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Downsizing the American Dream Home

After years of hypergrowth in housing size, the average U.S. home is now getting smaller. Will Americans learn to love the post-McMansion residence?

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It’s human nature to say one thing and do another. During the election, for example, pollsters speculated that some voters might voice support for Obama but reach for the McCain lever in the privacy of the booth.

A similar inconsistency is at play with home design. For the past ten years or so, Americans have responded to the picturesque charms of small homes in books and magazines, while in real life heading straight for five bedrooms and industrial-strength kitchens capable of feeding 40.

Still, however grand their McMansions may have been, homeowners have simultaneously entertained vivid daydreams of tiny spaces, and the stripped-down life they conjure.

Not So Big Remodeling


Five years ago, Time Inc. launched Cottage Living after noticing that reader interest spiked whenever the word “cottage” appeared in its other magazines. The book industry has churned out an entire library of titles that romance cabins, rustic retreats and other wee spaces, most notably the The Not So Big House series by Sarah Susanka, which has become a bestselling franchise (her latest, Not So Big Remodeling, hits stores on March 10.)

Whether we like it or not, the small house may now become a reality. New homes shrank by 100 square feet last year, according to the Census Bureau, and a survey last month by the National Association of Home Builders reported that 88% of homebuilders are constructing smaller homes.

Here’s the critical question: is the downsizing merely a pause in the inevitable pursuit of more bulked-out McMansions, or a cultural shift that will lead Americans to value efficiency, as the Dutch so famously do?

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There are signs the latter may be the case. Compact appliances like the slim Liebherr refrigerator have edged their way onto the renovation menu, and one of the more noticeable recent architecture trends has been the surge in popularity of modernist backyard sheds used as home offices and guest rooms.

Nobody expects America to fall out of love with the big and the brash anytime soon. So it may be up to designers to recalibrate the American dream so that “small” is a term of architectural endearment.

Editor’s note: Michael Cannell is a former editor of the House & Home section of The New York Times and was until recently director of online content at dwell.com. He has written about design for The New Yorker, Newsweek, and other publications. His biography of architect I.M. Pei was published by Crown in 1995.