Living (not so) large?

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2010 - 2:46 PM

The 'bigger is better' mantra has ruled the home front for decades. Now there are signs that a smaller aesthetic is emerging. Houses are starting to shrink -- but our stuff hasn't caught up yet.

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Great rooms. McMansions. Jumbo mortgages. The American home -- and everything associated with it -- got supersized during the housing boom. Big was good. Bigger was better. Biggest was best of all.

Not anymore. Now the B-word carries less cachet and more baggage. Home furnishings forecaster Michelle Lamb of the Trend Curve has noticed the change. "There's been a great and discernible shift away from words that describe scale and toward words that describe appointments and quality," she said.

A huge house, once a status symbol, now symbolizes risk and high overhead to many buyers. "There's so much more concern about very big homes," said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "People used to buy as much house as they could afford. Now they're saying, 'Even if I could buy that, do I really want to?'"

After decades of beefing up, the American home itself is going on a diet. The average size of new single-family homes completed in 2009 dropped to a nationwide average of 2,438, about 100 square feet smaller than 2007, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

Some say it's about time.

"We were bloated," said Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. "It made architects cringe, there was so much wasted space. There's a shift back to 'What do I really need?' vs. 'What will impress my neighbors?'"

The recession is obviously a major factor, noted John Archer, chairman of the U's Cultural Studies Department and author of "Architecture and Suburbia." But two longer-term trends are likely to keep house size down even after the economy picks up, he said, citing the influence of architect Sarah Susanka's "Not So Big House" philosophy and the greenmovement.

Susanka's books "piggybacked on the distaste people developed for McMansions," Archer said. "People started to latch on to a different aesthetic, that bigger was not better, that quality of life does not mean large volumes of space."

Going green is partly an economic decision, Fisher noted. Smaller houses cost less to heat and cool, and that's reducing not just square footage but cubic footage as well. "We're moving away from 2 1/2-story great rooms -- they're so inefficient."

But Archer, for one, thinks home size will continue to moderate. "I don't doubt that once people get richer, they'll want bigger, but we'll see a broader spectrum, not a wholesale tilt back."

Fewer monster homes

Even those who can still afford supersized homes are scaling down, according to David Bieker, owner of Denali Custom Homes. "As recently as a couple years ago, we were getting a lot more requests for 7,000-square-foot homes," he said. "When the economy crunched, we started getting more [requests for] 4,000- to 6,000-square-foot homes."

Right now, tight lending standards are a contributor, he said. "The availability of money is dictating the size of homes. People who want to build $1.5 million homes are building $995,000 homes."

He thinks the shift will be permanent. "Selling in the past was done on square footage: If you had more square footage, it was worth more."

But the trend is toward valuing quality over volume. "There's new thinking with the new economy. People are being more realistic about what they need."

When Alchemy Architects debuted its weeHouse concept (small, prefabricated dwellings) in 2003, it was a novelty. But weeHouses now represent half of Alchemy's business, according to Geoffrey Warner, principal architect. "It's fueled our practice," he said. "A home may be one's castle, but is the goal really to have a castle? For most people, when they talk about their favorite rooms, it's generally smaller spaces."

And with multi-generational households on the rise, a trend documented in recent Census Bureau statistics, smaller spaces are likely to replace wide open ones, according to Lamb. "With more people living together, there's more need for privacy," she said. "It causes us to want more walls and doors."

Supersized furnishings

But when it comes to our stuff, we're still living large, for the most part. "When houses got bigger, everything had to be scaled up," Lamb said. Big, oversized and overstuffed furniture -- designed to fill our expanded spaces and fit our expanded physiques -- is now the norm.

"People are just bigger," Fisher said. "Americans are getting fatter as houses get smaller, and this is a problem. It makes a house seem smaller than it is. It's two trends going in opposite directions."

Plus-size furniture, offering extra-wide seats and support for extra poundage, is a growing market segment, with online retailers such as Oversize Furniture, Living XL and Brylane Home directly targeting large consumers. Many furnituremakers are taking a more subtle approach, according to Jerry Underwood, director of marketing for HOM Furniture. "Manufacturers are addressing that issue without calling it out. You see it more in motion furniture [recliners], with things a little wider than they used to be."

Consumers are now so accustomed to big pieces that they sometimes buy things that literally won't fit in their homes, said Caren Martin, associate professor at the U's College of Design. "Looking at this stuff in retail showrooms, it doesn't look too big, then you get it home. Sometimes you can't even get it into your home -- you need a 3-foot entry door -- and older houses don't have that."

Only a generation ago, a double bed was the standard size. "A queen was considered huge," Martin noted. That's no longer the case. "The majority of beds we sell now are queen," Underwood said. "We don't sell too many doubles anymore. And king-size is becoming more popular. As people age, a larger sleep surface is more important."

Even accessories, such as lamps, vases and dinnerware, are now supersized. "What might have been considered obnoxious before is now seen as artsy. There's been a shift from dainty to more obvious pieces," said Underwood.

The standard dinner plate, once 9 inches, is now 12 inches, which produces "portion distortion" and contributes to the obesity epidemic, according to diet experts. There's even a diet book, "The 9-inch Diet," based on losing weight by eating off smaller plates. (Author Alex Bogusky said he was inspired by buying a 1940s house and not being able to fit his new plates into his kitchen cabinets.)

Wine glasses and cups were Big Gulp size at the tabletop show Lamb recently attended. "We're still consuming food in size extra large," she said.

But some see a household-wide downsizing on the horizon. While baby boomers still gravitate to big traditional furniture, their children prefer cleaner lines and smaller scale, according to Underwood. "The big overstuffed [look] is going away rapidly."

Furniture by designers is getting smaller and lighter, using fewer materials, Fisher said. "Mass manufacturers will follow."

Younger designers, in particular, are already thinking small and designing for apartment dwellers, said St. Paul furniture designer Thomas Oliphant of Tomoco. "If the collapse of the housing market has scared off a generation, what they'll design and buy will be smaller."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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