The capacity of a big box store with COVID distancing guidelines

Big box stores are ubiquitous in the United States today. From Walmart to Costco to Home Depot and more, they line major roadways and attract many shoppers. Outside of briefly considering how many people could fit into one of the buildings during Black Friday shopping or when seeing an empty building serve as a COVID-19 vaccine site, I do not regularly contemplate the capacity of the structures.

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Yet, in a recent trip to a nearby Target, I saw a sign stating how many people could be in the store given COVID-19 distancing guidelines. The number: 672 people. If that is the crowd allowed during COVID-19, the capacity during regular times must be quite a bit higher. Here are some numbers for Walmart stores in April 2020 when they imposed restrictions:

Starting Saturday, Walmart stores will allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet of space. The restrictions will keep the stores at roughly 20% of their capacity, the company said. The average Walmart store is about 180,000 square feet. About 900 shoppers would be permitted in a store that size under the new restrictions.

From these numbers, the regular capacity for a 180,000 square foot store would be about 4,500 customers. The name big box store does not then solely refer to square footage; at full capacity a single store could hold more people than a small town or more than many full high school buildings.

Even during COVID-19, a large number of people are allowed in the building. I have been to big box stores during COVID but I do not think the stores were ever close to the reduced capacity. This does not mean I was not close to other customers; big box stores are set up like suburban subdivisions where foot traffic is funneled to main arteries (primary roads) and different sections have their own aisles (side streets). Still, there was a lot of room to operate in buildings that sometimes can seem to stretch out to the horizon.

Quarantining at home away from other residents, considering the size of the home and the layout

For roughly a year and a half, numerous Americans have quarantined themselves not just from work or school but from the other members of their households. Having more room in the residence and having particular floor plans would seem to help.

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First, having more square feet would allow the residents to keep more distance and could provide the quarantined person more space to operate. Quarantining for a week or two could feel more burdensome if someone is restricted to a small room or portion of a residence. Space provides options for rearrangement.

Second, square footage might not be everything as the floor plan can matter. Large common spaces, a regular feature of many newer homes, would be off-limits. A more closed-off floor plan with separated rooms might work better. Even better could be a separate wing – imagine a bedroom and bathroom on one side of the house or on another level than the other bedrooms. For example, a split-level could be split between the quarantined and everyone else. Or, an in-law suite or numerous bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. In contrast, a ranch home with all the bedrooms near each other and a large living space might limit options.

Few people likely purchased their homes or rented particular places with a pandemic in mind. But, considering medical issues is not out of the question for many when looking for a place to live. Think of mobility concerns or aging in place. Or, if someone has a serious illness, where might a hospital bed fit or how would an alternative sleeping arrangement work out?

All I have is anecdotal evidence on this through observing the setups of people on social media. It appears most just block off a bedroom or office type of space in the home for the quarantined person. This works well if you have extra space or a room that is used occasionally. I suspect this is not so easy with less space or a layout that makes it difficult to isolate a single person.

Big drop in construction of starter homes of under 1,400 square feet

For younger adults looking for smaller homes to purchase as their first home, there at least one reason they are not easy to find: few have been built in recent years.

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The supply of entry-level housing, which Freddie Mac defines as homes up to 1,400 square feet, is near a five-decade low, and data on new construction from the National Association of Home Builders shows that single-family homes are significantly bigger than they were years ago.

Homeowners from previous generations had access to smaller homes at the start of their financial lives. In the late 1970s, an average of 418,000 new units of entry-level housing were built each year, according to data from Freddie Mac. By the 2010s, that number had fallen to 55,000 new units a year. For 2020, an estimated 65,000 new entry-level homes were completed…

“What was really striking to me was the consistency in the decline in the share of entry-level homes, irrespective of geography,” Mr. Khater said. “The thing that struck me the most was that really, it’s all endemic. It’s all over the U.S. It doesn’t matter where.”…

Homeownership leads to greater wealth for those who buy earlier. An analysis from the Urban Institute estimates that those who became homeowners between the ages of 25 and 34 accumulated $150,000 in median housing wealth by their early 60s. Meanwhile, those who waited until between the ages of 35 and 44 to buy netted $72,000 less in median housing wealth.

Three things stand out to me from this article:

  1. The decline in the construction of these smaller homes is real. The numbers cited above suggest roughly 15% of these smaller homes are constructed now compared to the late 1970s.
  2. At the same time, the definition of an entry-level homes is contingent on square footage. These days, 1,400 square feet is not that large for a home. These standards have changed over the decades; new homes in the 1950s in Levittown were more around 1,000 square feet while many new homes today are over 2,500 square feet. As builders construct larger homes (presumably making more money) and some buyers want larger homes, what is now an entry-level home may have changed.
  3. The final paragraph above considers the wealth implications about being able to buy a home earlier on. This is important: homes are one of the biggest generators of wealth for Americans. Yet, this also marks a shift in viewing homes as investments as opposed to good spaces for people to live.

In the past year, Americans moved to less expensive but bigger homes

A new report from Zillow shows what kinds of homes Americans chose in the last year:

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By and large, Americans chose bigger — and less expensive — homes, particularly if they moved across state lines. Zillow’s analysis looked at data from North American Van Lines, a trucking company based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This was “a notable reversal of trends from prior years,” Zillow economist Jeff Tucker said in the report.

The average home value in the ZIP codes that movers left was $419,344, versus $392,381 for the ZIP codes they relocated to. That represents a difference of roughly $27,000.

But a cheaper home doesn’t mean a smaller one. While the average size of the homes movers left behind was the largest since Zillow began tracking this data in 2016, the average size of the new homes people chose was even larger. The average difference in size, according to the analysis, was 33 square feet…

This is allowing Americans to get the most bang for their buck in the housing market, rather than needing to sacrifice affordability or space in the name of living closer to urban centers.

Is this a perfect distillation of the American Dream at this period of history? “The biggest house for the least amount of money.”

I wonder how this might affect broader patterns regarding the size of American homes. The size of new houses grew steadily from 1950 on but has leveled off in recent years. At the same time, I could imagine a scenario where small shifts as described above help keep inching up the size of American homes. Here is how this might work:

  • From the summary, it sounds like people moved, on average, to slightly bigger houses. Having 33 more square feet is not that much – imagine a 5.5 x 6 foot space (bathroom? mudroom? closet?) – but it is an increase.
  • There does seem to be some interest in not living in McMansions or extra-large houses (see a recent example). Some have suggested prior generations wanted crazy amounts of space while younger adults today want more reasonably sized homes.
  • So imagine the standard size of a “small house” keeps inching up – there are fewer starter homes so people go to bigger houses, new or old, to start – while there is less interest in homes 4,000 square feet and up (which relatively few Americans owned in the first place). In other words, the size of American homes move more because truly small homes are phased out and truly large homes fall more out of favor.

A purchased home does not need to be a McMansion to be a bigger home compared to past standards or even smaller units today.

Putin’s palatial McMansion?

McMansions are big but not usually too big. At some point, they become a mansion. Does it make sense then to compare a structure that may have been built for Vladmir Putin to a McMansion? Here is the argument:

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That film is Putin’s Palace, an expose of the Versailles-scaled estate Russian President Vladimir Putin has allegedly constructed for himself on the Black Sea. Produced and narrated by Alexei Navalny, the now-jailed activist and opposition leader, the film runs to nearly two hours and has been viewed more than 106 million times on YouTube — almost certainly record viewing for any film on architecture…

Located outside the seaside town of Gelendzhik, it is almost comically lavish, a virtual Kremlin-on-the-sea, surrounded by vineyards and protected by multiple levels of security, including a no-fly zone overhead. According to the film, it has its own church, a sculpture garden, a boulevard lined by rare trees, an arboretum (with 40 gardeners to keep it up), an amphitheater, an underground hockey rink (Navalny: “Who needs a palace in which you cannot play hockey?”), an amphitheater, a guest house accessed by a 260-foot-long bridge, a power station, staff dormitories, an operations center, a pair of helipads and its own gas station…

But Cirillo is no Rastrelli, and so while the palace apes the scale and grandiosity of the Hermitage, it lacks the essential dignity of the original, its sense of imperial grandeur. It is, in effect, a McMansion scaled up to palatial level, with the kind of amenities you’d find in an upscale suburban development in North Dallas: indoor pool, home theater, gym, bar, closet space galore…

Besides the tawdry detailing and construction, the essential difference between the palace and its historical models is conceptual. The great palaces were not just residences, but public expressions of an all-encompassing philosophical framework that reflected the monarch’s godlike presence across the entire physical and intellectual space of empire.

With this argument, a McMansion is defined less by its size but more in how it tries to imitate established styles or buildings and fails. Imitating the palaces of the past is not necessarily easy to do and the project can instead turn into a farce.

I wonder if it can also go the other way: can a McMansion be scaled down to a much smaller size? Imagine a McMansion tiny house that attempts to replicate a larger dwelling. Or, even a relatively small house that tries to do too much in borrowing elements.

Perhaps this argument works an additional way. Labeling any house or building a McMansion immediately casts the structure in a negative light. Putin and McMansion can be an easy link for those critical of his actions. Of course someone like that would live in a McMansion rather than a coherent architectural marvel? I have read many stories of how powerful people create outsized structures meant to display their prestige and power. Do such people often create architectural marvels or do they tend toward McMansion territory?

America is #1, self-storage space edition

Americans need extra space for all of their stuff and the self-storage industry has the solution:

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It was in Texas that self-storage originated, in the 1960s. The industry has flourished since then, and the United States now has 2.5 billion rentable square feet, at least 90 percent of such space in the world; over the same period, the average size of an American single-family home nearly doubled, and the average number of occupants fell by a quarter. This suggests that self-storage was not an inevitable convenience but something else, perhaps an indicator of national psychopathology…

Millennials, it is often reported, are uninterested in their boomer parents’ abundant accumulated possessions. Might this hurt the storage industry? They also have the highest storage use of any generation, with one fifth of households. (Millennials, and city dwellers, are also likeliest to choose the inscrutable survey response of having “personally experienced” “living in their units.”) Another idly theorized threat to the storage industry is the success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The idea seems dubious: consumer storage use recently reached 10 percent of U.S. households, and if anything threatens the business, it would be the pandemic, which appears to have spawned vacancies and depressed rents. It is plausible, however, that a number of Americans attempted a Kondo purge—getting rid of possessions that failed to spark joy, often thanking them for their service before relinquishing them—but wound up storing those things. Since Kondo’s sensibility derives from both Zen’s ideal of nonattachment and Shinto’s respect for the animate dignity of the “inanimate” world, it would be an acute irony for these objects to become imprisoned, like the diverse species of Japanese undead, in a state of irresolution.

Even as Americans have the largest new houses on average in the world and may purchase these homes to store their stuff, many need even more space. There are multiple reasons for this: an emphasis on consumerism; difficulty in parting with objects; lots of land for self-storage as well as relatively low costs for storage; disposable income. Kicking the acquisition cycle can be hard to do.

Two additional thoughts: some argue Americans consume to show off or display their status. But, using self-storage is truly a private act. If items are stored there, they cannot be at your home or in your yard or on hand to use.

Second, if only 10 percent of Americans are using self-storage, there is more money to be made! Imagine a country where tiny houses become more normal but people cannot part with all of their goods and need to store them somewhere. Or, as noted above, Baby Boomers cannot interest their family in all they have accumulated and resale stores and markets are flooded with too many items. Or, some fancy self-storage system where drones find and deliver goods when owners want them.

Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

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He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

Debating the connection between larger houses and fewer children present

A working paper from an Australian researcher investigates what happens to children who grow up in large homes with relatively few people inside. Here is some of the debate thus far:

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“My working hypothesis is that children now grow up too isolated within their own homes,” he said. “Too often, they have separate bedrooms and living spaces when they would instead benefit from more interaction with other siblings and adults.”…

Australians builds the second biggest houses in the world after the US, according to a report by CommSec and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which also found the average floor size of an Australian home (houses and apartments) was 189 square metres in 2018-19.

About 4 per cent of Australian households are considered overcrowded, or require additional bedrooms for the number of occupants, Professor Dockery said. “The vast majority of children simply do not grow up in homes that are crowded,” he said. “It appears they grow up in homes that are too empty.”…

Paul Burton, director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University, said overcrowding was a problem when it was a product of economic necessity rather than a choice.

I wonder if this possible issue extends to both countries with big houses – with the United States and Australia leading the way – and countries with lower birth rates where the homes may be smaller but there are fewer children. In the latter case, other features of social life might mitigate the problem of fewer people at home including more social ties and and more participation in public spaces. It may not just be the homes are larger in certain places; the emphasis on private space and private lives could be influential.

How much of this issue might be related to technology? I am thinking of Jean Twenge’s argument regarding the introduction of the iPhone and its affects on teenagers and young adults. It is not just about private space; it is using that space to interact virtually or in a technologically mediated way rather than having face-to-face interaction. (Or, for a previous generation, having a television in the kid’s bedroom limited interaction around the family television.)

And another thought: these large homes may have fewer people but they could be filled with a lot of stuff. It may not be just fewer people to interact with but more objects, material items a child sees and interacts with. This could include screens but also toys, clothes, decorations, and clutter. Does all of this decrease sociability?

Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes

Large homes and McMansions do not just take up land and resources at construction; according to a new study, they have larger carbon footprints. Here is the abstract:

aerial photography of gray houses

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Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Using data on 93 million individual households, we estimate these GHGs across the contiguous United States and clarify the respective influence of climate, affluence, energy infrastructure, urban form, and building attributes (age, housing type, heating fuel) in driving these emissions. A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

More from the study linking energy use, wealth, and housing size:

We find that both household energy use and emissions per square meter vary widely across the country, driven primarily by thermal energy demand and the fuel used in electricity production (“grid mix”). ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together. City and neighborhood analyses underscore the environmental benefits of denser settlement patterns and the degree to which carbon-intensive electrical grids counteract these benefits.

Bigger homes require more energy to heat, cool, and light. Wealthier people can afford these expenses. Indeed, being able to shoulder all of these costs with a larger home may be a form of conspicuous consumption: “I have enough resources to live in a larger home and maintain it.” Critics of McMansions argue that such homes are meant to impress those who see them, not necessarily great spaces for residents to inhabit.

The study also connects the findings to possibilities for making single-family homes more green. The models work with two options: (1) retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient and (2) reducing power generated with fossil fuels (“grid decarbonization”). Yet, there are other options to pursue that could help with the situation:

1. Promoting the construction of or the inhabiting of smaller homes. This could range from tiny houses to the “not-so-big home” to smart-sizing or down-sizing. This may require more significant lifestyle changes – cutting on consumption would be difficult – that are too hard for many people.

2. Promoting fewer single-family homes. While they are the basis of suburban life and popular in many other American communities, multi-family housing is more energy efficient. Given the rhetoric surrounding suburbs (such as President Trump claiming Democrats want to abolish suburb), this may not be easy.

3. Promoting less energy use within homes. What if residents used less heat, air conditioning, and lighting? What if they watched less TV and used their phones and computers less? Again, this might require large lifestyle changes that many would find difficult.

4. Constructing newer homes with much stricter energy guidelines, perhaps even net-zero-energy homes or passive houses. Even if these are restricted to wealthier homeowners who can afford the changes, this could help limit the energy use of larger homes. Also, if such homes are viewed by the public as cool or desirable, perhaps these features trickle down.

5. Could wealthier homeowners purchase carbon offsets for their homes? This would allow them to keep their bigger structures while providing funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

The scenarios in the paper as well as the ones I proposed all require working multiple sectors of society to get to a place where homes, particularly large ones, use less energy.

Recent market interest in large homes

With COVID-19, large homes have been moving on the real estate market:

purple flowers and white concrete building

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Preferences vary by price range and region, but buyers in every market are eyeing extra space. “I would say [buyers are looking at] a 20% to 30% increase in size, whether in the number of bedrooms or square footage,” said Stephanie Anton, who was until recently the president Luxury Portfolio International. [She was interviewed for this story before she announced on June 23 she was leaving her post]. “It’s a jump-up a category or two across the board.”

Versions of this trend are playing out in markets all over the U.S., making it an opportune moment for sellers looking to unload extra acreage, and a time for interested buyers to move quickly…

Whatever the terminology, extra-large properties that might have languished on the market in recent years are seeing a sudden spike in interest, while owners who had previously considered downsizing are suddenly deciding to stay put…

Now that buyers are looking at the long haul of multiple generations working, studying, exercising, and living under one roof, demands for space have expanded accordingly.

On one hand, this is not surprising. This lines up with numerous other media reports that people are searching out suburban properties in which they can spread out inside and outside.

On the other hand, there are several interesting features of these patterns:

  1. The article notes that buyers of these large properties are not interested in McMansions or homes that might be considered McMansions. The negative nature of the term is clearly known. Yet, are these recently hot properties McMansions? I would guess at least a few might be. And once COVID-19 passes, will the appearance of these purchased properties become an issue?
  2. The multiple articles I have read on this trend provide few numbers. There is confirmation from local real estate experts in multiple markets but no hard numbers of how many people are purchasing large suburban houses. At the least, there are not a whole lot of people who can do this, particularly in more expensive markets. Moving from Manhattan to an outer suburb will get you a bigger property but not as much as moving out to a cheaper region.