September 23, 2011

Think Big – Build Small

Big is not so beautiful anymore. American home square footage has been ballooning for years, but that’s got to end.

In our patriotic efforts to live up to our international reputation of being over-consumptive, we are living in way more space than we need. We have media rooms, master suites, walk-in closets that can be mistaken for bedrooms, and extra living and dining areas. I grew up in a house, some of which was reserved for company – formal living and dining rooms. I never understood that excess. It eventually dawned on my parents that they actually lived in about 1000 square feet, and they built their final house accordingly.

My first house, as a single 30-something, was a 16’x24′ passive solar post and beam saltbox in New Hampshire. It had more space than I needed – full basement, two stories and a cozy reading loft on the third floor. Utility bills were low. Being passive solar, it did not need supplemental heat on sunny winter days. Being small, it did not take much wood to keep it comfortable at night. (photo ©nan fischer, 2011)

I now have children, and my house is about 2000 square feet. The space has served us well for the last 13 years. We have lived in every inch of it, and I even remodeled to reduce my energy bills and improve the traffic pattern and heating/cooling air flow. As the kids are growing up and moving out on their own, though, I am drowning in the extra room. I am ready to downsize.

A friend of mine owns a pumice passive solar duplex, one side of which is 665 square feet. It is one bedroom and a full bath with a petite kitchen, a living room and a storage room with a washer and dryer. Every time I’m in it, I think, ‘I could live here with no kids.’ It’s just enough room. I’d buy it if she’d let me!

Extravagance vs Simplicity

Why do we think bigger is better? Ask yourself that as you consider these parts of home ownership:

> cost
> maintenance
> cleaning
> utilities
> waste

Do you really need more of all those in your life? Right. I didn’t think so.

Downsize Without Sacrifice

> Make sure you have storage space. Not too much, otherwise you’ll continue to fill it up with ‘stuff,’ and stuff is what we are trying to get rid of!
> The furniture must be to scale. Small room, small furniture. That is why the pumice duplex seemed so spacious – the kitchen was small but complete, and the living room furniture fit in the space it was given.
> Built-ins take up interior wall space, not living space. Use them. Double-duty built-ins, like a bench that is storage below, are very effective and space-saving.
> Get rid of your stuff! Have yard sales, and donate to churches and battered women shelters. Visit second-hand stores, freebox and recycling center regularly. Dump your stuff! The less stuff you have, the less room you will need. My rule is if I have not used something in six months, I get rid of it. If that makes you nervous, use one year as a timeline.
> Raised ceilings, which I don’t recommend for heating purposes, give the illusion of more space. Raise them if you must. Just don’t tell me about it.

The Benefits

> Save money on utilities and maintenance.
> Save money on your mortgage or your rent.
> If you are building, you will cut costs with less material.
> If you are building, you will create less waste (good for the landfill).
> If you are building, you will have a smaller footprint, eating up less of the planet’s precious vegetation.
> Reduce your carbon footprint and save our natural resources.

Next time you move or build, think big by going small.

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Nan Fischer  |  Contribution: 800