Bigger Homes, Better Living?

  • American houses are getting bigger and bigger, but some architects question whether more square footage leads to a happier life. Photo by Lester Graham.

Although family size is growing smaller in the U.S., house sizes are growing larger. The square footage of a home built in the 1950’s seems tiny compared to the houses typically built in the suburbs today. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham looks at the trend of ever-larger houses:


Although family size is growing smaller in the U.S., house sizes are growing larger. The square
footage of a home built in the 1950’s seems tiny compared to the houses typically built in the
suburbs today. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham looks at the trend of ever-
larger houses:

There’s no one answer as to why we’re building bigger houses. For some people, it’s a matter of
investing. Housing prices continue to rise and bigger houses sell well. People trade up. But…
for some homebuyers, it’s more than that. It’s a statement.

Lynn Egbert is the CEO of the Michigan Association of Home Builders.

“A lot of that could be a status symbol. Move out of the city; move into a rural-like area because
‘I’ve made it,’ because ‘This is my dream.’ It used to be people would move up, sell their homes
every seven to ten years. That’s changed now and the sale of homes is now three to five years.
You build up the equity in a new home or an existing home, you have the opportunity to build or
move into something else later. It is an investment.”

Investing in a house only explains some of the reason houses are getting larger. Another reason is
government. Local governments are zoning residential areas into large lot subdivisions. Egbert
says that means the builder has to build a big house, just to recoup the cost of the sizeable piece
of land.

“That is a preclusion, a prohibition against Smart Growth. When they have large lots sizes, it
absolutely dictates and mandates that anybody who moves in there is going to have a large

It’s an attempt by towns to keep out lower-income people who might build homes that lower the
property values of a neighborhood.

But there’s a demand for the bigger houses and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. So, cities and
towns zone for them, builders build them, and people buy them – bigger and bigger.

Linda Groat is a professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture. She
says it’s not too surprising. People feel less connected to the community at large because they
move often, drive somewhere else to work, and see their home as a refuge. Home is where they
can relax and escape from the rest of the world.

“There may be, on the part of some people, a feeling of need to really make it more of a castle to
compensate for what feels more complicated or out of control in the larger world.”

We feel we need private places that we can call our own. But there might be social costs to that
refuge. There’s often little interaction with neighbors and the rest of the community in which we
live. And Groat says even within the home all that space means family members don’t have to
bump into each other on the way to the bathroom. Groat says in the new large suburban homes,
sometimes derisively called McMansions, everyone can pursue their own activities in different
parts of the house.

“If you buy a McMansion and the master bedroom is off on one wing and or a different floor and
the kids are off in huge rooms way on the other side of the house, is that really going to foster
family connection?”

Some architects are becoming aware the scale of housing is beginning to leave smaller
families with a sense of emptiness, not a sense of space. Sarah Susanka is one of the leaders of a
movement to re-evaluate the concept of whether bigger is really better. The first question is
“Why?” Why are we building bigger houses?

“Well, there’s obviously a large market for larger and larger homes. And my belief is that people
are trying to fill a void in their lives with the only tool that we’ve really defined for ourselves in
this culture which is: more. More stuff. More square footage. You know, more indication that
we’ve arrived. All that stuff.”

But Susanka says there’s a longing underneath all that, an idea that there should be some better
quality of life that’s not being satisfied by just more square footage. She’s the author of a series
of books that started with one entitled “The Not So Big House.” She argues that people can use
the money they’d spend on additional square footage for space that’s rarely used for better
designed spaces where they actually live day-to-day. She says if the house is an investment, then
it should be an investment in quality craftsmanship and better living, not just more space.

“When something is thrown together and just is sort of raw space, but not much else, over time
it’s going to degenerate. And, the amount of square footage obviously has a direct correlation
with the amount of resources it takes to build it. So by making something that’s tailored to fit – in
other words, not with excess material – and then that’s going to last a long time that that should be
the first step in sustainable design.”

Graham: “So, you suspect a lot of these McMansions or starter-castles, as you call them, aren’t going to be
around very long?”

“Yeah, I think in the long haul those are not going to survive in the same way and are probably
not going to be looked after in the same way over time just because they’re not as well put
together and they don’t have the charm that’s going to make somebody want to look after them in
the future.”

Susanka says using resources for bigger houses is not environmentally friendly and does not
necessarily mean better living. She says builders and homebuyers should think about it this way:
build the space you need and do it well and do it in a way that somebody in the future will want to

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.