July 23, 2024

I hope, for the sake of the planet, we see shift toward smaller houses

I hope, for the sake of the planet, we see shift toward smaller houses

Opinion: A small house costs less to build, uses less material, is cheaper to furnish, easier to clean and less environmentally damaging to heat and cool.

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Until I went off to university, I grew up in a two-storey house with 1,200 square feet of floor space. It had three small bedrooms, a small living and dining room, a single bathroom and a kitchen smaller than today’s walk-in closets. It had no attic and an unfinished basement.

Somehow, my parents and my brother and I survived living in so modest a house.

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Of all the homes I have lived in, the largest was 2,500 square feet.

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But my favourite of all the homes I have lived in was the smallest.

It was 800 sq. ft.

My wife and I rented it from a family friend. It started life as a net shed of a fish company that had long ago gone under. When we moved in, the bathroom — and I’m being generous calling it that — was a six-by-10-foot afterthought with a toilet, a shower head and a square cement basin one stood in while showering. That’s it. There was no bathtub or sink. The rest of the house consisted of a narrow kitchen, a living room, and three tiny bedrooms — one of which we converted into a dining room. There was no attic, basement or — and this is an absence that would be inconceivable in today’s homes — closets. There simply wasn’t room for them.

Over time, we made it habitable — sanding the wood floors that had been painted dark brown, installing a bathtub and bathroom sink, and covering every wall in the house with a sturdy burlap wallpaper we discovered in Ikea. It was thick enough to hide all of the house’s sins. We heated the place with a wood stove.

We raised three children there.

Fast-forward to today. We now live in a three-bedroom, two storey home just over 2,100 sq. ft It was built in 1964, big for its time. Our kids now have homes of their own, and two of our bedrooms remain empty unless the grandkids visit. Yet as over-housed as my wife and I feel we are, our home is much, much smaller than the new homes now being built in our neighbourhood.

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The same has happened all over North America. Exact statistics vary, but most studies estimate that average house size in Canada and the U.S. has doubled since the mid-1970s. In one 2017 study, the average square footage for all homes in Canada was just under 1,800 sq. ft and trending upward. Canada, in terms of living space per person, ranks third in the world, surpassed only by Australia and the U.S.

None of this, however, makes demographic sense.

Family size and fertility rates have fallen. Marriage rates have declined dramatically. The average age of women having children has risen, and extraneous factors like divorce, environmental concerns and debt load have all contributed to smaller families. According to Statistics Canada, the average census family size over the last century has decreased from 4.2 persons in 1931 to 2.9 persons in 2021.

And even though the country frets over mortgage rates and housing shortages, you find many owners, with their eyes focused on resale values, building their homes to maximum allowable limits, and which are often out of character to the neighbouring houses around them — a jarring unneighbourliness of no concern, it seems, to city planners. And then there are the homes with square footages in the five figures — homes so gigantic and so ludicrously overbuilt that you come away wondering what the owners do with all that space.

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Good question.

Living in the little 800 sq. ft house that we did, we had to be mindful of how we, in fact, lived.

The house made demands of us. It demanded intimacy and patience. It demanded frugality, since we had no storage space to put anything. It demanded that our children play outdoors and that we, as parents, go with them. While it sometimes felt chaotic and fractious, and while the wait for the bathroom could be intolerable, life in the little house pressed us together. It demanded we be a family.

Today, the reverse is true. It’s the homeowners making the demands. They demand designer kitchens. They demand dining rooms big enough to seat a football team. They demand a surplus of bedrooms, with ensuite bathrooms. They demand a den, an office, an exercise room, a games room and a “family” room — as if the rest of the house, compartmentalized into such specific, overlapping uses is meant for something other than family. They demand a finished basement and a two-car garage in which they keep, not cars, but all the stuff they’ve accumulated but rarely use. These houses speak not just to their affluence, or the ability and desire to show off that affluence, but also to a compulsive insatiability.

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The media, especially TV, has a lot to answer for when it comes to shaping outsized housing expectations and appetites. The airwaves are filled with real estate and renovation shows — otherwise known as “house porn” — that feature fabulous homes and renovations that most young couples could never afford. Where the money comes from for those renovations is never explained, nor is the fact that housing debt loads are at record levels.

I hope, if just for the sake of the planet, we see a shift toward smaller houses. A small house costs less to build, uses less material, is cheaper to furnish, easier to clean and less environmentally damaging to heat and cool.

And really, what is it that we want from the place we live?

“Home” is where the heart is.

A “house” is an edifice.

Somewhere along the way, many of us seemed to have confused the two.

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