Living Smaller

Big houses may someday look as outdated and impractical as big cars, for many of the same reasons
The Advantages of a Small House

The simplest way to build less expensive houses is to build them smaller, not differently. Smaller houses have fewer bathrooms, smaller kitchens with less cabinetwork, which is expensive, and fewer and smaller rooms. The cost of construction is almost directly proportional to the floor area ("almost" because certain costs, such as electrical hookup charges and building-permit and legal fees, remain constant). Because construction time is also proportionately reduced, the contractor's overhead—and profit—likewise go down. Smaller houses have the added advantages of being cheaper to heat and cool and easier to maintain. They also mean less housework, which should appeal particularly to working couples and single parents.

How much smaller? Melanie Taylor, a New Haven architect, has designed several compact family houses, intended for year-round living, some of them as small as 575 square feet. A modestly priced bungalow, designed for a new town near Gulf Shores, Alabama, combines two small bedrooms, a sleeping loft, an open living space, and an eat-in kitchen in only 1,100 square feet; additional space is provided by a front porch. Other Taylor houses, many of which have a faintly Victorian air, were featured in several national magazines, and proved so popular that the architect was obliged to prepare stock plans for national distribution. In San Francisco the architect Donald MacDonald has successfully built and marketed tiny row houses of 600 to 960 square feet, including garages. These inexpensive—by San Francisco standards (about $165,000)—urban cottages challenge what MacDonald calls "the mythology of space," and compensate for their small size by incorporating oversize windows, skylights, fireplaces, soundproofing, and gardens. Last summer the architect unveiled an even smaller house, intended for a single person or a parent with a small child. It contains only 240 square feet of space but includes a fireplace, a sleeping loft, and a fully equipped kitchen with dishwasher.

The MacDonald house probably represents the extreme limit—the housing equivalent of the micro-car. A less radical departure is the compact house of about 1,000 square feet, within which it is possible to accommodate comfortably two or three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, and a basement that permits rooms to be added later. Such a house is about half the size (and construction cost) of the average new single-family house built last year, although it is still larger than Levitt's 750-square-foot Cape Cod model. Considering that the latter often accommodated a family of five, 1,000 square feet for two or three people seems adequate—by the standards of most European countries, even generous. Such smaller houses, sometimes called starter houses, would appeal to singles, couples, young families, and also older couples whose children have moved away from home. Altogether a large market.

Reducing the floor area does not mean forsaking modern standards of comfort and convenience. There will have to be more and better-appointed bathrooms than in the small bungalows of the past, and ingenious, space-saving storage systems. The miniaturization that has been accomplished in electronics (smaller televisions, smaller audio equipment, smaller appliances) makes it easier to achieve high levels of domestic amenity in small spaces. If home automation, in which a single electrical cable provides power, audio, television, security, telephone, and thermostat, becomes common, as seems likely, it will further increase domestic convenience regardless of space. Like the Japanese car, the small house may start as an economic measure and finish as a luxury product.

Attempts at Industrialization

Wouldn't it be preferable, rather than making houses smaller, simply to build them more efficiently and cheaply by industrializing the building process? This was the rationale for Operation Breakthrough, which was announced by the Nixon Administration in 1969. Its aim was to enlist large corporations such as General Electric and TRW in a national effort to develop radically new ways of building housing, using industrial methods, mass production, and innovative materials. A nation that could put a man on the moon could surely improve on traditional stick-built houses. By 1974, however, Operation Breakthrough had collapsed, partly as a result of a lack of political will but chiefly because the industrial giants were unable to produce a markedly better house at a lower price.

Independent of government efforts an industrialized housing industry has developed, and it includes pre-cut, panelized, and modular homes. Although these forms of building have been in existence for several decades, they have been unable to capture more than about 10 to 15 percent of the new-housing market, according to figures released by the National Association of Home Builders.

Industrialized housing can be erected quickly, and it is usually of high quality. But industrialization has not significantly reduced the construction cost of the house. One problem is the investment in plant and equipment which must be added to the selling price of the house, and the cost of weathering the ups and downs of the homebuilding industry. Other reasons that conventional construction predominates include the low cost of on-site labor in many areas and the paperwork required by a multitude of state and local building codes and regulations when manufacturers ship prefabricated components.

One type of factory-made housing has been consistently successful in reducing production costs: the mobile home. During the early 1970s mobile homes made up a third of all new single-family houses, although this figure has now dropped by about half. Mobile homes are small (usually less than 1,000 square feet), have traditionally used inexpensive interior and exterior materials, and are entirely produced in factories (primarily by nonunion labor). The need to transport the product from factory to site imposes severe restrictions on its height and width, however, and a mobile home inevitably resembles a long shoebox. It is not a shape that can be happily integrated into most traditional neighborhoods. About two thirds of mobile homes are situated on rented land, the majority in commercial parks. While the separation of homeownership from landownership is part of what makes the mobile home affordable, it is also a disadvantage. In contrast to a conventional house, a mobile home usually does not rapidly appreciate in value, a fact that in the long run can offset its lower selling price.

Industrialized housing was prominent in postwar Europe and in countries such as the Soviet Union and Sweden, but it made little headway in the United States. The chief reason was, and continues to be, that the lightweight woodframe house (which in its present form is unique to North America) is already a highly industrialized product. Indeed, it is much more industrialized than the often crude concrete building systems of Eastern Europe. Conventional American houses consist almost exclusively of bits and pieces that have been manufactured in factories and quickly assembled on the site. The extent of this industrialization can be shown by a short list of the technical innovations that have become commonplace during the postwar period: factory-made wooden roof trusses (introduced in 1952), pre-hung doors and windows, gypsum wallboard, aluminum and vinyl siding, plywood, plastic plumbing, fiberglass insulation bats, rigid-foam-insulation sheathing, sealed glazing units and low-emissivity glass, plastic vapor barriers and moisture barriers in wide rolls, ready-mix concrete, and also labor-saving devices such as paint rollers, power tools, powered staplers and nailing guns, small cranes, and forklifts. The most recent changes include metal-and-wood-composite substitutes for traditional solid-wood studs and joists.

The result of these improvements is apparent both in a higher quality of construction and in a reduced amount of on-site labor, whose cost now accounts for only a small fraction of the selling price of a new house—about 15 percent, as compared with 30 percent in 1949. Thus the potential for reducing cost by increasing che degree of prefabrication or by introducing automation is small. Does industrialization produce less-expensive houses? Yes. The difficulty in proposing industrialization as a strategy for reducing housing cost is that to a large degree it has already happened.

Less Land, More Do-It-Yourself

One advantage of smaller houses is that they can be placed on smaller lots. A modest one-story tract house typically needs a sixty-foot-wide lot—that is, each house usually requires sixty feet of sidewalk, roadway, sewer and water line, and storm sewer. A narrower, two-story cottage can be built on a forty-foot-wide lot, immediately reducing these costs by a third. A semi-detached house requires even less frontage—thirty feet. Such housing incorporates all the desired features of suburban life—individual houses, gardens, decks, natural surroundings—but on a reduced scale. Row houses, which can be built on twenty-foot-wide lots, have a more dramatic impact on land cost and density; infrastructure cost is reduced by two thirds. With more people living closer together it is possible to plan neighborhoods with local stores, and walking rather than driving becomes a real option.

When affordability is a priority, it is possible to consider extremely narrow lots, less than twenty feet wide. In Victorian London, row houses were classified into four types, depending on lot width: twenty feet, eighteen feet, sixteen feet, and fifteen feet. In the famous Weissenhof Housing Exhibition, held in Stuttgart in 1927, the Dutch architect J.J.P. Oud built a row of houses each eighteen feet wide. Le Corbusier designed several projects with extremely narrow houses, and some of his ideas are visible in a Swiss housing cooperative, Siedlung Halen, built outside Bern in 1961; there the row houses are only sixteen feet wide.

Denser neighborhoods would have a considerable effect on the environment: Less automobile travel would mean fewer roadways, and less energy invested in community infrastructure. Row houses, which share walls with their neighbors, provide savings in building materials, because only the narrow front and back facades are exposed to the weather. A two-story row house has only about one third the exterior wall area of a bungalow, and about half the roof area, and so heating and air-conditioning costs are reduced accordingly.

Smaller lots would also mean more-compact communities. Not only would these encourage walking but the higher concentration of people would make possible more local services such as day-care centers and shops. Many of the advantages of nineteenth-century town life could be recovered. Higher-density housing would provide a range of choices and opportunities for face-to-face contact between people. I realize that much of this goes against the grain of current preferences for privacy and economically homogeneous communities, but given a choice people might enjoy variety and neighborliness.

The present housing market is characterized by many types of households. Home buyers include single people, either unmarried or between marriages, with or without children; and couples, married and unmarried, childless or with young children or, as is increasingly common, with grown-up children who are living at home. All these different groups have different needs, resources, and priorities. The small but growing number of people who work at home need offices or workrooms; people with small children need playrooms; people with elderly parents need a guest room, preferably on the ground floor; childless couples may prefer large open spaces; parents with noisy teenagers need separate rooms.

One way to accommodate this diversity is to leave part of the house unpartitioned—in effect, to create a loft space. An unpartitioned second floor is an idea that worked when William Levitt introduced the unfinished attic in his Cape Cod house, and it is still useful in reducing the initial construction cost of a house. Future bathroom connections can easily be provided for. The homeowner can choose to use the loft as a single open space or build partitions as required and as financial resources permit.

Many North American males—and, increasingly, females as well—grow up learning rudimentary carpentry skills as a matter of course. Although we take these abilities for granted, they represent a national trait, which is shared by few societies. The growth in the number of home-improvement centers attests to the popularity of the do-it-yourself movement. These stores sell a variety of tools, building materials, and electrical and plumbing supplies. Many of the products, such as adhesive floor tiles, plastic water pipes, and pre-assembled doors and windows, are specifically designed for home installation. In addition, there are shelves of plans, handbooks, and step-by-step manuals that cover every aspect of building conscruction. Traditionally the basement has served as the place for do-it-yourself additions and modifications to the home, and the use of flexible space has a long and tested history.

In 1961 John Habraken, a young Dutch architect, published a small book, later translated into English, in which he proposed an approach to mass housing based on a separation of what became known as supports and infill. Habraken's proposal called for support structures to be built by contractors and for the infill, which includes interior partitions, bathrooms, kitchens, closets, and sometimes even exterior walls, to be bought separately by the occupant, much as furniture is bought—to suit the buyer's personal taste and pocketbook. This strategy, which was developed with multi-story buildings in mind but was also applied to row houses, attracted international attention, and brought Habraken to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the head of the architecture department. Although a small number of housing projects derived from the support-infill model were built in Holland, the idea never really caught on. The chief drawback was that a wide range of infill products, such as demountable walls and relocatable plumbing systems, were simply not available on the market.

Habraken's proposal was ambitious and complicated, requiring the development of too many new products at once. It also required that architects exert less control over the design process. Nevertheless, something like the support-infill approach could produce housing that is more adaptable and affordable. It would be possible to provide houses without built-in kitchen cabinets and closets, for example, as has long been the custom in Europe. This would leave the homeowner free to choose how much, and of what type, to install—big or little, fancy or plain, expensive or cheap.

This freedom to choose would have several benefits. First, the quality of finish carpentry and cabinetwork, which can vary considerably, would be left to the discretion of the homeowner. He or she could choose an inexpensive kitchen, for example, and replace it later with something better. Or a few high-quality cabinets could be bought initially and added to as more money became available. A handyman might decide to do the work himself. A large number of home-furnishings outlets, like Conran's-Habitat, now sell knocked-down or partly assembled modular furniture, or, like IKEA, even sell kitchen cabinets and counters in a wide variety of styles, materials, and finishes.

Couples could install two sinks in the bathroom; working couples who eat out could install small kitchens. Clotheshorses could put in more closets; readers could have more bookshelves. It would be possible to use space more efficiently in small houses by placing storage elements only where they were required—small closets in the guest room, toy chests in the playroom—and moving them as family needs changed.

Finally, there is the benefit of separating the cost of cabinetwork from the construction cost of the house. Finish work is time-consuming and costly for the contractor, and often causes delays and customer dissatisfaction. The efficiency of construction would be increased by cutting out finish work from the building process; the size of the down payment and of monthly mortgage payments would be reduced accordingly.

The chief obstacle to smaller houses on smaller lots is not the consumer, nor is it the home-building industry. It is those of us who already own our homes. Municipalities, reflecting the attitude of homeowners, have staunchly resisted the idea of modifying zoning regulations to permit the construction of smaller homes, or to allow the subdivision of land into smaller plots. The chief reason is, sadly, selfish: smaller, less expensive houses are perceived as a threat to property values and to community status, even though housing in the $50,000-$80,000 range is still accessible only to solid middle-class citizens.

Despite the heightened awareness of environmental issues and wide opposition to nuclear power, the environmental advantages of more-compact neighborhoods have yet to enter the public consciousness. Many of the same people who extol the virtues of bicycling and of composting lawn clippings are up in arms whenever denser development is proposed. The institution of no-growth legislation by many towns exacerbates the housing problem, because it places quotas on the number of new houses that can be built each year and effectively guarantees that developers will build only large, luxurious houses.

Exclusionary zoning regulations create economically and demographically skewed neighborhoods. There are already signs that at least some communities are realizing that restrictive zoning may not in the long run be in their interests. First-time buyers eventually become second-time buyers, and towns that do not provide starter houses risk losing young families who would otherwise establish roots in the community. The lack of housing choices has other bad consequences, as when, for example, public employees like firemen and policemen can no longer live where they work, or when schoolteachers, nurses, and other important but low-paid professionals must commute long distances.

One can only hope that a more generous attitude will prevail, an attitude that recognizes that a new and different generation of prospective homeowners, faced with higher interest rates, energy costs, and land prices, is obliged to consider housing solutions different from those that were available to their parents. This is no cause for alarm. It may be an opportunity to attain better—and more livable—towns and cities.

Presented by

Witold Rybczynski is the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This wildly inventive short film takes you on a whirling, spinning tour of the Big Apple

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?


The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City


Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.


The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In