Stuffed: The Decline and Fall of the American Monster Home

“A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. … So now you got a houseful of stuff. And even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff!” ~ George Carlin, 1981

We North Americans are not known for our moderation, and (obesity rates aside) one very obvious symbol of that is the mushrooming size of our homes.

In just two generations, the size of an average North American house has almost tripled, from a modest 983 square feet in the 1950s to today’s whopping 2,349-square-foot behemoths.

By comparison, vast swaths of Europe, Southeast Asia, and the UK have resisted the trend towards sprawling homes – in the UK, for instance, new houses are just one-third as large as new houses in the United States.

average-home-size-us

1950 house vs 2010 house, compared for size, occupants and energy use. Image via WSJ.

So what exactly is driving our race for space?  For the vast majority of families, it’s definitely not kids: in fact, the North American birth rate has dropped since the ’50s from an average of 3.6 kids per family (think “post-war baby boom”) to just 1.8.

And it’s definitely not that we need to stretch out more: a study published in a fascinating book called Life at Home in the 21st Century showed that only a small portion (40%) of a home’s square footage is used with any regularity by the humans who live there.

Interestingly, that 40 percent is almost exactly the size of the modest 195os home we mentioned in the first paragraph…

So what exactly are we doing in these sprawling structures? You guessed it: we’re storing our stuff.

Image courtesy of http://tampa.standupguys.biz/hoarders-junk-home-cleanout-in-clearwater/

Recognize this suburban garage?

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal cited a study showing that 75% of home garages actually had no room to store a car. Instead, most were crammed to the rafters with a staggering 300 to 650 boxes, bins, and overflow items from the house.  And these aren’t even the folks who make it onto Hoarding – this is just that nice couple from down the street who invite you and the 1.8 over for a barbecue now and then and feed the cat while you’re away.

The same study showed a 30% increase in a family’s possessions for each new child, during the preschool years alone.

So what’s the problem with big houses?

Seriously, can’t we just live and let live? What’s the big deal?

Well, actually, there are loads of problems.

    • Houses are often far removed from city cores, which means more driving, more air pollution, more wear and tear on our roads, more congestion – and the stresses, financial and emotional, that go hand in hand with these.
    • Houses use more resources to operate: in my personal experience, the utility bill for a house can easily be five to ten times what it costs to heat and light a condo. These things are straining our power grids.
    • House neighbourhoods cost dramatically more to cover with police, fire, and other municipal services than the same number of households in a high-rise. And you, Mr Condo Dweller, are picking up part of the tab with your taxes.
    • Houses correlate with less outdoor activity and lower fitness levels than core urban areas or rural ones: just try walking to a big-box store. I dare you. (Author Bill Bryson wrote a hysterically funny article as far back as 1999 about his own attempt to walk to a bookstore in an American suburb.)
    • Houses encourage overconsumption: few home-owners can resist the siren call of vast amounts of storage space, empty walls, sprawling floor plans, and multi-car garages. “Ooooh, look at all this space,” says the eager little voice. “Let’s hit IKEA.”
    • Houses colonize more of your life and psyche to maintain. Do you want to obsess over mowing your lawn, cleaning your gutters and replacing your roof? Or save your time and brain power for planning your next trip, getting outside and living, and so on?
A heat map indicates just how little of this home is used with any regularity.

A heat map indicates just how little of this home is used with any regularity.

So what’s the answer? Comedian Bill Burr jokes that “85% of [us] have to go,” but the solution may be presenting itself already, somewhat ironically, in the form of the current generation – the first in a long, long time to have a lower standard of living than their parents.

These kids are graduating from colleges and universities with massive debt loads and dim prospects for the kind of earnings and job security their parents and grandparents enjoyed. It’s why billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban recently predicted the implosion of the US collegiate system. Not only can they not afford the cavernous homes and mounds of stuff that turned their predecessors’ cranks, but (and this is the good news) fewer of them seem to want them.

Instead, the trend is towards smaller spaces, car-share programs and public transit rather than a Buick in the driveway, telecommuting, and a general philosophy of life that favours access over ownership.

Born partly out of necessity and partly out of frustration at the Baby Boomers’ notorious excesses, this is a financial and cultural “juice fast” of sorts, and promises to be good for the environment, easier on the wallet, and lighter on the nerves than the Bacchanalian over-consumption of the last 60 years.

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Adrian Crook is a father of five living in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. He's an advocate for rental housing and public transit.
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