The Small House Movement – Only a Niche

By Victor Normand
Published: February 2014

There should be a product out there for homebuyers who desire a new, smaller house.  Those buyers include first timers, singles of all ages, and people looking to downsize from their present home.   An attached condominium has been the default option, but a townhouse or flat is just not a single-family home.

Recent interest in building smaller houses first attracted attention with the publication in 1997 of The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka.   The author argues for quality of design over quantity of space.  By choosing only spaces actually used by inhabitants and then carefully designing that space so that they relate well to one another both functionally and visually, houses can be built dramatically smaller.  These small houses have their appeal economically as well as ecologically.

For a while during the recent post recession years it seemed that the size of houses was beginning to reverse direction.  Nationally, house size did decline after the recession in 2008, though only by a few hundred square feet. We looked at the trend in Middlesex County for a period beginning in 2000 and found that the percentage of new houses sold having less than 2,600 square feet of living space, had dropped by more than ten percentage points in the years after the recession.

New Homes Sold Middlesex County by SizeWe also noticed that while new houses seemed to be getting smaller, the percentage of much smaller houses (less than 1,400 square feet) did not increase and remained at 2% of all new houses constructed. Builders responded to the bad economy by constructing houses they could sell for less, but they did not move in the direction of the much smaller house.

But the figures for 2013 show a return to big old days.

Fundamentally, market forces drive the size of houses and higher wealth and cash buyers for whom size is everything apparently, dominate the market for new houses in this area.  Why so big?  A study done by Shrink That Footprint, an independent research group that provides information to people interested in reducing their climate impact, questions the need for so much living space.  Of the 18 countries they studied, only Australia averaged more residential floor space than the United States.  Weighing in at 832 square feet per capita, the United States bested the likes of France (464), England (356), Germany (587), Italy (335), and Spain (373).

So, if the worst recession since the Great Depression could not get us to modify our appetite for the Not So Big House, what are the chances that demand for large houses will lessen any time soon.  Not to take anything away from the principles of the “movement” with its rational focus on conservation and its embrace of esthetics, but builders know, if they build them, the buyers will come.