How big should a home be?

house areas
┬ę Lindsay Wilson/ Shrink that footprint

On TreeHugger, we keep saying that our houses are too big. Our founder, Graham Hill, even set up a company, LifeEdited, to promote the design of smaller units. In Britain, the Royal Institute of British Architects says the opposite, that their homes are too small.

house size© RIBA: The Case for Space

They write in The Case for Space:

A lack of space has been shown to impact on the basic lifestyle needs that many people take for granted, such as having enough space to store possessions or even to entertain friends. In more extreme cases, lack of adequate space for a household has also been shown to have significant impacts on health, educational attainment and family relationships.

One could also read into the data that people have the wrong kind of furniture, too much stuff and not enough insulation, or really crappy designs. As they write at Makeshift, " In a decade of affluence we found ourselves essentially constructing places of deprivation: unhealthy, small, socially-isolating, inflexible and energy-hungry dwellings."

Now it is true that the average house size in the UK, at 818 square feet, is at the small end of the average. But the average of what? The data on these unit sizes comes from Lindsay Wilson of Shrink that Footprint, and do not appear to separate the averages of houses and apartments. In Hong Kong, everyone is in apartments; in Australia, most people live in houses. (Lindsay did the Josef Albers-like graphics shown at the top; I have reformatted the data so that it is more comprehensible.)

There are some real anomalies that pop out of the data. Why are homes in Denmark almost twice the size of those across the ├śresund Bridge in Sweden? Are Japanese homes really bigger than British ones? But ignoring those issues, Lindsay Wilson nails it:

A smaller home requires less embodied energy to build, has lower heating and cooling needs, needs fewer furnishings, takes less time to maintain and requires less work to fund....In my mind if you have decent ceiling heights, good windows, clever storage and not too much stuff a little space can go a long way.

It may be that British apartments are too small. But you cannot look at the square footages in isolation, without knowing what kind of building it is, and what kind of community it is located in. Location matters as much as unit area. And as I always say: Design matters.

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