Wednesday, February 12, 2014

You Live in How Many Sq Ft?

Avg Sq Ft of New Single Family Homes
Recently Ashley's father, "Dad", who lives on the South Shore, griped about all the time he has spent clearing snow off his driveway. We joked that he could avoid that if he moved to the city, knowing we would have to kill him, cremate him and put him in an urn to make that happen. He grew up in what was once a rural part of upstate New York and often speaks about his idyllic childhood there. He cannot fully empathize with our decision to live in Boston.

He might find it interesting to know that in at least one small way (pardon the pun) our urban life closely reflects that of his childhood. His current suburban home is ~3400 sq ft, not including the attic, garage, basement and shed; that is ~1700 sq ft per person (more than twice the current median of 800 sq ft per person in metropolitan areas).[1] In the 1950s (when he was born) the average American house size was 983 sq ft.[2] Growing up, Dad's family of four lived in such a home with ~250 sq ft per person. Our family of four currently has ~300 sq ft per person in our home.

It is not just the U.S. of days past where smaller home sizes were common. Even today people in other countries live in much smaller homes than Americans (see chart above right).

Interestingly in these days of McMansions, another buzz word has cropped up in American cities, micro-apartments, referring to housing units smaller than studios and intended for single young professionals.[3] "Some high-end homeowners are [also] shaving square footage off of their new homes," according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Luxury Homes that are Better, Not Bigger. Are Americans starting to see the wisdom in smaller homes?

Less is More 

The desire for more space is an oft-cited reason for moving to the suburbs. However, having less space has many advantages;
  1. Less house to clean and maintain = more free time,
  2. Less money spent on mortgage or rent payments = more discretionary funds,
  3. Less money spent on air conditioning and heating, home maintenance = more discretionary funds,
  4. Less private space = more family time, better able to monitor children,
  5. Less storage space = better prioritization of the non-material.
Nevertheless, our family lives in the U.S. in the new millennium, not the 20th century and not another country. We do not feel the proverbial need to keep up with the Joneses, but the reality is we are subject to the same consumer culture as everyone around us. As our friends move out to larger homes in the suburbs with attics, garages and basements to store their belongings, how do we continue to fit our growing family, now 2 adults, 1 toddler, 1 infant, and a cat, and everything we own in 1200 sq ft?

Making the Most of Limited Space

Use of Ceiling and Walls
Live in 3D: We may only have 1200 sq ft of floor space but with ~10 ft ceilings we live somewhere in the vicinity of 12,000 cubic ft of space. In our kitchen, our pots and pans hang from the ceiling. We added shelves and baskets to the walls to hold cookbooks, serving ware, spices and frequently used cooking ingredients.

Every door in our house is put to use (see image below). The coat closet door holds our stroller. The laundry closet door holds our cleaning goods and cat supplies. The bathroom doors hold towels and one holds the ironing board. Bedroom doors and closets hold clothing and accessories. We also look forward to bunk beds and/or lofted beds when our children are older.

Bed and Storage Chest in One
Employ Multipurpose, Compact and Collapsible Items: Storage furniture including storage beds and ottomans serve double duty. My favorite multipurpose item is actually my iPhone. A myriad of applications make it useful for almost anything imaginable. The Best Baby Monitor application allows us to keep an eye on our children no matter where we are or go and has saved us from spending money on a baby monitor which is not necessary in our small space.

Manufacturers make a number of compact and collapsible items for babies. The 4moms rockaroo is a new baby swing that is 70% smaller than a typical standing baby swing. Boon recently launched a new version of their Patch bottle drying rack that is made for small kitchens. Cariboo's folding bassinet is a wonderful collapsible item.

Baby items made for travel also may be used in the house and not only are they often more compact but they can be used for their intended purpose, travel as well. Some people we know use a pack 'n' play for their infants rather than a bassinet or crib.

For the dining room, this luxury collapsible/extendable table which extends from 17" to 115" is high on our wishlist.

Know What You Don't Need: That book you already read, a changing table for baby, and that sweater you have not worn the past two winters are all items you do not need. After we married and moved from our two apartments to our one new home, we loaded all of our CDs onto our computers (if you do this back them up on another hard drive) and recycled the discs at Best Buy. We went through our books and admitted we would never open 95% of them again and donated them to a book drive. Extra linens that would never be used were donated to the local animal shelter.

When our daughter was born, we poured over sample registries and quickly learned what items are unnecessary; changing table, wipes warmer, bottle warmer, etc. We like our Stokke Tripp Trapp high chairs that grow with our kids, but you can just as easily and for less space have a booster seat attached to a dining chair. We frequently see toys at our daughter's friends home and remind each other that it is in fact good that she does not own every toy that each of her friends has; novel toys are part of what make play dates fun.

Behind Closed Doors
Borrow, Rent and Share: When a friend had her first baby a year after us, we loaned her all of our gear; baby bathtub, Bumbo, jumper, play mat, bottles, etc. She recently gave us everything back for our second child. In the interim period, we did not have to store our baby things.

Mom offered us a carpet steamer she was giving away (she moved to a place with all hardwood floors). However, rather than store this, w just rent a carpet steamer from Home Depot a few times per year. As much as we love skiing, we do not have the opportunity to go often enough to warrant owning and storing our own skis. We rent when we go. Last week a neighbor borrowed our pie dish. Last year when hanging new curtain rods, we borrowed another neighbors hammer drill. Again, we do not each need to own one of everything.

Resources and Sources

Our favorite places for inspiration about how to best maximize space are Apartment Therapy, Ikea, and attending open houses in the city to see what others have done with their spaces. What other resources exist? Any other benefits to small spaces we missed? How do you make the most of your space?

[1] Dietz, Robert and Siniavskaia, Natalia. The Geography of Home Size and Occupancy, National Association of Home Builders, Special Studies. December 1, 2011.
[2] Historical data for average square feet of single family homes from the National Association of Home Builders, Housing Facts, Figures and Trends, March 2006. For an interesting discussion dating back to the year 1400, see alternative community site, Alysion Aces.
[3] Christie, Les. Micro-apartments: The anti-McMansions, CNN Money. June 21, 2013.
[4] US Statistics from Emrath, Paul. Characteristics of Homes Started in 2012:  Size Increase Continues, National Assocation of Home Builders, Special Studies, August 1, 2013.
[5] Data for non-US countries from Room to Swing a Cat? Hardly, BBC, 2009. For data points from other countries including Japan, China, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Italy, etc. see also Wilson, Lindsay, How Big is a House? Average house size by country, Renew Economy, July 17, 2013.

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