(The Savannah Bungalow on a recent February day. #scragglytrees!)
This is, to start, a meditation on extremes.
When Manny describes his memories of his formative high school years in the suburbs of Washington, DC, he often mentions his horror — as a teenage boy, mind you — at the number of small, adorable older homes that were pulled down in nice neighborhoods, to be replaced with oddly out-of-scale McMansions that used up every available square-foot of their lot, pushing walls out to property edges and annexing outdoor spaces previously reserved for gardens to expand entertainment rooms.
(Bethesda McMansion-ization. Source)
According to CNN money, America’s homes really are getting bigger. The average size of homes built last year hit 2,600 square feet — “an all-time high that surpassed even the housing bubble years, when homes averaged around 2,400 square feet, according to the Census Bureau.”
(Of course, this is to say nothing of America’s housing affordability gap — a big problem that, like expanding home-footprints, is also getting bigger.)
As the below infographic from a piece in Elle Decor online demonstrates, Americans average the second largest home-size of any population on the globe — ceding the dubious top honor to Australia. Particularly interesting, perhaps, is the number of “average homes” from China that could fit in an American home today:
So is it any wonder our outsized housing-preferences have provoked backlash from within?
I’m fascinated by so-called “tiny houses,” and I know I’m not alone. There’s the glossiness of the images that tend to accompany discussions of these micro-living spaces. Most true tiny houses are mobile, and the imagery often shows them dropped harmoniously into picturesque natural landscapes — as if to say that part of their charm is the freedom they can afford — freedom from that brand of neighborhood living ever-more dominated by soulless McMansions and treeless subdivisions. Moreover, mo’ house means mo’ problems — a fact thrown into light by a 2014 WSJ piece on the trouble with living large.
Then, starting in May of last year, Lauren Modery’s withering satire via Hipstercrite on tiny-house living made the rounds. Her rhetorical questions smacked of the satire Pete Wells invoked in his infamous NYTimes review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square. Only Modery’s target is wider than one wild-haired (sort-of) foodie. To the owners of tiny houses, she asked:
“Do you ever wake up wondering, ‘I’ve made a huge mistake’?”
“Don’t you feel like a rat trapped in a cage?”
“You just want to live out your life like a Wes Anderson character, don’t you?”
I know I’m a little late to the party here, shoveling it up again. But this piece, or at least the sentiment it exudes, had some long legs. There was the article from last July about tiny houses that appeared on Gawker — “A Pint-Sized Nightmare” — for which the central premise is “Tiny fantasy or big mistake?” Or Tech Insider’s piece from the same month on people who abandoned their tiny homes after learning that living in them was harder than they thought.
(Designer Tiny House. Source)
Never mind the fact that tiny houses are often a more expensive housing option than people realize.
Even the producers of HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters seem to have capitalized on Modery’s brand of incredulousness. A number of episodes, far from glorifying tiny house living, brand it a nutter’s ambition. Ever seen the show? How about the season one episode “Sound Healer Seeks Tiny House in Southern California,” in which the buyer refuses to live in a house with indoor plumbing, preferring something with the spirit of a yurt for “acoustical” purposes. She ultimately insists that both her kitchen and bathroom be located outside. Other episodes make the buyers look hopelessly naive, as in the season two episode “Tiny Home in Mom’s Backyard,” in which a couple insists on a tiny house that boasts dual vanities in the bathroom and space for their king size bed.
I want to pause here to say I’m not for calling out the lifestyle choices of [a] people who live in large houses or [b] people who have chosen tiny dwellings. I wouldn’t say that Manny and I ever considered such extremes ourselves, but we did have a number of discussions — back when we were going through Savannah real estate listings before deciding to buy a house — about just how much space we wanted/needed. We vacillated between going for the biggest house we could afford and, perhaps out of force of habit (our old apartment in Brooklyn was about 400 square feet), going with something unnecessarily small.
Part of the noise surrounding these chats stemmed from the dependable outpouring of articles and essays on the great American “starter home” — the home young couples and first-time buyers settle for because they can’t yet afford what they really want. But according to industry insiders, it seems in recent years as though new housing construction favors premium-housing for the rich or subsidized housing for the poor, with little attention being paid to young families looking to nest somewhere more comfortable than the apartments they spent their early years living in.
New homes inventory remains low, supposedly, but as of 2014, 2 in 5 people polled still preferred new homes to existing ones.
Hey, I get it. Old homes can be a lot of work. And people have all kinds of hang-ups about the kind of history a home might have (um, have you seen The Exorcist?). But when I look at a place like Savannah, for instance, I see incredible potential for young families and early-career types and hipsters alike to get a little place to call their own in the myriad neighborhoods just waiting for eager buyers looking for modestly-sized older houses.
(Savannah’s Starland Cafe. Source)
This city is flush with existing homes — many of them in need of significant repairs or modifications, yes — but prices in some neighborhoods are still impressively low and previously forgotten neighborhoods are being reinvigorated, as this NYTimes spotlight on Savannah’s Starland district discusses.
As the NYTimes piece points out, some of the talk about revitalization is bound to smack of gentrification — a term that borders on “bad word” and evokes all kinds of conflicting impulses and potentially pejorative notions about what’s right for a neighborhood and what’s not. It’s tough for me to know how to talk about such efforts, even though I’ve been exposed to it for most of my adult life. Manny and I went to a college often bemoaned for its Penntrification of West Philly, and we lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood that, thanks to rezoning efforts and an influx of former Manhattanites, had become so gentrified it drove rents through the roof, displacing businesses and longterm residents alike. Now we watch and cheer guardedly as Savannah turns about its formerly blighted neighborhoods.
Anyway, this isn’t a post about the merits or demerits of changing blighted neighborhoods. I’m just saying I’m excited about the surplus of existing homes in Savannah and the great potential in many of its seemingly forgotten enclaves. Despite its reputation for taking things slow, the city is changing all of the time.
And have you seen our trees? (Image above was taken on Atkinson Ave. in Savannah’s Gordonston neighborhood on a recent walk with Tilly.)
Back to housing sizes, ours is just over 1600 square feet — a size that comfortably represents the size of a lot of Savannah’s existing homes. Coming from a studio apartment in New York City, this feels palatial to us now. I don’t know how it will feel once we start a family, though. I hope it will continue to feel like it’s just the right size — but who knows? What I can say is that at this point, I am really an advocate for this size house. We have a living and dining room that are more or less open to one another, separated by the original built-ins that create a soft break between the two spaces. We have a kitchen (or we will have a kitchen… one day…) with an attached breakfast space. We have two bathrooms, two bedrooms, and a large enclosed sunroom that doubles as a guest room and second living room. We have front and back porches and a lovely little backyard with a craftsman-style garden shed.
So that’s us weighing in. But what do you think?
And, finally — because I can’t help myself — here’s a little note on a few good books treating the history of housing sizes:
Peter W. Ward. A History of Domestic Space. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1999.
Richard L. Bushman. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York, NY: Knopf, 1992.
Gwendolyn Wright. Building the Dream. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.
Norbert Schoenauer. 6,000 Years of Housing. New York, NY: Norton, 2000.