Regardless of size, good housing design exercises restraint.
Maybe you’ve heard about tiny houses. By agreed-upon definition, they are less than 400 square feet, which is about 85% smaller than a median-sized new home.
Tiny homes are predictably less expensive (usually selling for about $60,000 to $70,000) than bigger homes, and they’ve proved popular with younger buyers. They’re popping up most often on small lots in iffy urban neighborhoods or on wooded lots in remote areas. A handful of off-site builders manufacture tiny houses, and 84 Lumber, a large building supply dealer, sells pre-built tiny houses.
This is not to say tiny houses are a big trend. As it is, only 1% of the houses sold in the U.S. are smaller than 1,000 square feet, and not many of them are officially tiny houses.
However, new homes are starting to shrink ... a bit. The median size of a new house hit an all-time high of about 2,500 square feet in 2015. Since then the median size has declined about 4% to 2,400 square feet. Housing analysts attribute the decline to the long-awaited strengthening of the first-time buyer market. With a stronger economy, improving job market, somewhat relaxed mortgage lending standards, and increased rates of marriage, millennials are in the hunt for smaller, more affordable houses. And builders have responded, led by the country’s biggest companies, almost all of whom have launched lines of smaller, less expensive homes.
Nonetheless, a lot of big homes are being built and sold. About one-third of new homes built each year are over 3,000 square feet, and 10% are more than 4,000 square feet. It’s almost impossible that a house 10 times bigger than a typical tiny house can be as cute as its smaller cousin, but I’m hopeful that the kind of restraint that characterizes tiny-house design can influence the design of larger new homes.
To that end, I propose the following 10 anti-McMansion design commandments:
1. Thou shalt not build a house with turrets, as it is unlikely to be attacked by hostiles or provide shelter for a damsel in distress.
2. Thou shalt not build a house with an echo-inducing two-story foyer with a marble floor and crystal-like chandelier, with a double staircase thrown in for good measure.
3. Thou shalt not build a house with a three-car garage as the dominant street-facing feature.
4. Thou shalt not build a house with windows of many shapes and sizes, all with mismatched mullions.
5. Thou shalt not build a house with a whirlpool tub big enough for five NFL offensive lineman. (Roy Jacuzzi told me his research indicates whirlpool tubs are used on average no more than five times a year.)
6. Thou shalt not build a house with exceptionally tall columns. (The big, thick columns on Mount Vernon sturdily stand in contrast.)
7. Thou shalt not build a house with seven gables when two would be more than enough.
8. Thou shalt not build a big, big house on a small, small lot.
9. Thou shalt not build a house with a façade that telescopes in and out. (Again, think of Mount Vernon with its elegant, flat façade.)
10. Thou shalt not put an arch and half round window over the front door.
I could go on but won’t, figuring by now many of you are seething. (However, for those of you who want more, check out the website McMansion Hell.)
In the end, the point I’m trying to make is that good housing design really means keeping it simple, be the house big or small.