The Smaller House Discussion

The Smaller House Discussion

  • Posted on: August 6, 2014

My wife, PJ, and I are beginning the house downsizing discussion as our children are growing up and moving out. Predictably, we are wrestling with the details surrounding the big question: How small?

For years now, the subject of building smaller houses has been a discussion topic in the design and home building arena. While I haven’t yet built a small house, the concept intrigues me and I hope to have a chance to do so. Perhaps there is one on my own horizon… Anyway, I like the fact that small houses:

  • Focus on the functionality of space, rather than just more space
  • Tend to be more carefully & creatively designed to maximize the use of space
  • Allow for the use of finer materials, as increased material unit cost is offset by reduced quantities
  • If done right, are easier and cheaper to operate and maintain
  • Have a reduced impact on resources

So in this article, I lightly touch upon a few topics connected to smaller houses, in the hope of simply introducing you to this subject.

Construction Cost

I will start by unveiling a myth. It’s not necessarily cheaper to build a smaller house. You might be able to save absolute dollars (depending upon how much space you sacrifice), but it is very likely you’ll pay substantially more per square foot.

I’ll illustrate this with a simple example. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you could build a very nice, custom 3,000 square foot home for $200 per square foot (may or may not be true depending on where you’re building and how you define very nice). The price to construct that 3,000 square foot home would be $600,000. And let’s say alternatively, you could build a similar level of quality and functionality into a 2,000 square foot home, but it would cost you $300 per square foot. The price to construct the 2,000 square foot home would be $600,000. So in this hypothetical example, you didn’t save any money constructing the smaller house.

Blog 3 image 1 (ledger)

In case you think my example exaggerates the differences, I regularly come across articles showcasing smaller homes in some of my favorite trade journals (e.g. Fine Homebuilding and Dwell) where total cost data is provided, and typically they report construction costs of $250 – $350 per square foot. These are often well designed, appealing homes, but not extravagant. Sometimes they’ve invested extra in energy savings features. In any case, they’re expensive to construct by most standards.

Why is that? The reasons include: certain costs of constructing a home do not vary with square footage; it is more expensive to construct the space saving elements; and expensive finish details become imperatives to achieve the design effects (to make the home live larger).

My point is not to dismiss the concept of building a smaller home – I reiterate that they interest me. Rather, it is to reveal the economic realities, so you have a reasonable expectation about the costs.

So why build a smaller home? If it will cost more per square foot and maybe even as much in absolute dollars as a larger home, why bother? I would answer: Now you’ve arrived at the right question. You need to understand your motives. There are great reasons to build a small home, but if your principal motive is to save construction dollars you will be frustrated.

Before I move on, I should qualify my comments on cost. I am speaking about the costs of building a custom home. There may be better cost savings to be found in purchasing an existing home, but it may come with work to be done, elements that don’t meet you wish list, etc. Secondly, I am assuming the typical types of finishes that most people are seeking in a custom home. There may be ways to cut costs by utilizing simpler, less expensive, yet still design sensitive finish materials, but an owner must be willing to step out of the norm to pursue those options (and that would be a fun project – just saying). Lastly, I am not speaking about the costs of operating your home. Clearly there are substantial costs savings to be achieved with a smaller home, including reduced utility costs and lower maintenance costs.

Practical Ways to Live Smaller

Done right, a smaller house can improve your experience of living in your home. I want to emphasize that “done right” implies that design and planning are keys to realizing these benefits. So if you’re thinking about building or remodeling a smaller home, don’t cut corners on the design work. Hire a good architect and/or designer.

Housing project

So how can a smaller house feel relatively as livable as a larger house? Much has been written on that subject. If you’ve read the books, my thoughts may not be very enlightening. But if this is a new subject for you, following are four basic elements to designing smaller spaces.

Multi-Use Spaces. Creating a room (or several rooms) in a house that are designed to provide for more than one use, is a classic way of reducing the overall size of the house without reducing its functionality. One of the most common examples is the office/guest room. How often does a guest occupy your guest room? Unless your answer is “most of the time”, this is a relatively easy design choice. The great room concept grew out of this same idea, but it seems to have evolved such that great refers to (great big) size rather than (greater) function. Of course there are compromises inherent in designing multi-use spaces, and these may inform how much smaller you want to live.

Blog 3 image 3 (interior multi use room)

Nooks, Crannies & Built-Ins. Why not make use of the spaces in your home that otherwise become dead spaces? The space under a staircase can be framing covered in drywall or, with planning, it can be a closet, or a built-in bookshelf or desk. Shelving can be built into a wall structure, saving space by turning a necessary wall into a functional element of the house. While it is expensive to construct these details, the payback is greater functionality, livability, craftsmanship and architectural charm.

Open Spaces, Taller Ceilings & Natural Light. Rooms can be designed to feel larger than they are – our senses experience the space as bigger. A good architect can produce magical results in this area. An open concept kitchen, dining and living space can make your primary living space feel larger. Raising ceiling heights to 9’ or 10’ can make rooms seem bigger and allow for more window area on exterior walls. And more window area, or carefully placed larger window areas let in more natural light and expand views beyond the walls of the house. Even the placement and orientation of room connections and hallways can expand the length of views in a way that makes your eye perceive the space as larger. And by the way, there are also reasons to want some places in your house to feel smaller, perhaps more private, and it can be important to design for such spaces as well.

Blog 3 image 4 (indoor outdoor space

Indoor/Outdoor Spaces. Our climates tend to impact our degree of indoor/outdoor living, but in most cases expanding living space to the outdoors is a great way to increase your living space without increasing the square footage of your house. Often the best way to do this is to design your primary living space to have an easy flow to an outdoor patio, deck or screened porch. Visually, it’s best to include a larger glass area to the wall that separates the indoor and outdoor spaces, such that the outdoor space seems to be part of the living space, even when the doors are closed.

Reasons to Live Smaller

This is a good place to say that this article is not a manifesto. I’m not making judgments about whether or not you should live smaller. There are many, personal reasons that enter into our decisions about the type and size of the homes we live in. And I certainly have not lived small for much of my adult life. This article is simply about opening up this topic. You decide whether any of it appeals to you.

Re-Direction of Personal Resources. In comparison to a larger home, choosing to live in a smaller home can free up personal resources (time and money). As described earlier, you might be able to reduce your investment, if you’re downsizing, and you certainly can reduce your operating costs. And you can reduce the amount of time you spend maintaining your home. In these meaningful ways, a smaller home can enable you to re-direct your resources to other things you value.

Ease of Living. A major element of architecture is exploring how human beings react/interact with the built environment around them. So residential architecture deals with how we live in, move through and experience the spaces we call home. This involves both functionality and aesthetics. One of the benefits of smaller homes is that they are more readily designed to make living in them, well… just easier. For example, how far do you have to walk to take the trash out to the garbage can, or what steps must you re-trace if you reach your kitchen only to remember that you left your glasses in your bedroom? These examples may sound unimportant, or imply that I am lazy. No comment on the later… But I think there is something pleasing about living in a home where you can easily/quickly move between functional spaces without sacrificing the benefits of separating private, public and work spaces.

Lighter Footprint on the Land. Our personal values are tied up in this concept, but if you value it, a smaller home certainly has a reduced impact on the land upon which it is built and the environment more generally. Smaller houses tend to take up less physical space, require less materials to construct, consume less energy resources to operate, and consume less materials to maintain (assuming they are constructed with similar-lived materials regardless of size). Your motive may be financial, conservationist or both, but a small house can significantly reduce your footprint on the land.

I hope you enjoyed this article, or perhaps even that it is timely as you consider the size of your future home. If you wish to dig deeper into this subject, there are many books and articles written on this subject, a few of which are cited in the resources below.

Ross


Resources:

1. Sarah Susanka (The Not So Big House) is an architect who has written extensively and is one of the most recognized voices on the subject of smaller houses. This link to her website will direct you to many other resources. Link

2. “Living Large in a Smaller House” – This is an article from “This Old House” online magazine that is a case study of a couple who downsized from a 3,800 square foot home to a home that they remodeled from 1,225 to 2,000 square feet, and in the process designed-in a host of features to make their new smaller house live as large as their old home. Link

3. “Smaller House, Larger Life!” – This is another story article. It’s from a website called FIJourney, so there is a bent towards financial independence (hence the “FI”), which is not my topic. But I’ve included it because it provides a “young with kids” perspective to the smaller house discussion, and touches not only on the financial aspects of the author’s journey through home ownership, but also some of the other reasons to live smaller. It’s another perspective. Link

4. “7 Small Spaces with Incredible Kitchens” – This is an article from Dwell.com (Dwell magazine’s website). It focuses on kitchens. I included it for the creative ideas and cool photos (if you like contemporary design). Link

5. “Modern Gabled House in Portland” – Another article from Dwell.com. I’m not sure about the size of this home, but I’m guessing it’s 1,500-2,000sf. I’ve included this because it moves gently in the direction of non-traditional structure and materials (that I mention above as a way to drive down cost/sf), and resulted in more modest cost of $122/sf (but the owner was the general contractor – probably saving ~20%). Link

 

2 Comments

  1. Sam · August 12, 2014

    Ross,

    Thanks for this post. It’s great. My wife and I are in this very place, wondering if we should downsize and wondering what’s involved.

    Your article answered many questions, and it raised great questions we never thought of.

    Thanks,

    Sam