Now and then I get discouraged seeing the sorts of houses developers are peddling these days. I get even more discouraged seeing how many people flock to buy them. Like the Victorians before us, we’ve bought into the idea that a huge house is a thing to be coveted. And, like the Victorians before us, we’re going to find out we’re wrong.

Building bigger and bigger houses flies squarely in the face of reason. Families are smaller than they used to be, yet people keep thirsting for more and more square-footage. This addiction to size kicks in a number of almost comically ironic side effects.

Since people have less buying power than they used to, an ever-larger fraction of their income goes into mortgage payments. That means they have to work more to pay for the big homes they want, which means they have less time to spend living in them, let alone maintaining them. To be able to afford even more space, some people are willing to move to far-flung suburbs where prices are lower, which means they have longer commutes, which means they spend even less time at home.

To top it off, in this world of diminishing natural resources, big houses needlessly gobble more materials, more energy and more of our rapidly vanishing open land.

Still, the trend of ever-bigger houses continues with a vengeance. Today’s new tract homes are, on average, about half as large as their counterparts of 1950, and perhaps twice the size of tract homes built during the boom years of the 1920s.

We’ve all seen the preposterous new “McMansions” splashed across the covers of real estate supplements–sprawling vulgarly across the landscape with their three- and four-car garages, their frenetic, hunchbacked roofscapes, and their towering phony chimneys. They aren’t so much places to live in as they are comprehensive collections of real estate sales gimmicks.

The real pity is that, while Americans continue slavering for such overblown houses, they forget that living in smaller homes doesn’t require us to sacrifice a thing. In fact, I suspect that most of us would be happier living in a well-designed small home. People who live in vast houses still end up spending most of their time in only a few areas–the kitchen, probably, and perhaps that nice sunny spot in the family room. The remainder often has no more use as living space than a show window at Bloomingdale’s.

I grew up with two older brothers in a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom Colonial bungalow. It never occurred to us that our house was too small. In fact, even that tiny little home had some extra space–a formal dining room, naturally–that only got used on special occasions. The place where I spent most of my childhood is long destroyed, alas, but it has left its mark. It taught me that what makes a real home has nothing to do with media rooms, digital hot tubs or four-car garages. It taught me that what matters most is the people inside, for they can make the humblest cottage seem the grandest house on earth.


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