Americans have endured the Poverty of Large for far too long; it’s time to return to the Luxury of Small. That’s my son Sam above, a newly-graduated chef from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, cooking in the kitchen of our tiny condo on South Beach. It’s a far cry from this house, which is where he and his brother David were raised:
It was four times as large as our condo. It sat on one acre of land which was designed to be a self-sufficient homestead. I described it in some detail in this post on the Trouble with Consumption. We made all sorts of sacrifices to finish the house, and were never able to really finish it out the way we would have liked because the square footage stretched our budget to the limit.
Fast-forward twenty years. Our condo is 747 square feet, as opposed to the 3,000 square feet of the big house. The countertops are soapstone instead of the big house’s cheapest possible white ceramic tile on plywood. The kitchen walls are pleated stainless steel instead of the sheetrock of the big house. I could go on, but you get the idea. Did we suddenly hit the lottery? Not at all. The reason we were able to finish the condo out so much better was because there simply wasn’t that much of it. Because everything was smaller, everything could be better. Small is the new luxury. Without being this much smaller, we’d have never lived in a place this much better.
America’s Urge for Big in recent decades is in many ways responsible for the Meltdown. There were other factors, of course, but consider this: Just before the Meltdown, the average American house size had grown to over double what it was at the end of World War II. Yet the average household size had shrunk to almost half what it was at the end of the war. In spite of the fact that half as many people were inhabiting houses twice as large, we still had so much excess stuff that didn’t fit that we’d made the mini-storage industry a $17 billion/year business!
Let that sink in a minute. The cost of storing all that over-consumption had grown so large that the mini-storage industry had grown larger than the entire movie industry! And these weren’t the things we needed, either... they were the things we really didn’t need... otherwise, why would they be in storage?
All that over-consumption came at a great price. Once, buildings were built for the ages. At the Meltdown, construction quality had become so shoddy that pieces of houses could regularly be found falling off in the driveway in less than ten years! We had become a nation of throw-away buildings and throw-away places. Obviously, we can never become sustainable if we keep throwing stuff away like this.
Houses that were too big contributed directly to the throw-away building culture. How? Houses that have to be built as cheaply as possible because they’re being built as large as possible aren’t really worth saving. And so when the too-big maintenance bill on the too-big house hits too soon because it was built too cheaply to last very long, the easy answer is to discard it and start over somewhere else. And so the throw-away cycle continues.
Do this test: Drive around town randomly. Stop every five minutes and look to your left (or right... it doesn’t matter.) If the building is a house, chances are its age is less than forty years. If it’s a Wal-Mart, on the other hand, chances are its age is less than fifteen years. You’ve probably noticed that people live longer than forty years most of the time. This means that on average, we’re burdening the American public with building more than one house per lifetime, and re-building their retail several times in a lifetime.
We simply must lay down the burden of over-building, because it has become too heavy for America to bear. Let’s unburden ourselves by building smaller, so that we can afford build to last once again. Because we can’t build to last if we build too big. Build big or build well... that’s the choice. We cannot afford not to build well anymore. This has become increasingly obvious recently. I blogged about it a year ago, and many of the lessons we learned fostering the Katrina Cottages movement have led to all sorts of cool ways of building smaller and smarter.
Our Outdoor Living Room
Here’s one really cool thing you can do to reduce the size of your house: build outdoor rooms. They’re not only much less expensive to build per square foot, but they have a hidden benefit as well that you might not have realized: If your outdoor rooms are enticing enough that you spend a lot of time outdoors, you become acclimated to the local environment and need less conditioning when you return indoors.
Creatures of the A/C might say “I could never do that.” I was once one of you. But then I moved to Miami, where I spend lots of time outdoors walking, and in my garden. I can accurately say that I’ve never been outdoors here in the shade and with a breeze when I’ve ever been uncomfortable. And this is in a town where the basketball team is named the “Heat.” Creatures of the A/C come down here and suffer, sweating profusely all the time. But not me. My garden and my walkable town have taken care of that... I’m Living in Season. Build small and well, and build outdoor rooms... this is where real sustainability begins.
PS: This blog post was written in response to a new phenomenon on Twitter: the #blogoff. I heard about it from architect Cindy Frewen Wuellner, PhD, FAIA, (@urbanverse on Twitter) who has a really cool blog on Posterous.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - 11:58 PM
Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Steve: this is a beautiful, informative, right on post on smaller living!!! I am so happy that you contributed. Never too late for brilliant ideas!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 12:30 AM
Thanks so much, Cindy! Not sure yet where the #blogoff idea originated, but I'll keep up with the topic next time... great idea! Anyone who blogs should follow this hashtag.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 04:59 AM
Steve, this is brilliant.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 07:15 AM
Steve, the #blogoff was the brainchild of Veronika Miller at http://www.modenus.com @modenus and a group of us just kinda ran with it informally! We blog on a variety of topics as an exercise to stretch our brains, knock us out of our niche just a little and attract bloggers who may be better experts on the topics we choose. Follow @dogwalkblog @paul_anater and @modenus if you are intrigued about the #blogoff idea and want to jump into the fray on the next go-around. Nice piece! Thoughtfully done. Like the difference between enjoying a well prepared Tapas vs an all-you-can eat buffet.
I've added you to the end of my post at http://rshrk.us/574
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 08:35 AM
I'm a resident of Orlando and am a slave to a/c but when I go to Lake Worth (adjacent to Palm Beach on the south side, I love to dine "al fresco" at such eateries as Havana Hideaway where there is a breeze and shade and fans and no a/c! Extremely comfortable plus great food!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 10:36 AM
Steve, Love it--quality over quantity. Michael Pollan on food: "PAy More. Eat Less," but your condo is not tiny! by New York standards, it is palacious, as is my NYC co-op apartment. What you do have that is wonderful is all that outdoor space that is gorgeous as well as shared. Shared is the new Small!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 10:38 AM
PS. And: Public parks are the new backyard!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 11:09 AM
Thanks, DogWalkBlog! I've just followed everyone you mentioned... looking forward to the next round of #blogoff And Nancy, you're exactly right... matter of fact, that'll be an upcoming blog post: why public parks are better back yards than the back yard!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 12:43 PM
Love the article Steve. The rooms photographed are so lovely that they make the living smaller concept doubly enticing. In my office, several of us have adopted the 6 item only work wardrobe. With fewer choices, getting ready is a snap. The clothing pair down has reminded me of how I really don't need so much stuff. Fewer, better made, more responsibly purchased. In the end, more stuff seems to steal away more time. Also, good article in NYT this week, you may have seen it.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 03:20 PM
You are right, Mary Beth. Too much stuff is really such a burden! Living in a tropical beach community, our lifestyle is so casual. And we love it! Some call it the "flip-flop lifestyle" and that is really it! Just simple! Great points here Steve! But I do have to add that good design adds a lot to the small footprint. Every inch has to have a purpose and everything a place. Small space, Big living.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 04:06 PM
Great Post Steve!
Friday, August 13, 2010 - 11:57 AM
Vaughan & I do fine living in an 780 square foot house that includes a small art studio. We're planning to add to it, but for work space, not living space; it's nearly impossible to do pottery and jewelry on a productive professional level in 120 square feet.
I agree completely that pushing the thermostat up makes life in FLorida more comfortable overall. I sped a lot of time outside, and barely preak a sweat if it's below 90. A/C set at 80 makes a cool night (mid 70's) feel wonderful, and we can shut down the cooling.
Friday, August 13, 2010 - 04:57 PM
MaryBeth, I hadn't seen the NYT article... thanks! As for the 6-item wardrobe... let's see... shirt, pants, 2 socks, 2 shoes... guess that means going commando! ;-) Which actually is a cool way to go here on South Beach!
Frank, that's my experience exactly... a warmer thermostat is an inoculation against feeling hot because you condition yourself. Many times, if I'm working from home, I simply open the windows, cut on the ceiling fan, and let the breeze blow through. Even in August (at least some of the days.)
Saturday, August 14, 2010 - 03:32 PM
Oh, I wasn't very clear. 6 articles of clothing-not counting shoes, underthings, and accessories. And, we've kinda cheated. This is only for work. Appartently there is a group who limited their entire wardrobe (work & play) to 6 items. Funny NyT article about a woman who resorted to mowing the lawn in flowered pajamas! It's been fun! Strange thing is no one really does notice if you wear the same skirt for a whole week! We're 2 weeks into a month long experiment. It's been an enormous time saver. And, I find that I actually look a little more creative and put together because I am wearing scarves and different accessories.
Saturday, August 14, 2010 - 10:58 PM
Got it... that makes sense. I do something similar. I wear black pants and t-shirts, so I can pack really light for travel. If you dress differently every day, then most people feel compelled to back a different outfit for every day. But I can always do laundry, so I don't usually pack more than 3-4 shirts no matter how long I'll be traveling. That also means I never have to check luggage. Even traveling to Europe, it's nothing but carry-ons for me.