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Housing on a Diet?

With all the pressures on the housing market and industry, a good question to ask is, “What will houses look like when the market rebounds?” In this post, it is not a question of style but of size. Since its postwar mass production beginnings, the average house has grown with each ensuing decade.  Over the course of the recent boom, that pace has increased. I remember making note in 1990 as a tract model we were designing for a suburban Philadelphia development broke the 3000 square foot barrier - a mark previously reserved for custom houses. In the heady decade from 1995 to 2005, we rarely worked on a home that didn’t start in the 4500 square foot range with many approaching the 10,000 square foot mark. Few models fell below the 3000 square foot barrier. Volume for its own sake seemed to be the primary motivator in the housing market and “Not So Big House” advocates like Sarah Susanka seemd woefully out of step.

I am not so quick to demonize the larger home. Architects tend to preach, but social engineering from the blueprint is unnecessary and riddled with failures. Quality of life is a moving target and an individual decision. If someone is content in their modestly appointed voluminous environment so be it. However, several factors now conspire to force us to rethink house size. One factor, affordability, is in many ways a direct consequence of inexorable housing growth. Energy costs, an ever present but routinely ignored factor has finally made its way to the fore. The recession and particularly the housing downturn have amplified the effect of these factors.

To the extent we are seeing action in the housing market it is, not surprisingly, in smaller houses both single and multi-family. Arguably this reflects a fundamental shift among American home buyers as they adjust to new economic realities. The numbers bear this out but I question whether this represents an actual trend or simply a shorter term reaction. An interesting dynamic may come into play. Notwithstanding sinking home prices and no matter how small homes get, the affordability Genie is probably out of the bottle for the next generation of homebuyers. It appears that broader economic conditions are squeezing Americans at two ends of the demographic out of the home market. In our firm we are frequently informed that our clients are dealing with housing grown children and aging parents. This notion was presaged by none other than Bob Toll, head of Horsham, PA based home-builder Toll Brothers who predicted that children will be staying home longer. Smaller houses cannot accommodate this “trend.”

It remains to be seen how house size balances these competing influences. Whatever the outcome, emphasis on good design will be all the more important. Smaller houses are indeed more difficult to design because many fixed tolerances become more critical in the design formula and because allocation of limited space is a more difficult balance. At the other extreme, simply larger isn’t simply capable of housing an extended family. Essentially independent young adults, older adults and their hosts each bring a set of requirements that must be managed in the design.

Brian Mann