According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the size of the average American house more than doubled between 1950 and 1999. From 1982-2004, the typical new single-family house grew some 40 percent larger from 1,690 square feet to 2,366 square feet.
In the face of these increases, however, the size of the average American household has shrunk from 3.3 to 2.6 people. This seeming paradox betrays the trend toward ever-larger houses for what it is: a real estate fashion, and an irrational one at that. And like all fashions, it’s doomed to reverse eventually.
If a huge house simply could be tossed out like an outmoded necktie, or even junked like an obsolete SUV, this wouldn’t be much cause for concern. But buildings are a lot more permanent than neckties or gas-guzzlers. After the current taste for huge houses inevitably fades, our infrastructure will be burdened with untold thousands of residential white elephants for decades to come.
What’s so awful about these big, bad houses? Here’s the usual litany of points: They use more building materials, wasting natural resources. They take more energy to heat and cool than a comparable small home, consuming more nonrenewable heating oil or natural gas and more electricity (most of which is also generated by fossil fuels, creating more pollution).
Big houses also cost more to buy — a fact that often seems curiously overlooked — so most people can only afford to buy one in a less expensive location, usually far from where they work. This necessitates longer commutes, which squander yet more fossil fuels, and ironically also absorb much of the free time people were hoping to spend in their big new house.
So much for appealing to conscience. In reality, moral arguments won’t dissuade people from buying big houses just as they haven’t dissuaded them from buying SUVs. Instead, big houses will be killed by the simple fact that people spend most of their time at home in just a couple of rooms. In a big house, that leaves an awful lot of space that needs to be paid for, heated, cleaned and maintained, but that has little real function beyond bragging rights. Hence, the big house will go when exasperation trumps ego.
While we may not have gained this insight yet, our forebears did so long ago. After 1900, with efficiency-minded magazines such as Ladies Home Journal leading the charge, overworked homemakers rebelled against the large, ornate and hard-to-maintain homes of the Victorian era. Housing trends swung sharply back toward more modest houses, ushering in the phenomenally popular little houses we still call bungalows. As for those big old Victorians, they quickly came to be seen as the apex of vulgarity, and many were eventually carved up into rooming houses — a common strategy to make use of all that burdensome space. The remaining numbers that escaped demolition continued to be held in contempt for another 60 years.
Today’s McMansions, with their overbearing scale and frenetic ornamentation, are a pretty close match for Victorian excess. And after their inevitable fall from grace, time won’t be treating them any better.