Kendra Pierre-Louis is a writer, researcher, environmental strategist, and author of the 2012 book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Kendra wishes more people would hop on the small house bandwagon if not for the planet, than at least to cut down on housekeeping time. She can be found online and on Twittter.
Despite my strong sustainability credentials, I sometimes feel unqualified to speak out on the evils of big houses. There is no priest nearby, so it is to you that I make this confession: although I eviscerate the big house trend in my book Green Washed I have never lived in a big house.
My current home, a studio apartment in the New York City borough of Queens spans a spacious 220 square feet, somewhere in between the Popomo and the Bodega. My childhood home – which quite comfortably housed my mother, father and older sister – clocks in at a mere 1,120 square feet. This was totally normal square footage for 1955 when the house was built (though still some 246 square feet larger than the largest of the Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, but positively Lilliputian by modern standards. In 2010 median house size spanned some 2,169 square feet (and that’s after three years of house size deflation).
A view from Kendra’s favorite small house ever – a century old, single story house in rural Vermont
Did I mention these bigger houses also house fewer people?
I confess this fact of my limited exposure to larger homes because it’s easy for us of the small house clan to rest on the intellectual superiority of our position. The science shows that smaller houses require fewer materials to build, require less energy to heat and to cool, and better coexist with the population densities that have been linked to environmentally and socially sustainable lifestyles. And though, a well-designed small house may cost more per square foot to build, they’re cheaper to build and cheaper to maintain.
Check and mate, right?
And yet, lots of people love big houses. As a relatively eco-aware friend once told me, “I grew up in a 4,000 square foot home and it was gorgeous – one day I’ll have a similarly sized home.”
Why yes, we’re still talking.
Like the experience of being able to talk to our family via intercom like one acquaintance I know who was raised in a large sprawling home in suburban, New Jersey.
In contrast, when my mother wanted me for something she was more old school – she hollered; imagine how much her vocal cords could have been saved by a comprehensive intercom system necessitated by big house living?
Here’s another benefit to big houses– you can host a lot of people.
When a friend needed to host a wide number of friends and family because of a family emergency, a family friend was able to roll out the red carpet courtesy of not one, not two, but of four guest bedrooms.
You never know when you’ll have to host an entire basketball team on a moment’s notice.
Finally, let’s not forget the absolute best thing that large homes afford us: the opportunity to ignore our family members by never, ever, existing within the same space.
In grad school I lived in a ramshackle cottage with questionable heat and plenty of personality with two other roommates, and it was the first time I noticed this curious trend. Namely, the less house per occupant – uniformly inhabited by strangers who had agreed to live with each other sight unseen courtesy of my grad school’s e-mail list serve – the closer the roommates became over time, even when on the surface they shared nothing in common (i.e. bacon loving, pot smoking, alcohol drinking atheists sharing a place with extremely devout, hijab wearing Muslims). Small spaces are intimate spaces and force us to get along or go our separate ways.
I’m not saying it’s not possible to have these things in a big house.
It’s just harder.
And that, I think is the most compelling argument for tiny houses isn’t an environmental one – but a social one.