We tend toward large homes in the US and this tendency has become more and more pronounced despite the shrinking of our average family size. Much of this growth is probably a result of cheap space and cheap energy. There is simply a lack of significant economic incentive toward modesty. Land is relatively abundant and affordable, providing ample space for our swelling dwellings (ridiculous phrase but I couldn’t resist). The energy to condition and power the extra space is some of the least expensive in the world. We are almost encouraged to tack on extra rooms even to the point at which we run out of names for them. Only in the US would you actually have a space called a “bonus room”.
There is, however, a limit to this excess. Energy costs are rising and will likely continue to do so. Our ideas regarding space are likely to change as we need more land for food and denser communities to reduce the impact of travel. Eventually, it is likely that economic forces will encourage more modest homes for the majority of us. We already see a little of this effect in some portion of the empty-nester community (couples who’s kids have left home) as they leave their large suburban homes for smaller, more urban living. Though, even in that community, the majority seem to want to hang onto their larger home regardless of the number of rooms sitting unused.
There are a wide variety of factors that contribute to a reluctance to live in less space but one I have noticed in particular is the extra bedroom problem. This refers to the phenomenon where a bi-annual visit from a friend or relative is used to justify the need for an entire extra room (and often a bathroom to go with it). It is an argument we encounter constantly in our effort to build more modest, affordable homes. Young couples, years from having kids, are looking for three bedroom homes because their parents come down a few times a year to visit. Parents whose kids have their own homes and families are looking for houses with a couple extra rooms for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This is not to say that having that extra room isn’t useful. It is nice to have someplace comfortable for guests to stay in your house. It feels good to be hospitable. But, isn’t it somewhat wasteful to build, furnish and condition a room that goes relatively unused for 350 or more days out of the year. It seems similar to the person that buys a huge pickup truck and justifies it by the two times a year they move something bigger than a couple bags of groceries. Isn’t it more responsible and efficient to use some sort of shared resources for those days when your needs are increased? Rent a truck to move something heavy? Rent a room to accommodate your relatives?
I know that the inability to offer a place to crash other than the living room floor or couch goes against many peoples idea of hospitality (mine included), but in the end the extra room seems an impractical extravagance. If our goal is lower impact, more responsible housing, then we need to address inefficient use of space. The shared amenities of a community also need to include shared space for hospitality.
How do you feel about the extra room requirements of many home buyers? What are some other solutions to the hospitality problem? What other extras do we justify by very occasional use? Is there a good defense for the guest room?
Let me hear it in the comments.