Sunday, June 27, 2010

Homes Are Now Shrinking in the U.S.A.

Grandmother's Doorway by Abbot Fuller Graves, 1900.

The size of new single-family homes completed last year dipped to an average 2,438 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders trade group, which analyzed Census data, as reported in the Wall Street Journal June 14.

The average home size peaked in 2007 at 2,521 square feet, after rising straight for three decades. Builders are now constructing smaller, less ornate homes to produce homes at prices that compete with the prices of foreclosures, which have not abated. Now, more than 50% of new homes have three bedrooms, rather than four, five, or more, and only 24% have more than three bathrooms.

The McMansion recalls the larger homes of the Victorian era, but without the Victorian charm--turrets, bay windows, and those beautiful wrap-around porches--and without all the children. The result, I always felt, was empty space and loneliness for those inside.

The Victorian house, which combines space with coziness in its rooms, lots of windows, additional rooms "outside" on the first-floor porch, and sleeping porches in the back for sleeping outside in the summer.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Victorian house was on the wane, as the domestic labor market dried up. According to historian Witold Rybczynski in his fascinating book, Home: A Short History of an Idea, homes had to be reduced in size so that one woman could clean them. These were homes for a growing middle class-- growing from people coming in from farms and also immigrants coming up in the world from their start in city tenements. This led to floor plans like that shown here, a home in which there was not a lot of space for guests or family members outside the nuclear family, as in this Sears floor plan.

Modern Home No. 64, from the Sears Modern Home Mail Order Catalogue, 1908 to 1913--a home one woman could keep clean.

I think the shrinkage in homes is all to the good, a downsizing from a prosperity that relied on credit cards; homes seemed to balloon with the debt.

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