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.

Creating New Life in Urban Core

  • This old industrial building once housed a company that manufactured refrigerator coils. Now, planners are hoping to revitalize it by making a place where artists can live and work. (Photo courtesy of the Enterprise Group of Jackson)

For many cities in the Rust Belt region, the glory days of manufacturing have long passed. These communities are now left trying to figure out how to revitalize their downtowns. One city is hoping a development for artists will create new life and draw people back downtown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports:


For many cities in the Rust Belt region, the glory days of manufacturing have long passed. These
communities are now left trying to figure out how to revitalize their downtowns. One city is hoping
a development for artists will create new life and draw people back
downtown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports.

The city of Jackson is in South Central Michigan, about an hour west of
Detroit. Four blocks from its downtown, next to the old armory and the
remains of an old prison wall, there’s a smokestack and a rundown complex of
industrial buildings.

(key & sound of door opening)

“The last company that was doing full blown manufacturing in this complex of buildings was Acme
Industries that focused on refrigeration coils. We’re gonna walk straight down here.”

(footsteps on stairs fade under)

Kay Howard is a ceramic artist. She and her husband Phil Shiban are getting a tour of the
buildings. Since the early 1900’s when this complex was built, it’s been home to many businesses,
but since the 1970’s, its been basically abandoned.

“At the top of the stairs step to the right. Don’t step on the white board. It covers a hole in the

(steps & sounds of glass & floor tiles crunching

Green and yellow paint peels and curls off the walls. The floor is littered with broken glass from
the building’s windows. And there are piles of bird droppings, broken lightbulbs, and rotting boards.
But Kay Howard and her husband are thinking about living here.

“It has so much that can be held onto. I hate seeing buildings knocked down or left in disrepair
when they could be reused and revitalized, and this just screams to have something done with it.”

These buildings are slated to become the Armory Arts Project. The plan is
to turn this 147-thousand square foot complex into an arts facility. It
would become the home to cultural organizations, arts-friendly commercial
businesses, studio space, and residential units that designed to meet the
specific living and working needs of artists, musicians, dancers, jewelers
and the like. Neeta Delaney is the project’s director.

“The driving force behind this is community revitalization. The impetus for this whole development
was really the existence of several tax-free renaissance zones.”

A renaissance zone is what Michigan calls its tax-free areas that were
created to spur development. Delaney says the project costs would
have been around 14-million dollars. They’re whittling down the out of
pocket costs by packaging together tax credits they get for cleaning
up a old industrial site, for renovating historic buildings, and for
creating low income housing. However when they approached developers with
the idea, they were told there was no way to make a go of it. But a
non-profit group from Minneapolis called ArtsSpace Projects Incorporated had a
different opinion. Chris Velasco is the director of Artspace.

“It’s not going to nor is Artspace designing it to generate
Money, but it will cover its costs.”

Artspace has successfully turned dozens of dilapidated buildings in a
number of different cities into affordable places where artists can live
and work. He says while Jackson doesn’t have a reputation as a bastion for
the arts, their market research showed there was more than enough demand
for such a facility in the city.

“If we were to create a multi-purpose arts facility use space in there we would have arts and
organizations 3-deep for every space that we create.”

He says that’s because artists have a hard time finding affordable spaces
where they can raise their kids that can also accommodate the tools of
their trade such as kilns, 10 foot tall canvases, and metal working
equipment. And he says the Armory Arts Project could fill that need.

“Isn’t this gorgeous? Oh my. Oh, this is just awesome.”

Project director Neeta Delaney leads the group to the top floor of one of
the old buildings where sunlight is streaming in through the broken

“Isn’t it great? Oh my. It is so beautiful, absolutely beautiful. And you think about residential units
up here. Live-work space, you know. This has got to be ideal.”

“This is the space that sold us on the building.”

That’s Steve Czarnecki, the CEO for the Enterprise Group of Jackson. It’s the umbrella
organization for economic development in the area that oversees the counties renaissance zones.

“Because when we first came up here, what else could you imagine this to be except a
place for artists.”

And he says once they figure out how to lure artists to Jackson it will be
easier to lure desirable high-tech business and their employees to the community.

“I think we have to increase our Bohemian Index a little bit here to attract those kind of people.”

See, artists have a track record for moving into old warehouse and industrial areas where
rents are low, fixing it up, and making a community hip and attractive.
The rub is they often then get priced out of the market. But rent at the
Armory Arts Project, like other ArtsSpace projects, will remain low.

And for artists like Kay Howard and Phil Chiban, affordable housing is one
attraction of the project. They support themselves on his pension
payments and her pottery sales. But there’s another reason they’re
interested. The couple is drawn to the idea of living with other working

“You get kind of solitary as an artist and you really need that contact and comradery and so forth,
so the idea of living in a community-type setting with other artists is very exciting.”

And she’s also excited about the prospect of being part of a project that recycles an abandoned
building and one that could bring excitement to a
downtown in need of new life.

“This has character you can’t design or duplicate. And look at the metal doors. Isn’t this amazing?”

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.