Designing homes to be “everything all at once” for times when everyone is home all the time

Americans generally like private single-family homes but are the homes Americans have now designed well for confinement and sheltering in place?

Homes, whatever their size or their layout, are constructed to be part of an ecosystem. They make assumptions about the way their eventual residents will interact with the affordances, and the economies, of the outside world. They assume, generally speaking, that people will commute to work (hence, in suburbs and rural areas, the abundance of driveways and garages). They assume that people will live much of their life outside the home. And they assume that the home’s residents will, as a consequence, have access to goods produced elsewhere: groceries, games, cleaning supplies. (American refrigerators are the size they are because their designers made informed bets about how often their owners would visit a grocery store.)

Apartments in cities make similar assumptions, but in reverse: They assume that the city itself is a meaningful extension of whatever square footage a dwelling might offer. They treat the home as what it often will be, for the resident: one place among many in the rhythms of a day…

Neither scenario accounts for what many Americans are experiencing right now: home as the only place. Home as the everything. The confinement can pose, for some, a direct danger. Jacoba Urist, writing about the “tiny apartment” trend in 2013, noted that large amounts of time spent in enclosed spaces, particularly if those spaces have several occupants, can be a source of stress—especially for kids. A child-protective-services worker recently sent ProPublica a list of worries she has about the people in her care: “that my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.” Gwyn Kaitis, the policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted in the same piece that “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.”…

“In general, it’s wonderful,” Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”

There is a lot to think through here. A few thoughts on what this might mean for homes in the future:

  1. I have seen the suggestion from a few places that more Americans will seek out homes in the future that have dedicated office spaces at home. Without a room that can be closed off and relatively quiet, it can be hard to work from home when everyone else is also home.
  2. Will this push more Americans to seek out more square footage in their dwellings? The argument can go like this: you never know when you might need that extra space (such as during a pandemic). An extra room or two could be converted to office space or classroom space or food/toilet paper storage when residents need to stock up. Additionally, does this experience limit how many people will be willing to bet on a tiny house?
  3. A push toward further integration of technology into houses. If people are working from home and spending all of their time there, imagine dwellings with screens and speakers in every space, effective wi-fi everywhere, and both ample space for sitting and standing (with the need to stand and work to vary it up and move around). Carrying a laptop, a tablet, or a phone around to every interior space may not cut it.
  4. Earlier evidence suggested people congregate around the kitchen while other parts of the house go relatively unused. The kitchen might still be a gathering space but perhaps more attention and innovation will come to other spaces that in earlier times would be relatively ignored. When a bedroom has to serve more purposes, perhaps this means there will be different furniture or amenities there.

Americans like their private single-family homes – but maybe less if forced to be there

The 2000 book Suburban Nation is a New Urbanist declaration. It includes this argument regarding the public and private realms in the United States:

Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal. (41)

This comes amidst a discussion of the suburban single-family home, one of the most attractive features of suburbia for Americans. American homes are large, providing plenty of space for occupants, a range of activities, and vehicles. They can be filled with all sorts of consumer goods, from electronics to clothes to media to equipment for hobbies. Through the Internet and other connected devices, occupants can access all sorts of information, videos, music, and other parts of the world. The homes can be the single largest investment for many. They are often separated from other dwellings (or at most share a wall or two). For decades, Americans have promoted, built, and purchased such homes.

All of this may be good for many Americans but what do these private realms feel like when the occupants cannot leave? It is one thing to choose these private spaces; it is another to be pushed by outside forces to stay in them. With the spread of COVID-19, people are being encouraged to stay home. Does “the finest private realm” become confining when one cannot easily leave?

We are about to find out. Even if Americans might prefer their private realms, some might miss the public realm or the easy opportunities to visit other private realms (such as stores and shopping malls). This may not lead to a revival of public spaces but it might remind some homeowners that the private realm has limitations.

Paper suggesting Americans adopt sufficiency limits for the size of homes

A new study looks at what amount of space might be sufficient for American single-family homes:

Social scientists have extensively documented the strategies used over the past century to purposefully upsize the preferences of consumers in high-income countries (Collins 2000; Nickles 2002; Cohen 2003; Horowitz 2004; Clarke 2007; Jacobs 2015). These practices became increasingly prevalent during the years following World War II and have been revamped and augmented to encompass an ever-expanding array of products. The most notable example of this phenomenon – abetted by builders, architects, realtors, mortgage bankers, public-policy makers, and numerous others is housing which in particular has in the United States, Canada, and Australia approximately tripled in size in just a half-century. This process of residential upsizing is understandable as individuals and organizations were for the most part responding to prevalent social and economic incentives and investing a portion of the gains accruing from increasing productivity and rising incomes into more spacious accommodation. While the trend contributed to unambiguous improvements in standards of living, evidence is now emerging that the process of residential upsizing is not contributing to gains in “house satisfaction” (Bellet 2019).

However, the contemporary era, characterized by climate change, economic inequality, and deep social divisions, requires new priorities. Rather than looking to enlargement as a panacea for all manner of problems, the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require high-income countries to pursue a sustainable consumption transition. The downscaling of home size, because of the substantial volumes of resources required to meet residential needs, will be a critical part of this undertaking. While the methodology to formulate a minimum social floor and a maximum biophysical ceiling is necessarily provisional, it provides a place from which to begin to consider this important issue.

And from a summary of the article:

In the U.S., average floor space per person would need to be reduced from 754 square feet to 215 square feet, which perhaps surprisingly, is roughly comparable to the amount of space available during the baby boom of the 1950s.

While Cohen acknowledges the myriad political, commercial and cultural challenges of imparting such a sufficiency ceiling on current housing practices, he highlights five examples that he asserts point to shifting sensibilities: the tiny-house movement in the United States; the niche market for substantially smaller houses and apartments in the Nordic countries; the construction of accessory dwelling units in west coast cities of North America; the growing popularity of micro-apartments in New York City and San Francisco; and the emergence of co-living/co-working facilities in Europe.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There are a lot of factors pushing Americans toward bigger houses in recent decades. Pushing against these factors would require a lot of time and energy. For example, reducing consumption might help people think about smaller spaces.
  2. Given the local nature of building and real estate, I have a hard time imagining this happening top-down. On the other hand, I could imagine some locales adopting such guidelines and then it spreading to similar locations or even the whole country. At the least, it could be popular in expensive real estate markets – think Bay Area or Seattle – though it would be interesting to see how wealthier homeowners deal with such guidelines. Perhaps if it was instituted for a housing units going forward, there would still be a supply of big homes for those that want them.
  3. Related to #2, I would guess more Americans would be motivated to pursue smaller homes because of cost and lifestyle preferences, not because of environmentalism and realizing that single-family homes make significant contributions to carbon emissions and require a lot of resources.
  4. How much of this is dependent on building a better public realm? People might be more willing to give up private space if they saw attractive alternatives like coffee shops, libraries, and other public settings where they could live their lives. Americans do not have developed public living spaces or many do not have regular patterns of spending important hours away from their private homes.

Seeing the nuclear family in a suburban single-family home as a historical blip

David Brooks argues the idealized American family in the suburbs is a historical anomaly:

For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”

During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.

Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.

In a sweeping historical perspective, Brooks is right (nor is he the first to make this argument): the American arrangement of small nuclear families in large private homes is unusual. It is even relatively unusual among contemporary living arrangements throughout the world. Fifty years from now, will this period look even more like a historical blip?
And yet, the idea has a strong hold on American life. This particular lifestyle became a significant part of the American Dream, supported by the federal government, promoted by films and television, and defining much of popular twentieth century sprawling suburbs. To move away from this ideal will take some work, even if there are reasons pushing Americans away from this life. Brooks proposes some different alternatives, from multigenerational dwellings to cohousing, but each will take time to develop. It is hard enough to get politicians to talk about housing, let alone discuss all the social arrangements and family life attached to it.
At the least, this is a reminder of how social arrangements can come together through a  confluence of forces and come to seem like normal – until things have changed.

Racialized McMansions

When I examined the complexity of the term McMansion in New York City and Dallas newspapers, I did not run into this dimension from the San Gabriel Valley as detailed by Wendy Cheng in The Changs Next Door to the Díazes:

In early twenty-first-century multiethnic suburbs with a significant immigrant Chinese presence such as the West SGV, struggles over the landscape are still racially coded in terms of values and territory. For instance (as mentioned in Chapter 2), public discourse around McMansions or “monster homes” – a practice associated with wealthy ethnic Chinese immigrants of tearing down a newly purchased house in order to build a larger house, usually resulting in significant reduction of yard space – is one way in which Asian immigrants are depicted as being unable to conform to American values and ideals. Such practices render them unfit as neighbors and, by extension, as members of American civil society. In short, places coded as Chinese or Asian, like the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinatowns before them, continue to be seen either as threats encroaching on implicitly white, American suburban space or as autonomous foreign spaces that serve particular functions but are not to exceed their prescribed bounds. The prescription and negotiation of these bounds is a conflictual process, with both symbolic and material consequences. (133-134)

Here, the term McMansion is fulfilling two dimensions of the term McMansion I discussed: it is meant as a pejorative term and it applies to a situation where a property owner tears down a home and constructs a larger home. Both are common uses for the term.

Typically, McMansion concerns involve wealthier and white residents. The term can have classist connotations: the nouveau riche may purchase a McMansion to show off their wealth while those with more taste would purchase a modernist home or go a custom architect-designed home. In this particular context, McMansion is applied to a particular group of owners as well as their position in the community and the country. This is not just about a newcomer coming in with resources and disrupting a particular neighborhood character. This usage links McMansions to a broader history of race and ethnicity plus ongoing conflicts in many American communities, suburbs included, about who is welcome. Single-family homes are not the only feature of the suburban American Dream; this ideal also includes exclusion by race and ethnicity. And to welcome a new resident with the term McMansion is not intended to be a kind beginning.

I will look for further connections of McMansions to race and ethnicity. Are there other communities in the Los Angeles area where McMansion is used in similar ways? Is the term applied to other racial or ethnic groups in other places?

Researching the downsizing claim: “every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did”

A recent book looks at downsizing and the author says everyone who does it is pleased with the outcome:

“It scares people to think of moving into a smaller space, but every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did,” Koones says. “Time and again, people used the word ‘liberated’ to describe their move to a smaller space, with homes requiring far less time and money to maintain.”

Who are the people downsizing?

“It’s not just empty nesters anymore,” she adds. “Younger people too are in couples where they’re both working, they’re having children later, they want to be active and they don’t want to be doing maintenance on the weekends. They don’t want to be tied down to mowing lawns and doing all the other chores that come with living in a big house.”

Living more sustainably and saving on energy costs is also part of the attraction of downsizing, Koones says.

So is aging in place. There are people of all ages looking for features like a master bedroom on the main floor, or barrier-free showers.

I would be interested to see academic studies of this shift as it could help answer some questions regarding downsizing and the choices people make regarding homes. Here are some of the questions:

1. How widespread is downsizing? My guess is that it is a pretty small movement. In a related question, how do individual decisions to downsize work at a broader level? These choices could influence families, neighborhoods, communities, builders, and others.

2. How much do the people who are downsizing share in common? There are multiple possible reasons for downsizing – economic reasons (including saving on energy costs), wanting less space to maintain, environmental imperatives, prizing location over a home – and it would be interesting to look at more prevalent factors. A similar question: what drives people to downsize (when Americans as a whole are pushed toward larger homes)? Or, is there a particular cultural ethos about downsizing that can be persuasive for some and not others?

3. What are satisfaction rates after downsizing? Are downsizers 100% satisfied or somewhat satisfied and what downsides do they report? Do they stay in smaller homes for the long-term?

4. How exactly should we define downsizing? It looks like this book primarily focuses on single-family homes. Others might see a move away from a single-family home and its property to an apartment, condo, or townhome as downsizing or accomplishing some of the same goals even if the difference in square feet is not that much. Is choosing to live in a multigenerational home a form of downsizing if households are combined and there is reduction of square feet per person? An involuntary move to a care facility might be technically downsizing but it does not carry the same agency.

The spread of upzoning and metropolitan regions

A number of cities and states in the United States have changed zoning guidelines or are considering changes to allow multiple housing units in what used to be areas just for single-family homes:

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively abolished zoning that restricts neighborhoods to owner-occupied, single-family dwellings. Oregon has done so in its largest municipalities, and Californians, like residents of Salt Lake City, are now free to build small cottages, sometimes called “granny flats,” for use as rentals in neighborhoods that were previously single-family only…

Before World War II, only about 13% of Americans lived in a suburb; now more than half of us do, and as the New York Times reported, in many American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned for single family use only.

In some cities, the share is even higher: in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, 84% of residential land is zoned single-family; in San Jose, California, 94% is, according to a Times analysis in collaboration with UrbanFootprint…

Other states with single-family zoning in the legislative crosshairs in 2020 include Virginia and Maryland, where House Delegate Vaughn Stewart says upzoning can correct social-justice issues, as well as housing problems. “For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart told Kriston Capps of CityLab.

Sonia Hirt, quoted in this article, argues that single-family homes drive zoning in the United States as the goal is to protect homes and homeowners from uses they find less desirable, threatening to a residential character, and negatively impact property values.

As someone who studies suburbs, zoning, and housing, here are a few thoughts about the future of these changes:

  1. Making changes at the city or municipal level will be easier or more palatable to more voters who tend to like local control over land use decisions. If zoning changes are made at the state level, it will be harder to enforce the guidelines or penalize communities that do not comply.
  2. Wealthier communities will fight hard to avoid these zoning changes. Part of the appeal for some to move to wealthier suburbs is to keep others out and have a particular aesthetic (and these homeowners usually are not looking for more density).
  3. Adding some accessory dwellings throughout single-family home neighborhoods may not change the character of communities much but asking for bigger changes – multi-family housing, apartments, condos, turning large single-family homes into multiple units – on a bigger scale will be a tough sell in many communities.

These difficulties suggest progress in providing more affordable housing or more housing units could be slow. If change and enforcement primarily happens at the local level, this limits the ability of regions to address affordable housing issues because the problem simply becomes one that other communities should address. Housing, like transportation or water, is an issue that benefits greatly from the cooperation of all actors in a region. While it is a difficult topic to address at this level, let alone a national level, significant progress requires broader cooperation and efforts.