Slowdown Offers a Chance to Get Real About Home Sizes

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 4, 2007

Will the deflating housing market motivate U.S. home buyers to deflate their housing aspirations, to get real not only about what they can afford but also about how much space they need?

Maybe buyers will realize that good design and quality construction ultimately will prove more worthwhile than square footage.

For years, the building industry has produced bigger and bigger homes. Consumer expectations, easy credit and greater profit potential have resulted in new houses with more rooms, larger garages, increased volume and, of course, higher price tags.

Consumers, after all, seek to consume. Why settle for three bedrooms, two baths and a one-car garage? Why not opt for a kitchen big enough to entertain several guests and roast two turkeys at once? Why wouldn't someone want a house with a separate room for every function? How can anyone live without a dedicated audio-video entertainment space, multiple walk-in closets and a master bathroom larger than the rarely used dining room?

Today's housing-market paradox is that while houses have been expanding, households have been shrinking. In suburban houses built during recent decades, fewer people occupy more space.

This trend's lack of sustainability seems to finally be apparent.

Some homes also lack quality and durability. Production houses with more than ample square footage are sometimes cheaply built, have awkward floor plans, suffer from overly complex three-dimensional geometry, and boast too many materials and motifs. How many overlapping gables, neoclassical cornices, false dormers and useless shutters does a house need?

Such homes are not dysfunctional or unsafe. But the construction products may be the least costly; may feel and look inexpensive; and may require maintenance, repair or replacement more frequently.

There are lots of opportunities to compromise quality in designing and building a house. Windows and doors are favorite cost-saving targets. Interior finishes and accessories -- decorative trim and hardware, cabinets, floors, lights -- are also fruitful targets.

Among the most important components of any building, windows provide daylight and views to the outside, keep out the weather, and resist heat gain and loss. Yet the quality, cost and performance range of windows is vast.

For example, windows may be double-glazed but lack energy-efficient, low-emissivity glass and an insulating cavity filled with inert gas. The window frame and sash may be thin vinyl that is easily deformed, rather than aluminum or aluminum-clad wood. The movable sash may not move very smoothly.

If interior doors are not solid-core with robust hardware and a well-aligned frame, they can feel flimsy, shut or latch poorly, and do little to stop noise or fire.

Fortunately, the structural framing, water and waste piping, and electrical systems of new homes usually perform reasonably well, thanks to stringent building codes. Sheet-metal ductwork and mechanical equipment to heat and cool newly built homes also may be fairly reliable, assuming they have been properly engineered and installed.

Today, with dramatic increases in mortgage foreclosures, tightening loan standards, and ever-rising costs of land and construction, many home buyers and home builders will have to alter their behavior.

Attitudes about homes need to shift away from quantity and toward quality. Downsizing should be the new upscaling.

Buyers should demand well-built and long-lasting but modestly sized houses -- 2,000, 2,500 or 3,000 square feet -- instead of ostentatious but cheaply built 5,000- or 6,000-square-foot houses.

Smaller homes will be more affordable, more durable and, not incidentally, a lot easier to keep clean. With good design, they also will be more attractive.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company