[The following article is from the June 2009 issue of Continental Airlines Magazine.]

The Next Little Thing

As the era of McMansions fades, wee houses promote simpler,
more efficient living

20090618th-continental-magazine-flight-june-2009-coverGregory Paul Johnson comes across as a normal guy, typical of many people you’d find in Iowa City, Iowa, where he lives. But Johnson, 45, is atypical in the extreme: He lives in a 10-foot-by-7-foot house — about the size of a prison cell. With a front porch and a gabled roof, the style is what you might call Lilliputian Victorian. More to the point, the interior design is incredibly efficient. For example, the space features a full-size loft bed accessed via a fold-away ladder, a computer-equipped workstation that converts into a dining area for two, and retractable shelves that fold down over the sink to create counter space.”People look at my home and say, ‘It’s magic! How do you do that? How do you live in a 10-by-7 house?'” says Johnson. “The answer is that I live very simply.”

Johnson is a leading figure in the micro-housing movement. He’s a co-founder of the Small House Society (SHS) and the Small Living Journal (smalllivingjournal.com), a Web site that launched in March, as well as the author of Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned from Living in 140 Square Feet. Other co-founders of the SHS include Jay Shafer, owner of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which sells plans and materials for dwellings measuring between 65 and 837 square feet, and Shay Salomon and Nigel Valdez, who created the influential book Little House on a Small Planet.

The micro-housing trend, once decidedly on the fringes, has hit the mainstream, in part because of the economic downturn. People are looking for ways to live more efficiently, whether that means lowering their utility bills or spending less time vacuuming – just two of the advantages of living in a smaller house.

How small?

While “How big is too big?” may have been the mantra of home builders and buyers over the past decade, Johnson and his ilk have endeavored to ask, “How small is too small?” They were posing the question long before the housing crunch and the recent stock market slide.
In fact, the current small-house trend first blipped on the cultural radar in 1998, with the publication of architect Sarah Susanka’s seminal work, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live. Susanka’s influence has endured: on January 20, she was honored — along with Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity — with an Innovator award from Builder Magazine at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas.

Interestingly, the economy also played a key role in earlier, similar trends. According to Daniel Bluestone, associate professor of architectural history and director of the historic preservation program at the University of Virginia, the proliferation in the early 20th century of small, simple, bungalow-style homes resulted in large part from a demand created by a new, burgeoning group of homebuyers in the United States, namely, immigrants with little money to spare. “There was an influx of working- and middle-class people looking for homes,” Bluestone says. “The bungalows had incredibly efficient floor plans, and they were affordable.”

The same ethos applied with the onset of the Great Depression, when the “minimum house” came into vogue, Bluestone says. In 1936, the Federal Housing Administration published its “Principles of Planning Small Houses,” which advocated for small, low-priced houses to provide “shelter within the means of families of very modest income.”

After World War II, Bluestone notes, the demand for less expensive — and thus, smaller — housing increased as veterans returned home. It was then that planned communities like Levittown, on New York’s Long Island, with houses typically around 800 square feet, took root. In that same era, prominent architect William Wurster, the originator of the suburban ranch house, made a plea to his colleagues to “scale down your demands to your purse and to the temper of the times.”

Reduced scale, big variety

The temper of the times may be similar today — but as Bluestone points out, “the energy and green issues weren’t part of the earlier advocacy for smaller living spaces. There are many more factors today.”

Accordingly, the marketplace is more varied. Johnson’s house, which he has occupied since August 2003, may be an extreme example; with no true kitchen — there’s a sink but no stove or refrigerator — he orders a lot of take-out food. But a proliferation of firms offer floor plans and materials for small, prefabricated dwellings. And builders and architects are responding to an increasing demand for scaled-down primary residences or vacation homes.

Jeff Dungan of Dungan & Nequette Architects, in Birmingham, Ala., says he welcomes the change. “We’ve been working on a cottage, a second home, for a client who will probably end up retiring there,” Dungan says. “He told us what he wanted, and I started drawing, thinking it would be about 2,500 square feet. But the more I drew, the more I got excited about the efficient use of space. The finished product is 1,500 square feet. We looked at it and said, ‘Wow, did we leave anything out? Is there anything wrong with it?’ The answer was, ‘No, there’s a lot right with it.'”

Dungan’s downsized design solution is just one example of a historic trend. From 1973 through 2007, the average size of a newly built U.S. house rose from 1,660 to a record high of 2,521 square feet, according to the Census Bureau. But during the first half of 2008, the average declined by about 200 square feet — the single biggest drop since the early 1970s. Also, in January, a survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) found that 88 percent of builders nationwide either planned or had already begun to build smaller homes.

“The days of the McMansion are over,” says Stephen Melman, the NAHB’s director of economic services. “People aren’t buying more house than they need.”

Alchemy Architects, in St. Paul, Minn., is a leader in the prefab small-house market, with a “weeHouse” portfolio of modern structures starting at 341 square feet. Hospital administrator Mary Griffith, 53, and her husband, Bill, 49, a Spanish teacher, opted for an 1,100-square-foot prefab by Alchemy. They situated the unit on 20 wooded acres in Carlisle, N.Y., and moved out of their two-family Colonial and into their new home in October 2008 — and they’ve never been happier. “Our current house feels so much more spacious than our old one,” says Mary. “The kitchen, dining room, and living room occupy one big space, and with seven floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, the house gives the appearance of being much larger than it really is.”

The Griffiths live comfortably in the small space, along with their son, a senior in high school, as well as a cat and a medium-sized dog. In fact, the efficient design has encouraged the couple to find other ways to economize. Solar power heats their water, and a wood-burning stove generates ambient heat, as do the big glass doors. “The sun streams into the house,” Mary says. “We often don’t even have to fire up the wood stove.”

While she and her family have adapted well to their new, downsized lifestyle, Mary confesses that she was initially unsure about it: “It was difficult to take the leap. But after we made the choice, we never looked back.”
— Joe Bargmann