Something funny happened on the way to the suburban dream: Families got smaller and houses got bigger. That should leave us living in the lap of luxury.
Amid two-story foyers to inspire awe, cavernous great rooms for teenage sprawl, and kitchens big enough for Rollerblading, a nagging question has arisen: Is huge the same as luxurious? Put another way, when time itself is luxury, what is the value of space?
At a moment of maximum mansion creep, the answer is worth knowing.
Thirty years ago, houses averaged 1,500 square feet. Now that figure is 2,200 square feet. The jump, as recorded by the National Association of Home Builders, translates into a couple of extra rooms. In the phenomenon of our decade, whole subdivisions of houses offer 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of living space. To turn heads today, a house really should break the 10,000-square-foot barrier.
But if houses are on steroids, the family is not. Average family size has dropped to 2.7 people, down from 3.16 in the 1960s, according to the NAHB. Which leads the group's research director, Gopal Ahluwalia, to consider the unthinkable: no more square footage at the end of the tunnel.
"I think we're close to saturation," he said the other day. "The fact is that if you look at home size increasing, bathrooms multiplying, kitchens multiplying, consumers want more space. But it has nothing to do with the function of that space."
For summer reading, Ahluwalia has picked up "The Not So Big House," a renegade housing manifesto written by Minnesota architect Sarah Susanka and published last year by Taunton Press (www.notsobighouse.com).
The book's central thesis is that luxury cannot be measured by square footage alone. Susanka, who left her architectural firm last month to speak out full-time, argues that the system is stacked against people who value fine materials and craftsmanship over a bigger footprint. "There is inadvertent pressure on the marketplace to build the most square footage for the least dollars," she explained by phone. "Square footage is the gauge of value. Meanwhile, all these people who have more sophisticated tastes can't get what they want."
Ahluwalia debates that point. "The baby boomers are upgrading to everything big," he said. "She gives you the impression that the consumer is being misled. I don't agree. I think the consumer is educated. He knows what he is doing. He wants big."
Nevertheless, the small-is-beautiful movement got a boost this spring. Life magazine chose Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners to design two houses for its annual "Dream House" project. The architects produced old-fashioned cottages, each less than 2,400 square feet. They were published in the May issue. As with previous Life "Dream Houses" (by Robert A.M. Stern, Michael Graves and Hugh Newell Jacobsen, among others), plans can be purchased. Details are available online at www.lifemag.com/dreamhouse or through the architects at www.msmpartners.com.
No question that the notion of a dream house conjures up diverse images. "Everybody has a different dream," acknowledged Melissa Stanton, Life's senior editor for the project.
Ask Ahluwalia, and he'll rattle off to-die-for components: Two-story majestic entry; huge kitchen with two sinks, two dishwashers, $4,000-$5,000 Sub Zero fridge; 10-foot ceilings on the upper level; master bedroom and master bath with drought-defying multiple shower heads, Jacuzzi and fireplace; exercise room; home office; and security system.
"In the big house, the media room comes with recliners," he added. "In the smaller home, you get an electrical outlet."
So why did Life go with an efficient "fairy tale" cottage? "I don't think luxury any more is, `I want a big giant crystal chandelier in my foyer,' " said Stanton. "I want places I can really live in, places to put my stuff."
Life's houses were inspired by everyday needs: by children, warehouse shopping, the proliferation of televisions and computers, junk mail, recycling. The first floor is an open expanse designed for living, cooking and dining. Cupboards, nooks and crannies are provided to keep clutter at bay. The TV is built in. Ceiling heights define regions. Tall windows enlarge the space. For private moments, an acoustically designed "away" room occupies space once reserved for a formal living room.
"From the e-mail we get, [we see that] in many ways luxury does translate into practicality," Stanton said. "Lots of closets, storage. A home-based office to get away. That's luxury. Having a kitchen where you're not isolated. Having light. A place to put the toys. It's about space and how to use it."
So far so good. But Ahluwalia offered a third vision of the dream, applicable to houses large or small, which may be even more exciting.
"You get up and say, `Home, I want light.' The shades open. `Home, I want coffee.' `Home, I want a bath,' " he projected.
Don't think it's too far-fetched, even for a dream house. "It's real. The technology exists. The question is, what can an average home buyer afford?"