American homes have gotten bigger. From 1974 to 2013, the average American single family home ballooned from 1,560 square feet to 2,384 square feet.
A CNN Money animation from data viz specialist Bård Edlund visualizes that extraordinary growth by taking a two-story house and stretching it sideways. What may at first glance seem like just a cute animation is actually a highly accurate portrait of the changing American home.
The 1970s marked the tail end of the Second Great Migration, a 30-year period during which 5 African Americans moved from rural areas to cities. White Flight ensued, with many middle-class families moving from cities into suburban homes, and the money went with them. Urban areas decayed while suburbs blossomed. This visualization begins in the ’70s because that’s as far back as this Census data set goes, but it’s a good starting point to show the growing aspirations of the American homeowner.
The square footage in Edlund’s home is accurate at each step of the animation. (As for the vinyl-sided, two-story, three-bedroom, two-bath house that Edlund chose to stretch, that format was actually the most commonly constructed home over the entire period–save for 1975 when a half bath was added, removed immediately in 1976, and 2013 when that half bath trick was tried again.)
But that doesn’t mean homes grew consistently over 40 years. “Perhaps naively, I expected the median home had just gotten larger and larger and larger,” Edlund tells Co.Design. “As the animation shows, the growth is a lot less straightforward, with several periods of contraction.” Indeed, in the recessions of the 1980s and the late aughts, you see blips as homes get smaller.
The data set Edlund used for the animation doesn’t capture everything. He points to now-standard luxuries like supersized kitchens with premium appliances and countertops, and bathrooms with double sinks, as trends lost in the spreadsheets of data. I’d add that you don’t see all the furniture filling those extra square feet, or the home theaters, either.
It’s a good example of how source data sets, no matter how deep or well researched, don’t often tell an entire story. And in this case, not only did we distend the average American home to the size of a small castle; we began decorating it like one, too.