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Is quality of life about square footage ?

During the last decade's real estate boom, the annual demonstration kept up with the times: designs abounded with baronial features like colonnades, cathedral ceilings and observation towers, and they sometimes topped 6,000 square feet. But then the crash came, wiping out credit lines and shaking the industry's confidence. For this year's show, Boyce Thompson, the editorial director of Builder, wanted a look more attuned to curtailed appetites, so he came up with a concept that he called a Home for the New Economy.

The most salient specification of the house was its modest proportions. At around 1,700 square feet, it was the size of the average American home built in 1980. Since then, new houses have on average grown by more than 40 percent, as dens have expanded into great rooms, and tubs and sinks have multiplied. "Houses got too big, because people were chasing investment gains and there was cheap money, and the industry responded by building houses that were too large," Thompson says. "So we really wanted to focus people's attention on doing smaller, better homes." He points to Census statistics that show a slight decline in the size of homes built over the past two years and to a much larger drop in the square footage of those that have just started construction, and suggests that the market may be headed toward a more austere norm.

That's certainly debatable. If dissecting the causes of the housing market's crash is a task for economists, predicting its future is a fuzzier matter of sociology. Will Americans re-evaluate cultural assumptions that equate ever-larger houses with success and stability? Or will they invest more in their lived environments, figuring that with the demise of the quick flip, they are now in for the long term? In the absence of much real market activity, imaginations are free to run wild. The Home for the New Economy is one such exercise in speculation, a proposal that the future lies in denser, more walkable, modestly scaled communities. Marianne Cusato, who designed the Home for the New Economy, sees it as a rebuke to the ethic of the McMansion. "We're not going to go back to 2005," she says. "What was built then is not going to come back, and this is not a bad thing. What we were building was so unsustainable, and it didn't really meet our needs."

Cusato, who is 36, started her career drawing up million-dollar mansions, but she has made a name for herself by going smaller, designing a 300-square-foot Katrina Cottage meant to be a replacement for the trailers the government set up after the 2005 hurricane. When Cusato sat down to devise the Home for the New Economy, she tried to consider how families actually use their living areas. She started with a simple, symmetrical three-bedroom plan, excising extraneous spaces -- the seldom-used formal dining room, for instance -- while enlarging windows wherever she could and adding a wraparound porch. A result was a house that was compact, comfortable, bright and energy-efficient.

The spirit of constraint that Cusato means to tap isn't purely a product of the recession. It's a cultural thread that runs from Henry David Thoreau's 10-by-15-foot cabin next to Walden Pond all the way to the New Urbanist communities that began appearing in the 1980s, reacting to the spread of soulless suburbanization by trying to recapture a traditional small-town aesthetic. But the wider buying public has never found much appeal in the idea that it ought to make do with less. "Builders have tried quality rather than size, but they always fail," says Witold Rybczynski, an architecture professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The market always says: We don't care. If you're giving us a smaller house, we don't want it."

Rybczynski speaks from experience. In 1990, he and a partner came up with a design they called the Grow Home, a 14-foot-wide row house that could be constructed for as little as $35,000. His intent was to produce something along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Usonians, dwellings devised during the Great Depression as housing for the working man, which later became a model for the tiny tract homes of Levittown. Rybczynski built a Grow Home in Montreal and wrote an article about it for The Atlantic, in which he posited that the "abundant resources that accounted for the success of the large single-family suburban house -- unlimited land, cheap transportation and plentiful energy -- can no longer be taken for granted." That was 20 years ago. While the Grow Home design proved to be a niche success, it didn't change popular tastes, which kept inflating in defiance of all warnings about sustainability. By the market's 2007 peak, the average American house had surpassed 2,500 square feet.

"This happened at the same time as household size declined, so it's a little bizarre," says John McIlwain, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "But people seem to have liked the idea of having extra bedrooms and lots of room, big kitchens and big master bedrooms and big master baths. I think it's just cultural, an expression of wealth." But it's not just that -- studies have found that lower-class homes in the United States are also much larger than comparable residences in Europe.

"To me, the answer is that we subsidized it massively," says Christopher B. Leinberger, a housing scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Over the last 30 years, we saw one of the largest social-engineering projects in the nation's history." The mortgage tax deduction encouraged a vast expansion of homeownership, while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac created new pools of capital through securitization. The federal government kept building highways to serve ever-more distant suburbs, where local authorities often mandated large home and lot sizes in the belief that it would encourage the construction of affluent communities. Facing a widespread revolt against property taxes, many of the same municipalities began financing suburban infrastructure -- roads, sewers and so on -- through "impact fees" levied at the outset of the development process. This and other factors effectively inflated the cost of developable land. The homebuilding industry, which was in the process of consolidating into the hands of a dozen or so publicly traded corporations, passed on the added expense to consumers through higher home prices. But because they enjoyed such economies of scale when it came to construction, the major homebuilders could offer buyers an inducement in return: a lot more room.


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