Monday, February 9, 2015

What size house do you want?

I spent most of my childhood in a relatively large house (not the one shown!). I now live in a house with over 3500 square feet. However, many of my adult, married years I have lived in relatively small dwellings of under 1500 square feet. My recent musings about birth rates, prosperity, and over population have prompted me to ponder the question of how large a house I - or anyone - should want.

Designs of 300 square foot houses intrigue me, though I would not want to live in one. I think it would feel cramped for two people and limit our ability to pursue activities that interest. Similarly, I have occasionally mused about living full-time in a land yacht (aka a recreational vehicle) or aboard a small boat. Neither option has ever held any attraction for my partner; if honest, my musings have more of a romantic than realistic flavor.

Originally, these musings had at least four sources. First, I found the question of whether the Soviet standard of 300 square feet of living space per person interesting. Second, I longed for financial independence and recognized that the less I spent on housing, the sooner I could achieve independence. Third, some of my early parishioners, and my predecessor in my first parish, advocated adopting self-sufficient, back-to-the-land lifestyles. I've never yearned to be a farmer, but have a sufficiently inquisitive mind to toy with the possibility. Fourth, I have a restlessness for adventure and to see what lies over the horizon in common with many of those Europeans who came to America and whose descendants pushed continually West.

More recently, I have struggled to understand why Americans and Europeans so often want to live in a large house. My partner and I wanted to live in a smaller house than we do, but could not find anything smaller of comparable quality and style. Unfortunately, our culture almost invariably defines size as the first attribute of quality, with large being better.

Historically, one reason for large houses was to accommodate a large family, often consisting of multiple, related nuclear families living together in a multi-generational setting. Another reason for having a large house was for the wealthy to accommodate the servant staff required to support that lifestyle. Technology – electric lights, power, and appliances, water and sewer systems, etc. – has made it possible for most people in economically developed states living without even one servant to have a quality of life superior to that enjoyed by the wealthy in the nineteenth century. Yet the cultural legacy of large houses lives on, not only in older homes but also in architectural preferences and expectations. Finally, some individuals want to have a large house to impress other people with their status and affluence, a motive that probably explains many recently built large houses in developed countries. Who needs – or can truly utilize – a house with 7,000 or 10,000 or even more square feet?

The technological shift from the industrial age to the electronic age is further reducing the amount of living space required to support a high standard of living. My first sound system (a childhood legacy) was a Victrola and a stack of records; the next system was a stereo housed in its own cabinet with stacks of LPs; now my music resides on my computer and an IPod. Hundreds of books in my library are digital volumes; I only have digital copies of my photographs and most of the memorabilia I've collected over the years; I have no paper files, only digital ones. The space requirements for televisions, phones, cameras (if you even own one), and other items are similarly shrinking. I can literally live better, in less space and at less cost, than the very wealthiest of prior generations.

I suspect that this trend will continue and that people with large houses will discover that they own dinosaurs for which there is little demand. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm attempting to sell my dinosaur and move to a much smaller, more ecologically friendly domicile. Sometimes good personal financial goals do align with ecological stewardship!

1 comment:

ted whalen said...

That's a picture of the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee! It's gorgeous inside and wonderful to visit. If you get a chance, you should definitely make the trip. The little cupola on the right side of the picture is part of the Pabst pavilion from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago - where Pabst claimed to have got its Blue Ribbon. It was moved to the mansion after the fair closed, and when the mansion was owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it was used as a chapel.