This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

JANUARY 2013 (links updated 2014): Home size is up, household size is down, population's rising and land mass is the same. The numbers—and our choices—don't compute.

Small Homes for a Small Planet
Downsize your footprint, free up your life

In the last six decades, the average size of a new single family home in the United States rose from roughly 1,000 square feet to 2,500, not because we grew 250% richer but because we found a way to finance what we couldn't afford. Our economic mess is the fallout from this conjuring trick, but it hasn't stopped the trend. After a brief reversal during the recession, the rise in square footage has resumed.

Our sense of our needs has increased since 1950 despite the fact that our households average 23% fewer people. Like Dickens' Pip, we now have great expectations, fed by eager lenders and builders.

The trouble with the fantasy (beyond the debt) is the waste.

We live in a world of limited resources and a country with a growing population that is projected to reach 420 million by 2060. Even small homes to accommodate those "extra" hundred million will eat up open land, down trees and increase carbon emissions, besides raising the already heavy pressure to drill, baby, drill.

So, can we really afford more large homes? I think not, especially since the extra space they offer is both unnecessary and underutilized.

I know about underutilization firsthand. My family has lived in a 2,500-square-foot loft for many years (though we won't for much longer). Even when all four of us are at home and in different rooms, there is still the equivalent of four additional rooms with no one in them. Yes, we enjoy the privacy, but with 2,500 square feet, we have significantly more than we need, and so, I believe, does the "average" family of four.

If the environmental arguments for a smaller home don't sway you, consider the personal ones, beginning with the lower mortgage. Go small enough and you might even be able to pay for the home outright and call it your own, as my parents did before the era of big credit a long time ago. Talk about stress reduction.

Further savings come from the fact that small homes require fewer furnishings. Ongoing costs for maintenance and utilities are lower as well. And because small homes provide less storage, the temptation to buy unnecessary things is less.

The lighter financial burden makes it possible to stop making work choices based on income alone. You can factor in such "idealistic" considerations as the desire to spend more time with your children or work at something you really enjoy.

Small homes also reduce isolation (the flip side of privacy). They both increase proximity to the people you live with and get you out more, since your home doesn't cater to every need the way large homes attempt to do.

Let's not forget that cleaning small homes takes less time!

So, what size should you aim for? The answer is individual to you. When I began apartment-hunting a few months ago, I felt we needed 1,500 square feet to provide our two young adult children with breathing room (though we ultimately chose a place with less than 1,400 square feet for the sake of a garden and neighborhood we loved). But we were looking at older apartments that were not optimized for use of space the way a new home could be.

Some folks nowadays are choosing more radical downsizing in order to live deliberately, like Thoreau. They join him in saying "simplify, simplify" to learn what life has to teach—and a new generation of designers has come up with designs to accommodate them. Their "tiny houses," can have less than a hundred square feet yet include a living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom through exceptionally clever and efficient design. Some go up to several hundred feet and many are showstoppers. Green materials and energy efficient appliances are common features.

For people eager for an affordable perch in a high-priced city like San Francisco or New York, there are (or will soon be) super-small apartments. As with tiny houses, innovative designs make the small spaces workable. For instance, My Micro NY, the winning design in the adAPT NYC competition includes a foldable table that hangs on a rack at night to make room for the opened Murphy bed.

New York is betting that such apartments are the perfect answer for people who prize the city's cultural offerings and nightlife more than a roomy inner sanctum.

Wherever you choose to live, and whatever the size of your home, you can enhance the usable space—and feeling of spaciousness—in these tried and true ways:

  • Look for dual purpose furniture, such as daybeds, ottomans with storage and tables with variable lengths and heights.

  • Use built-ins, which make more efficient use of space than free-standing furniture.

  • If you have high ceilings, raise the built-ins off the ground to free up floor space.

  • Get fold-up and stacking furniture.

  • Take down a wall if you can afford to lose a room to open up the place (for instance, create an open kitchen/dining area/living room).

  • Use mirrors and light colored paints for a roomier feel.
—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

SMALL HOMES get as tiny as this 89 square foot cottage by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and still include a kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom. The cost is small, too, especially for self-build models.

THE ULTRA CLEVER DESIGN of this 420-square-foot apartment belonging to Treehugger Founder Graham Hill will make you wish for a tiny apartment of your own.

Nesting tables
Ottoman with storage
SPACE-SAVING FURNITURE, such as stacking tables and ottomans with storage, will make your small home roomier.

CULTURE PLAYS A ROLE in the size of home we feel we need. While American homes have ballooned since 1950, Europeans continue to live small. No one seems to be complaining except the British whose average new home fell to 76 square meters (818 square feet) in 2009, apparently without the design adaptations that make small spaces workable.


U.S. Census Bureau
Characteristics of New Single-Family Houses Sold

Big Houses Are Not Green

Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment

Sightline Daily
Living Large in Small Houses

Tiny Houses

Tiny House Blog
The Small House Movement: What’s the Big Deal?

The New York Times
In Winning Design, City Hopes to Address a Cramped Future

Double-Duty Furniture

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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