Small spaces make sense

I am an advocate of small houses. How small? In Temperate climates I believe 200 square feet per person is plenty; in places with severe winters 250 square feet should do.

Small houses have a greatly reduced impact on the environment, but this is only one of many motivations for living in one. The significant improvement in quality of life as a result of living in a smaller house is often neglected in this discussion.

Let me first review some of the most important environmental benefits associated with small houses:

  • Fewer natural resources are used in the building process

  • Enormous reduction in energy required for heating and cooling (think fossil fuels and CO2)

  • Smaller footprint on the land and less visual pollution

  • Less waste will end up at some landfill when the building is taken down at the end of its useful life.

So what about the “improvement in quality of life”? Well, for starters, small homes will need less cleaning, fewer repairs and are less expensive to build or buy. Lowering your mortgage payments can provide a positive ripple effect in many other aspects of your life.

Most importantly, and most difficult to explain, is the notion that small houses communicate a feeling of shelter, warmth and comfort. For this reason lofts, cottages and even tents make you feel protected and safe.

It’s hard to make large spaces feel cozy.

For most of our 2 million year history as humans, we have come to recognize small spaces as shelter. They are easier to protect from the elements, warm up faster due to body heat or a small fire, and are easier to build. This “instinct” is still with us and now translates into a better feeling in small houses: Knowing that we are protected will cause no “fight or fligh” reaction in us and therefore less stress. We are more relaxed and relate better to others in this space.

In terms of relating to others, studies have found that sitting arrangements that take up a space larger than a 12 ft circle become increasingly less effective and unpleasant. You need to talk louder, touch becomes more cumbersome and eye contact is less intimate. Hence, you lose a great deal of richness in your relationships with others.

If you are parent, you may argue that you want to provide each of your children with their own room. This theory is very damaging to children as well as family harmony. Between age 0 and 6 children only want to be close to you, as they fully depend on you for their survival. They want to (and should) sleep in your bed, eat at your table and be carried around. Between 6 and 13 they still want to be with you but they also want to be with their siblings. Having the children share a room also helps them develop the essential skills of sharing, consensus decision-making and cooperation. Their own space and lots of toys does not work to eliminate the seemingly endless petty arguments between siblings; on the contrary, giving them this is more likely to aggravate things in the long run. Then, between 13 and 18, there is a short period where teenagers would appreciate their privacy. Give it to them! Send them with $500 to the hardware store (or better: A natural building workshop) and tell them that they may move into the garage, garden shed, trailer, or whatever else would work in or around your house.

Once your kids are gone, your small house will work just fine for you and your partner. The kids will come back from time to time, and eventually even with spouses and grandkids, but that’s OK. Don’t live in a house where you can host 16 people continuously. This will only happen twice a year and the rest of the time you will have to live in an empty castle. Organize your living space so that it works well for 90% of the time. The other 10% can be dealt with in all sorts of ways. People can sleep on couches, nearby motels, tents in the backyard or in the garage. You can apply this 90/10 rule to all other aspects of your life. For example, buy a car that serves you well 90% of the time and improvise the rest of the time. You may have to borrow or rent a truck for that one big project, but so be it. The financial and environmental savings realized by following this 90/10 rule are very significant.

There is only one rule about storage: All storage space will be filled up and hence there is never enough. This principle is widely recognized and can be seen as nothing less then an endless drive to buy more stuff. So limit your storage space: Let it fill up, but don’t move to a bigger space, as it will only burden you with the need to buy and store more stuff.

Last but not least, a small house will leave you more room to garden and will tend to draw you more to the outdoors. In a large house you tend to forget that there is a world out there full of climate contrasts, natural light, bird songs and sunshine. Gardens and front porches are the glue of neighborhoods, and are rapidly disappearing from the American landscape.

Conventional architecture does not promote living in a small house. The square footage per person suggested at the beginning of this article may seem extreme for these times; however, some unconventional and creative thinking can make it work for you. In my next article I will try to provide you with some ideas that will help you on your way to a smaller house and a better life.