Monday, August 11, 2008

Square Footage

Yesterday we visited friends who live in a not-quite rural part of neighboring Pennsylvania.  They're lovely people, thoughtful and kind.

And their new house is my Worst Nightmare.

While it's not an obnoxious size, it does measure in at about 2300 square feet - according to NPR, just a tiny bit shy of the national average of 2,349 square feet.  This does not include their 3-car garage or sprawling basement.

Our home comes in at about 1700 square feet, sans basement and with a modestly-proportioned single car garage - and seems impossibly big most days.  Still, our entire main living/dining/kitchen space would fit in their football-field of a kitchen.

Part of it is location.  Land is cheap out there; so are houses.  It might not be possible to find  comfortable family home that wasn't super-sized - or maybe 2300 square feet is considered exactly that.  In Metro DC, house costs remain stratospheric, so it's easy to find builders touting "luxury" amenities like granite and exposed brick in a compact footprint.

MSN Real Estate reports that back in 1950, the average American home came in at a petite 983 square feet.  Plenty of families grew up sharing one bathroom and would view either of our family homes as palatial.

We've lived in a modestly-proportioned, early 20th century home with one full bath and a tiny half bath tucked into an (unheated) attic.  I'll admit that it made mornings hectic, and the thought of sharing tiny cupboard-like closets and one pedestal sink with a family of four set my teeth on edge.

But when we went to buy our new home, I was astonished to discover how far we've come.  We wanted 2.5 baths - one in the master, one for Freddie and Fiona and a half-bath off the living area.  Instead, we found ourselves with 3.5 baths - one for every floor of our tall, slim townhome.  It appeared to be the smallest number of baths available in new construction.

Just as gas-guzzling SUVs are out of vogue at the moment, perhaps houses, too, will find themselves put on a diet.  And there are good ways to green any home, even one that tops 4,000 square feet.

But wouldn't it be easier to just opt for more function, less footprint?

While we didn't knowingly follow Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House principles - I stumbled across the book just weeks before we closed on our new home - it's informed my thinking about whether these 1700 square feet are our starter home or our family homestead.  Susanka wisely points out that making a home bigger doesn't automatically make it more comfortable.  In fact, I found it disorienting to step into the foyer of our friends' home and see bunches of doors in an empty hallway - to the garage, the basement, the powder room, closet after closet.  She also notes that by reducing our square footage, we can often invest in higher quality - and more sustainable - materials that make our home far more beautiful and inviting than a yawning cavern of space.

And so that's how we're thinking.  Never say that you'll never move - life is long and surprising.  But if we do, it simply will not be because we really need a media room or a wine cellar.

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