Google+ House Revivals: N is for Not Such a Big House?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

N is for Not Such a Big House?

Most of you are probably aware of the writings of Sarah Susanka.  Sarah is an architect and author who helped to spearhead the small house movement.  She has written many books on small house design.  Her book, The Not So Big House, brought new attention to the concept of living in a smaller space.

Susanka followed The Not So Big House with several other books on the topic.

She even branched out into a more philosophical approach to living small -- making room for the really important things.

Susanka's works were part of a larger reaction to the McMansions of the nineties.
photo image courtesy Time CNN article, found here

These 3000 to 6000 square foot behemoths began cropping up all over the country.  As families got smaller, and began spending less and less time at home, their houses just got bigger.  And so did their mortgages (and their home equity lines of credit got bigger-- all while their equity, like their family size, shrunk -- but that's a story for another day...).

Many McMansions were built using the same formula: 
Palladian window in front + double height foyer + cathedral ceiling in great room + not very efficient kitchen = really big house that's hard to heat, doesn't function as well as it should, and looks just like a thousand other houses.  
photo Aaron Houston, source New York Times

 Reminds me of a profound little folk song, Little Boxes, of Malvina Reynolds (and Weeds) fame.  You can listen to Pete Seeger singing Little Boxes  here. To hear Billy Bob Thornton's version of the Little Boxes intro to Weeds, click hereTo hear Malvina Reynolds' recording, click here.

For the price point, you might have expected McMansions to have really nice finishes, but, alas, they usually had builder grade cabinetry sporting flat cut honey oak veneer and doors.  All of this beauty was usually topped with laminate counter tops.  Light fixtures and hardware were usually factory painted to look like fake brass.  The home exteriors often sported  projecting garages, and fake stone veneer.

Trim--if there was any--was often natural stained fir (at best) that was not in appropriate proportion to the large spaces.  See the wee skinny baseboard and window trim in the picture below?  Hey, a builder's gotta save money wherever he can!
Not surprisingly, people have started to get tired of their cold white and beige boxes, with their big electric bills and lack of character. For years, writers have been suggesting that the sprawling neighborhoods full of today's McMansions...

are tomorrow's slums.....
image Dharavi-Mumbai slum, found here

An interesting article about this topic, published in March 2008, in The Atlantic, can be found here.

Moving into a very-tiny-temporary-until-we-figure-out-where-we-really-want-to-live-or-get-transferred-again-apartment, has caused my husband and I to sit back and really think about what we need.  We looked at a floating home earlier this week that would have seemed ridiculously small a year ago.  Now, however, we wonder if we won't rattle around in something that big (it has TWO bedrooms)!  And we were really wowed by the four foot by twenty foot deck!

After Huricane Katrina, people were so grateful to have a tiny "Katrina Cottage".  There's just nothing like a life altering event to put things into perspective!  These sweet little cottages contained all the essentials, as well as cozy little front porches.  They were modeled after traditional shot-gun cottages from another era.  Learn more about Katrina Cottages here.

Are you interested in purchasing a historic shotgun cottage?  Five grand will get you one of these Indianapolis ladies.  For more information on this preservation program, go to the Historic Properties Foundation website, here.

The historic home shown below is only seven feet wide!

Here is the same home today....

This Alexandria, Virginia home was built in 1830.  The current owners use it as their "city house", but the previous owners lived in the home full-time for twenty-five years!

What makes this house work is the same thing that makes the little Katrina cottages work -- thoughtful design, and a-little-slice-of-outdoor-space-all-your-own.  For more information on this house, dubbed The Spite House, see this New York Times article.

This little stone cottage is in Iceland. The man who built it raised his twenty-two children here.
image source: Iceland Eyes blog 
click the link to learn more about the family that once lived in this home

Here is a picture of the interior.
image source: Iceland Eyes blog

I can imagine that the family who lived here felt very grateful to live in a space that was easily heated during the long, cold winters.  Of course, at the time the home was built, none of the surrounding buildings existed, so the family had plenty of outdoor space.  I'm not saying that I want to move into a postage stamp-size house and raise two dozen children -- I'm just trying to look at things from a different point of view....  

This is not the floating home we looked at this week, but I thought I'd share it because it is so doggone cute.

So, tell me what you think?  Did houses get too big for most American families in the nineties?  I think most of the houses in this article are just a wee bit small to live in permanently, and that the right-size house is somewhere in the middle. What do you think?