Monday, March 19, 2012

The Size of Homes: What is the Trend?

I am going to pontificate upon an idea that I have avoided for some time. The reason I am delving into this subject is at the request (though not directly) from my father-in-law, who sent me this from from Alternet, which discuss Americans newfound love for smaller homes than what as being built just a few years ago. I want to discuss the article a bit, one that is very similar to many I have read over the past two years, before I reveal why I have been avoiding the topic to this point.

Intriguingly: professionals in the building industry are saying that this move may be a long-term shift that's reflecting a deep sea-change in American values and attitudes about what makes a place a home.

In a 2009 article in USA Today interior designer Christine Brun sums up the emerging ethic: "You're almost unpatriotic to live so large." She points out that baby boomers are downsizing their now-empty nests; and younger adults "don't care if they live in 500 square feet. They just want cool stuff." Add in growing awareness of our environmental footprint and a crashing economy, and you've got a perfect storm that's moving Americans back toward the kind of smaller digs we lived in in the days of Ward and June Cleaver.

As it stands right now, I can see the combination of a tough economy and environmentally conscience ideas as two of the main reasons for a decline in the size of new houses. However, only one of those is permanent. When gas prices rose very high in 2008, SUV's were the cheapest they had ever been when adjusted for inflation and buyers were scarce. SUV sales recently have grown since that low point, indicating a short-term memory for consumers. While housing construction and auto manufacturing are very different, houses tend to take longer and a bit more time from conception to product, they are still very major buys. If house hunters believe that good times are ahead, what is to say they won't move back towards the larger homes?

To answer that question:

Some experts think this long-term trend toward smaller houses is likely to hold steady even if the economy improves. "I don't expect [home size] to come back up," says Gopal Ahluwalia, a VP at NAHB. He notes that nine out of 10 NAHB members surveyed said they were planning to build smaller, lower-priced homes in the future. "We don't need big homes; family size has been declining for the past 35 years." That fact may not have stopped us from going big in the past, but it may matter more in these frugal and eco-conscious times.

This is the only indication I have seen since this "trend" started that it will sustain itself. Because it takes time for land to be acquired, plans to be made and submitted, permits to be obtained, contractors to hire, constructon to begin and finish, what the industry officials are saying now will likely play out in the next few years. It is after that that has me curious.

At all price levels, what people are looking for most of all in a small house is location, location, location. A tiny place can make you feel pretty cooped up unless there's plenty to walk to nearby in the neighborhood. Giving up our private lawns, kitchens, dining rooms, and garages means that we'll need to rely more and more on public places to take over the recreation and entertainment functions of our lives. For this reason, small houses are far more liveable when they're close to shops, parks, evening entertainment like restaurants and theaters, and transit that can quickly whisk you around town.

And this is what has been missed most by both the home building industry and home buyers. The desire for space has consequences. The bigger things are, the more spaced out they become and by proxy the less walkable everything as a whole is. I believe, as someone with both with an environmental-first thought-process and a planners mentality, this size-downgrade is what needs to happen to get back to a healthy urban environment. If nothing else was built in the next ten years but prototypical urban, walkable neighborhoods, there still wouldn't be a proper balance between that and contemporary suburban development already in existence.

And if small is beautiful and density is desirable, then cities are going to be needing to invest far more in the kind of public infrastructure that makes these tiny homes liveable -- those parks and transit centers and retail hubs, for example. As we turn toward smaller homes, voter demand for these kinds of amenities will increase. And, at some point, our attitude toward paying higher taxes to make these investments will have to shift as well.

I might even take this a step further and say that these walkable neighborhoods will be more likely to come about if transit is already in place. Places like Southlake Town Square or Home Town in North Richland Hills are small and poorly connected at the borders to the surrounding areas and people still drive there to get there, since they can't walk there unless they already are there. It takes density and mass over a large area to significantly effect transportation habits. Areas without transit will blunt the density bonus of increased walkability.

Mockingbird Station or the area around Downtown Plano Station will see a greater effect in encouraging alternative transportation because they connect to other walkable and connected places along their transit route. Each introduction of a walkable neighborhood to the transit network not only benefits the new place, but reinfores the existing places as well, both for the built environment and the network. It is this reason why urban ridership is higher than commuter ridership.

While these are all hopeful signs for an increase in urbanism throughout the country, I haven't touched this topic previously because I don't know how long this will actually last. Signs are good, but this is not a trend. If in five years both the built units that were be thought out now and the planned units show a continued move into the downsizing of American homes, then I will proclaim this as a positive trend for planning and urbanism in this country. Until then, I will continue to watch this and hope for continued improvement.

In some ways, I expected this if for no other reason than to bring that variety to the fruitcart. Empty nesters have no need for 2,300 square feet of house, and to many that space is depressing (My views as a parent is that my wife and two kids don't need that space, but to those who do, to each their own). I and my circle certainly didn't need that space in college and immediately after as we began our adult lives. If empty nesters and pre-children adults alone started this smaller trend, housing size would go done, regardless of any other factor.

However, bigger houses were all that homebuilders were focused on, citing the market as the reasons they were doing it. However, in hindsight we know that is not true, since they can't build walkable neighborhoods, including both rent- and owner-occupied residential units, fast enough while simultaneously they can't find enough buyers for these huge homes since they glutted the market. The market is correcting itself, and in the case of our economy, doing it very painfully.

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