Honkin’ huge, part II: a modest 5337 sq. ft. cottage


It was a moody lunch. I sat at the table, unshaven and thick-headed. Not even a racy drop of Tabasco could liven up the taste of my tomato soup.

The numbers were pretty strong. It seemed likely that America’s oversized new houses were a near match for America’s bulked-up, overpowered new cars. McMansions were environmental villains just like SUVs.

And yet, most greens really hadn’t caught on to McMansions beyond complaining about their aesthetics. Where was the outrage? Where was the wash of counter-propaganda to compete with the bombast of promotions like the street of dreams?

Then my significant other came in, and from her fingers fluttered glossy manna, or so it seemed: Cottage Living, a new magazine from Time Inc.

Could it be? A lifestyle magazine focused on the modest ideal of the cottage, a humble word that represents the very notion of home? I flipped the pages.

The styles were a little stodgy, what with the heavy paint and chroma familiar from Martha Stewart, but those dreamy architectural renderings in watercolor style really got me — check out this one with the guy mowing the lawn with an ecologically correct push mower. Nice touch, anonymous freelance watercolor contractor!

The theme of Cottage Living seems to be that a small and simple house equals a happier, perhaps even more virtuous life. Greens would agree, yes?

There’s just one problem. Most of the small houses in Cottage Living aren’t small. Feature stories regularly discuss houses of more than 3000 square feet, whereas the average new home built in 1970 was 1500 square feet. “We added a 2nd story but retained the cozy scale,” gushed one pull quote.

Then came the Hammer: Cottage Living’s idea home was a whopping 5337 square feet, and included a “great room” that could hold my entire house.

Clearly, the concept of small has changed. 5337 square feet is only a cottage to people who use “cottage” as a friggin verb. As in, “Last summer, we cottaged in Vermont.”

Still, if I’m going to kvetch about this (I addressed my soup), I need to figure out the difference between “small” and “poor.” At some point living simply becomes living in grasping poverty. How much room does a person really need? A family of 2? 3? 4?

For some decades the US Census Bureau has had a measurement that might be relevant: an index of crowding. To them, a dwelling is crowded if it has more than 1 person per room (that counts most rooms except bathrooms and closets).

I like that definition a lot because it describes an experience that everybody needs at one time or another: the ability to be alone in a room. However, that room doesn’t need to be a certain size to work. I remember loving a 100 square foot dorm room, because it was a rare and prized “single.”

According to the Census, crowding came down from 20% of households in 1940 to 5% in 1980..

graph from US Census Bureau

.. which was around the same time that average new house size climbed from about 900 to about 1700 square feet. After 1980, crowding pretty much stayed the same, but average new house size kept getting bigger and bigger… up to about 2300 square feet by 2000.

While I’m playing fast and loose with numbers here — these figures aren’t strictly comparable, since, for example, not all households were living in newly built houses — nonetheless there is a suggestion.

Hypothesis: for three or four decades, the increase in square footage did improve quality of life. Then around 1980 it stopped helping. In the 80’s and 90’s crowded rental houses and apartments stayed crowded, while homebuyers diluted themselves across ever-growing expanses of white carpet. In all the plushness people are getting harder and harder to find.

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