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Small Home Survey Results

Less Is Not Little

Last week I was on a panel about small home design at the Builder Show in Orlando organized by Gale Steves, author of Right-Sizing Your Home and former editor-in-chief of Home magazine. I talked about how our understanding of what is small — and what a small house should contain — has changed, from Gothic Revival cottages of the 19th century — like the

one in Eldon, Iowa (photo courtesy State Historical Society of Iowa) made famous by the painter Grant Wood — when clients had pitchforks and a small

house meant two or maybe three bed chambers and no bathroom in well under 1,000 square feet (painting image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago) to Craftsman style bungalows of the early 1900s, when middle class commuter suburbs burgeoned and pitchforks gave way to briefcases, and one bathroom per house became the general rule. Larger small houses of the 1920s might have had three or four bedrooms but only one bathroom and perhaps a powder room in roughly 1,600 sq. ft. A profusion of plan books like

this one by Los Angeles architect Paul Williams targeting the small home appeared right after World War II. In the early 1950s popular designer/developer Cliff May compressed the sprawling ranch house concept into his Low-Cost Ranch House idea, which was typically 3 bedrooms and 2

bathrooms in 1,675 sq. ft. See how the carport storage wall and the planter define the entry, and how living room and breakfast area open to the courtyard. The galley kitchen is still somewhat removed from the main living space but opens easily to the breakfast area. The master bath is minimal, with just one vanity. The design was simple, contemporary, and incorporated outdoor space to create a feeling of spaciousness. These and similar modern ranch house plans took off, helping to shape post war suburban America. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rising land costs and higher expectations – i.e. more bathrooms, double vanities, three car garages — led to smaller lot sizes and the need to maximize space by building two story plans packed with amenities. A burgeoning interest in luxury amenities, fueled by expanding credit, led to the over-built McMansion phenomenon we all know. Lots shrank and houses grew. According to census data the average American home grew from 1,660 sq. ft. in 1973 to 2,392 sq. ft. in 2010.

We surveyed a targeted group of our customers earlier this year and asked what they considered small. More than 1,000 prospective plan purchasers responded. Seventy percent of them defined small as 2,000 sq. ft. or less.

They want their largest spaces to be the Great Room, Kitchen, and Master Bedroom. The Dining Room is essentially extinct as a separate room. Most respondents feel they can minimize space in Other Bedrooms and Baths.

Other spaces that are important to them are Useable Rear Porches or Decks, Laundry/Mudrooms, Open Floor Plans, and Energy Efficiency. Surprisingly, nearly half are interested in One-Story Plans.

So, have we come very far from the early 1950s, when industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames first put into practice their famous phrase “to make the best for the most for the least” ? Yes, I think so. Because we are re-appreciating  and re-learning that concept. Today’s small house has improved. It’s a little larger but also more flexible, energy-efficient, and comfortable, like Plan 537-3

by Concept Home, with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths in 1,636 sq. ft. But now the pitchfork and the briefcase are accompanied by an i-Pad!

One last note: real estate columnist Katherine Salant reported on the panel  in The Washington Post. I hope you can check it out.

Backyards, Borders, and Bedrooms

Lines in the Gravel

Our tiny backyard has a ragged patch of lawn that is bordered by a narrow brick mow strip. It’s supposed to form a nice crisp line between lawn and planting bed, and occasionally it does — when I’ve done the weeding. I appreciate the way such a simple device can makes the backyard feel almost like an outdoor room. But here are a few somewhat more inventive ways to shape outdoor space…I’d rather dream than weed anyway. I’m a fan of devices that have multiple functions or “do double duty” — as readers undoubtedly know by now — so the idea that a stair railing could also be a planter is appealing, as shown by this elegant modern installation by Surface Design.
The planter borders the upper terrace, which creates a nice green visual

connection to the lower strip of grass. The stair and the railing/planter divide the backyard into two distinct rooms: one for outdoor dining; the other for greenery (photos courtesy Surface Design). Or here’s a way to combine terrace, planter, and steps in one form,

as shown in a garden by Arterra Landscapes (with architect Thomas Hunter; photo courtesy Arterra). The plants become a sort of green railing. Garden stairs have been combined with overflowing water since Moorish times, not to mention the Italian Renaissance, but what about with something a little warmer? Landscape artist Topher Delaney‘s “In the Line of Fire” garden does just that,

with ribbons of flame at the base of a central step in this unusual garden. If you miss a step you’re toast — but I guess you could say it keeps you on your toes! (Photo courtesy Apartment Therapy.) The line (back to my mowing strip) is the simplest design device but it can also be the most visually compelling,

as architect Jonathan Feldman demonstrates in the ingenious way he ties part of his Caterpillar House to the surrounding landscape with three stripes sliced into the concrete patio. They set up an almost rhythmic progression between structure and site while expanding the lateral view into a field of lupine.

The Patio Home

Architects Braxton Werner and Paul Field — part of our Signature Studio — have just updated the imagery for their designs, and several show just how important backyards are as extensions of the house. For example, in their Plan 491-2 the living room doesn’t stop at the sliding glass window wall –

it incorporates the pool patio on the other side of the glass. The layout is simple and shows how the overhang — the dotted line — also defines the outdoor space.

Here’s a view from the outside looking in, showing how the paving pattern forms a kind of rug. The same blending of inside and outside happens in the bedrooms

on the ground floor, though these are on the other side of the house. The Werner Field designs are new interpretations of the patio home idea popularized in the mid twentieth century by architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler in Los Angeles. I guess I not only want a more visually ambitious backyard, I’d like one of these houses to go with it.