Thursday, July 19, 2012


I have been living in 1470 square feet with three children for four months now.  For the most part it's going well.  But I'm not sure this is how I want to live for the rest of their childhood.  Or, frankly, even much beyond the end of our current lease.

I don't want much.  I want maybe a foot more space in each room.  I'd like some delineation between the dining area and the living area.  I'd like a little more space for the children to play -- especially now that my six year old has become totally obsessed with Beyblades and had to be restrained from shouting "One... Two... Three... Let 'er RIP!!!" at six in the morning, and the sound of battle tops hitting the wood floors at seven on a Saturday morning is hard to sleep over.

I would love to have a kitchen where I can open the refrigerator and the dishwasher at the same time.  With enough counter space that the kids and I could stretch a really good cooking project, or playdough, or art, or... well, just about anything.  But I would like to have enough room for more than a single person in the kitchen.  It doesn't have to be huge, just roomy enough for us to spend time together.

I'd like to have a separate office from my husband's.  The mostly-empty bookshelves behind his desk cramp the room up and make me a little crazy, as I'm sure my piles make him.  I've tried, but I've never in my life managed to live without them. I know he'd love for me to figure that out. Or we could just work apart.

I'd like to be able to host book club at my house without waking up the children with our wine-fueled conversational catharses.

So much for the minimalist dream.

I'm sure some of my squeezed feeling is left over from the quiet I was able to experience escaping to a quiet couch in the upstairs of the house my entire family shared in Hilton Head, or the peace of hanging out in the screen porch at my in-laws' house.  And that summer vacation can make even the most harmonious families a little short with each other. But I would really love 300 more square feet and a garage.

Is that so bad?

I'm feeling a little torn. Proponents of responsible, sustainable living advocate for smaller houses and we're reminded by authors of money-management articles like this October, 2011 article from U.S. News & World Report that big houses are expensive in more than just the mortgage payment.  "Do you really want to live in a home that's 2,500 square feet or larger?"

Yes. Yes, I do.

But, chides the article,
If you take a quick look back, you'll see that historically, smaller homes have been the norm for most of us. In 1950, the average home size was 983 square feet. In 2004, at the height of the building boom, the average home size was 2,340 square feet. That's an enormous difference just over the span of a few decades.
I'm going to take slight issue with this.

First off, if people actually liked living in tiny houses, the houses wouldn't have grown. But they have, and not only the new houses; the 1939 house we bought in Falls Church, Virginia had an addition tacked on to the side that the previous owner had added in the 1960's. That addition consisted of a master bedroom & bathroom, a large family room, and a screen porch.  The kitchen had been remodeled in such a way that the refrigerator was moved into a walk-in pantry just outside the kitchen; it was arranged this way so they didn't have to change the basic footprint of the kitchen when enlarging the counter space and adding a dishwasher. The basement, which isn't included in square footage but which is a major bonus to living space, had been subdivided to provide an "illegal" bedroom for one of the couples' two daughters.  When we stripped the wallpaper from the original upstairs secondary bedroom, we noticed a head-shaped dent in the plaster wall and joked that the daughter must have been exiled to the basement after a massive adolescent fight between the two girls.

When we remodeled the house in 2004, the previous owner stopped by with his daughter and asked if he could see what we'd done.  I was a little nervous about this; we'd stripped the house, for the most part, back to the foundations, and built off the original footprint, out the back, and up, to double the size of the house as it had previously stood in all its dated, slanting horror.  (I guess I'm showing that my interest in minimalist living is pretty recent).  This was partly necessary, because the fabric-coated wiring and DIY addition weren't aging well, and it was partly... well, because we could, and we wanted to.

But as Joe, by then in his 80's, and his daughter, who was probably in her early 50's, walked through the house, all he kept saying was, "Yes, this is what I had in mind.  Yes, that's what I was going for.  Oh, I see you put the kitchen on the screen porch; that's exactly what I was going to do."

The daughter asked to see the basement, and when we got to that tiny illegal bedroom, she sighed and said "I really loved that room."

"Really?" I asked, speechless.

"Oh, yes," she answered. She was glass-eyed remembering the past. "I was so happy to get some space away from my family."

Joe bought that house in 1962.  He wasn't appalled and looking back at the glory days of a happier, simpler time.  He wanted what we had managed to build. And we were able to build as we did because of the floor plan he put together during the time that big living was supposedly anathema. I'll tell you something else: Joe didn't build the house bigger to hold more stuff. The closets were never the best part of that house. In fact, the coat closet next to the 1939 front door couldn't even handle regular hangers, because it was too shallow for the door to close if I put a coat on a hanger (it did have a hanger bar, which I never understood). When Joe tacked the addition on to the side of the house, he built a new front door as well (right next to the original front door, which we always thought was hilarious). But he didn't add a coat closet. His family didn't care about stuff.  They just wanted space to stretch their legs a bit. That's true for all the other many, many World War II era houses that were built in the DC metro area that have little box additions tacked on to the side or back (trust me, that means most of them).

And then "average size" is a meaningless statistic.  What does it include? My first studio apartment in Atlanta? The 18,000 square foot, eight bedroom mansion for sale in San Francisco (and all the other estates like it) right now?  Let's be specific, people! Tell me how houses have changed for a specific kind of household in a specific part of the country -- and tell me how those people are living now, too. There might be good reasons for living smaller, but "because that's how they lived before" is not one of them, especially when that assertion is poorly supported.

I realize that I'm writing contrary to "Simply Richer Living." I'm sorry. I'm trying to process what is beginning to feel like mutually exclusive states of being: The desire to simplify my life and the desire to live more easily and fully. I want my little guy to wake up early in the morning and practice his passion.  I also want to be able to sleep till my appointed wake-up time (and for my four-year-old to do so as well).  I like being close to my kids wherever we are in the house, and I also want to be able to get a little quiet for some part of every day so that I actually want to talk to them. I want to be able to entertain my friends at home, not at a restaurant.

These desires are new in a historical sense. An interesting paper, "Housing: Then, Now, and Future" by Moya K. Mason points out that:
The novelty of our age is that how we use the space in our homes is continually evolving. And, as we transform these spaces, they transform us. These transformations are the result of demographic, economic, lifestyle, environmental, and technological changes and pressures. Home offices and media rooms are new spaces, while old spaces like living rooms are now being used as computer rooms. Video entertainment, games, computers, and the Internet serve to isolate, and also demand more personal space, separating us from the people we live with.
Bill Bryson's At Home makes a similar case with much more entertaining language, for anyone who is interested in the history of our home space. But essentially: Living rooms are computer rooms now, because we use computers heavily in most of daily life, and because we entertain more casually, with friends welcome in our "family" rooms and our kitchens. Home offices are the result of a greater diversity in the work force, including women who work from home, and a greater complexity in home management needs.  The new configuration of our homes serves both to isolate us, but also to make more of our relationships less formal, more genuine.

Certainly isolation is a danger of a larger home space, and for sure that's not what I want. But my family and I don't live the kind of life people lived in 1940 or earlier; we live now. Part of living now is that people actually live quite a lot in their homes.  Kitchens were smaller because frozen dinners were supposed to do away with the need to cook every night, and a more elaborate food network meant that you didn't need to have the skill or space to preserve at home. Our reliance on the car and the decay of community means kids have to live at home instead of out prowling the territory that could be covered on a bicycle (without a helmet). What I want is to figure out how to create a lifestyle that is consistent with my values of creating intimacy with the people I care about while still having the space to recharge and be the sort of person with whom they want to be intimate. I don't want to be obnoxious about the fact that I can have these things. I just want a little leg room.

OK, it doesn't have to be 2500 square feet. Am I asking for too much? In a world where way too many people live in poverty and the earth is going to hell speedy-quick, then definitely yes. In the world I live in... I don't know what is right. What are my obligations to the world, and to what extent am I entitled to live, well, selfishly? I don't know. I hope I figure it out some day.

In the meantime, a basement would ease things here significantly.


  1. All of those older homes only had one bathroom for the family and they only took 1 bath a week in the winter, maybe 2 or 3 in the summer. You are not crazy. We need more room. Kids need more room because you just can't let them run loose and say come home for supper. The world has changed.

  2. I bet if you ask those who do live in poverty if they could afford to have a bigger house, most would probably say "yes". Someone once told me that having space co-relates to the mind needing space to grow, to develop, to create. I didn't understand that until I had more space and went back to a country that didn't have it. And I craved the space so deeply. That surprised me. We've gone from a 1600sq ft home to 2100 and now 3000. The space hasn't encouraged my desire for more. Instead, it's given me a deeper appreciation for ... space ; its vastness, its ability to cater for privacy; its silence. Love reading your blog! Tiara

  3. Thank you both! It helps to be reaffirmed.

  4. Love the tidy pictures of the house! ( love your house messy too...makes me feel better). We use every single inch of our big ole house and I am grateful for it. I am a country girl. I need space! Outside, inside, everywhere. I have seen families in teeny tiny Manhattan apartments (beautiful, but teeny) and when I think of them, I get claustrophobic. The house has to suit your personality. You are a Southern girl, you need a little more country in yours. I hope you find the perfect one.