What Would Our Homes Look Like if Designed Around How We Use Them?

Diagram of a floor plan

J. Arnold

It's probably no secret that the American home is a bit of a porker. In 2013, the median and average new, single family house was 2,478 and 2,662 square feet respectively--higher than previous, 2007 pre- bubble figures. Compare this to 1950, when the average new home was a mere 983 square feet. And that's not all. Fewer people are living in today's home; average household sizes have shrunk from about 3.37 in 1950 to 2.55 today. And we are all probably familiar with the environmental implications of these bigger, less occupied homes: they require more resources to build and maintain, they lead to sprawl, requiring more resources to get to and from, yada, yada, yada.

But somehow the McMansion pill would be a bit easier to swallow if these big homes were used. If every bedroom was slept in, every dining room dined in, every rumpus room rumped in. Unfortunately, if we are to believe a group of UCLA researchers, such is not the case.

A book released a couple years ago called "Life at Home in the 21st Century" tracked 32 middle class Los Angelino families as they went about their daily affairs, tracking their movements and habits to see how people actually lived nowadays. With one family (#11), the researchers tracked the location of each parent and child on the first floor of the house every 10 minutes over two weekday afternoons and evenings. In other words, primetime for the family's waking hours at home.

What did they find? Basically, that Family 11 used a small fraction of the available area, with almost all traffic centered in the dining, kitchen and family rooms; the latter room’s activity focused around the TV and computer. Based on the above diagram, I would guestimate that about 400 of the 1000 or so of the first floor's available square feet are used. The rest of the spaces--the dining room, living room, porch--are, for all intents and purposes, extraneous architecture.

So the question becomes, if Family 11 is representative of the average American family, and if their home is about average size (tag an upper floor on the 1000 square feet and you're about there) why does their home have so much more room than needed? Moreover, if we were to start fresh, if we removed the influence of developers, builders, architects, realtors and legislators--most of whom have a vested interested in building bigger homes with bigger infrastructural appetites--what would the ideal single-family home look like?

A version of this post was originally published on LifeEdited.com.