to see movies then the movie theater will stay open. If a certain amount people now have home theaters, they no longer go to the public theater and therefore it can no longer stay open. It is absolutely wonderful that some can afford home theaters, but they are in effect creating the demise of the public theater. And now those who cannot afford a home theater can no longer go to the theater.

A similar argument could be made for those who drive inefficient vehicles and therefore drive up this countries fuel consumption. The current gas prices have proven that lower demand will lower prices. If everybody was more efficient with there fuel consumption if would benefit EVERYONE, not just those who cannot afford high fuel prices.

What all of this means is that just because you can, doesn’t necessary mean you should. Each individual in society has an effect on each other individual. My actions affect you, and your actions affect me.

17 Grant October 31, 2008 at 8:02 pm

Rob makes some valid points, and I honestly have to largely concede them. But where do you draw the line on selfish private consumption versus supporting public resources?

Should noone enjoy the convenience and privacy of a personal swimming pool, but rather support the public pool. Should noone buy home exercize equipment, but rather support the local gym? Should noone have a private library of books, but rather use such funds to support the public library? Should we all sell our cars and support public transportation for the masses???

What about those of us who are lacking quality in such public conveniences where we live? The theater is 20 miles away. The public gyms aren’t as nice as what I will build into my own home. The public swimming pool is not conducive to swimming laps and not open in the winter. We have “NO” public transportation except for a limited seniors program shuttle which I don’t qualify to use.

Until recently in rural Japan, private residences didn’t have baths. Instead you paid to visit the public “sento” bath house. Such sentos have become rarer with private baths in newer homes. Today, a visit to the Sento is seen more like a relaxing spa visit rather than a daily necessity. Should the Japanese have not built private baths in their homes? Should Americans switch to “public bath houses” to be more democratic with our plumbing expenses?

I recognize that this is taking the argument to extremes, but I just want to spark thought… Who defines “excess” and/or “irresponsibility?” Do we not decide that for ourselves? Do we really have the right to decide that for our neighbor?

“If” I build my 9,000 sf house plan, I will be nearly doubling my investment due to my relatively low cost of construction (I will be owner building with significant swear equity over time) versus appraisal value. The more house I build the higher my equity wealth becomes. I can then leverage that equity wealth to create much more wealth much faster. That is honestly hard to turn away from…

Additionally, because I do have the kind of resources/income that permits me to build such a house, building such a house with a tax deductible interest on my mortgage and with no capital gains on my equity, preserves that wealth from taxation better than any other available mechanism. That is being a wise steward of my wealth and not allowing it to be squandered by tax and spend government. “I” get to pick and choose how my wealth is used to give back to society.

Additionally, some of the passive measures I have designed into my home REQUIRE additional space to passively condition (heat/cool/dehumidify) the air. I need my basement conditioning chamber. I need my rear porch/solarium that shades the house in the summer and heats the house in the winter. I need my 20′ x 20′ belvedere with cupola on top to achieve the passive solar air flow through the house via the solar chimney effect. I need the vaulted ceiling in the foyer and great room to achieve the passive convection air flow circulation through the house. I need the shading of the wrap-around porches to protect against summer sun.

Such passive solar measures add over 2000 sf to my house design… I am on a sloped lot with the necessity of a walk-out basement. This basement will be unfinished space at first, but I will cost-effectively finish it over time to enhance my property value. Finishing the basement will add at least 2000 sq ft. Finishing the attic will add more sq ft.

The initial structure will be roughly 4000 sf, prior to finishing out the basement and attic. In a hot humid environment it is financially and environmentally smarter to have all conditioned space and not have an open air attic. The poured concrete wall systems and the metal SIP roofing systems don’t cost much extra in materials, time, or labor to create finished rooms… If I am going to condition it anyway, and it doesn’t cost much money or materials to finish the basement and attic, why not plan on finishing it over time???

To meet the appraisal requirements for this many square feet under roof, I NEED a certain number of bedrooms and bathrooms to qualify for the required mortgage. I WANT these rooms anyway so that distant relatives can all visit comfortably on holidays. Thus, the bloated square footage count…

So, with so many financial dynamics saying I “should,” it is hard to justify taking the admittedly “high road” of a smaller home with fewer amenities and no better energy efficiency.

The extra square footage is what actually enables this house design to become a Zero Energy Home. I can either pay forever for additional energy consumption, or I can build in some additional equity enhancing square footage to begin with, and in the process actually lower my energy consumption… And no that isn’t a non-sequitir.

I don’t think it would actually be possible for me to make a smaller home as energy efficient as this house design is going to be… Those extra square feet drive the passive cooling and dehumidification of the house in ways that would be essentially impossible to duplicate in a smaller home. The large closets on the west wall, are not only conveniences, but they buffer the temperature of the primary living areas further into the home. The basement provides passive cooling in the summer. The solar chimney provides passive dehumidification, passive cooling air flow in the summer, and assists with passive heating in the winter. The south facing solarium provides passive solar gain in the winter, while shading the house and cooling it in the summer.

The expanse of south facing roof is what enables effective solar hot water heaters for the radiant floor system, and still have enough room for the addition of PV panels to become ZEH. The use of solatubes to passively light the home in the daytime, and LED and CFL lights for nighttime illumination precludes major expense for lighting the larger home. High thermal mass and smart passive design together with an ERV system requires minimal energy to heat and cool even such a massive structure. All highly energy efficient energy star appliances will use no more electricty than those in a 100K home…

So, I am still not intellectually convinced that 9,000 sf is automatically socially irresponsible. Although I still “feel” like Rob’s points are valid and should be conceded.

The fact is, the economic value of building the bigger house is so overwhelming, that I probably will, regardless. (Once again, this 9000 sf won’t use much more energy than a 100K home…)

18 BarbO November 1, 2008 at 7:40 pm

Re porches: I sure do like a balcony if not a porch, and find that the neighbors and I living in the Fairmount neighborhood actually sit on our respective porches in the summer and socialize. Could the 100k house add a balcony for 5k for the “105k house”? It may not promote socializing, but sipping a margarita with a few friends on a balcony while the city lights twinkle on a warm summer evening is so very nice……….how much would balconies add by the way?

19 Rob November 2, 2008 at 1:39 am


I don’t have the answer as to what is the best balance of private vs public. If I did, I could probably be the next President. :) I would say that it is entirely up to you, how much you want to involve yourself in society. Just understand that everything you do has an effect on others. I could probably discuss this topic ad nauseum as to why I think more involvement in society is a good thing, but suffice it to say that you benefit from others involvement in society and they benefit from yours.

As for the investment aspect, I completely agree with Nic on this topic.

And there are plenty of houses much smaller than yours that use many of the same techniques to achieve a completely self sufficient home. The solar decathlon houses have been completely self sufficient in 800 sf, an incredible goal considering most have only roof space for their PV’s. The size of the house really does not effect the ability to be self sustaining. It is the design of the house and the spaces within that hold the keys to passive design and zero energy use.

I applaud you for you use of porches, verandas and cupolas to help with the passive design of your house. I am amazed that they increase the size of your house 28%! But this does point out that if you started with a smaller home then the extra passives spaces would add considerably less space.

Again, all things being equal, a 9000 sf house is irresponsible because is uses more material and land resources than a smaller house and it takes considerably more energy to construct 9000 sf (and normally it would consume more energy as well). All of this assumes that you can live comfortable in 3000 sf but that you choose to live in 9000 sf. If something changed (i.e. more inhabitants of this house) and you can now justify 9000 sf, then maybe its not irresponsible. But if nothing changed , and the 9000 sf is just because you want it, then in my opinion it is definitely irresponsible. This is just my opinion and I may not completely understand everything that is affecting your situation.

20 chad November 3, 2008 at 11:04 am

I don’t get the argument for needing exorbitantly extra square footage to entertain and for children to play. My family was always in a small house, out of financial need, not choice. Thankfully we always had a couple million square feet of extra room for us to play as kids. It’s called the outdoors.

Secondly, guests can sleep on fold out couches or flex rooms that double as offices or other when visiting. I see no need for more than one dedicated guest room. Actually, I don’t really see the need for one. If your wealthy enough to build a zero energy, double McMansion, then you can afford to put your guests up at the local B&B. This would of course support the local economy which seems to be against all of the “logic” going into the justification for the large home that does not require financial support of the community…

21 Melodie November 20, 2012 at 9:31 am

Wow, comment thread makes my head spin! I don’t think anyone needs to “justify” their decisions re house size, at all. (I find myself constantly defending our choice to live in a 1200 sq ft house, even though we find it more than ample.) What you got me thinking about, however, is historical perspective. I curate a small museum in a “bedroom” community, created mainly for autoworkers after about 1914. Oral histories tell us there were not many amenities at that time, and housewives decried the lack of public services. Services quickly followed, however; stores, theatres, churches, etc moved in to fill the gap, and it is still a vibrant community today. I am trying to jive all this in my brain with the current suburban trends, and other than a Walgreens/CVS on every corner, I think it has more to do with sociology and expectations of living than it did a century ago. Are suburban houses part of a community, or their own tiny community within themselves? My personal feelings on the suburbs likens them to lone houses on the prairie! I see some more research here, but feel very out of my depth!

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