Why Smaller Homes?

Why design and build smaller homes?

In America, historically there has been plenty of space to work with, which has set up the paradigm that ‘big is better.’  Currently, the norm in selling homes is by advertising floor plan square-footage and numbers of bathrooms/bedrooms. This is a vague way of describing a home and lacks many truths about what actually makes a home appealing , healthy, and affordable. With land values escalating, building materials and labor costs increasing, and energy costs on the rise, big houses become a burden. Smaller homes are the future of home construction. Affordability, coziness, and sustainability are achievable in small homes. Terms similar to smaller homes include simplified home, down-sized home, and “Not So Big House.”
Smaller should not bring thoughts of cramped, compartmentalized, stuffy places. Nor should it be confused with “Tiny Houses.” Small in floor plan can feel large spatially if intelligently designed and laid out. Think, “Smart Spaces!” Some attributes that make a home intimate to the inhabitant are:
1. The design layout and how the inhabitant uses the spaces.
2. How volume influences perception of spatial scale, either cozy or grand.
3. Crafted details of the home and how they influence how the inhabitant feels.
4. Window orientation has a significant influence on how we feel within the home, but unfortunately, natural lighting and views are often left out of the picture in home design.
Plan of 1400 s.f. passive solar ‘Liberty House
When a home is reduced in scale, it becomes manageable. Infrastructure scale/sizing, material consumption and associated waste reduction, natural lighting or day-lighting transmittance, heat transfer, building lot size and town setback requirements, roof water shed or run-off, and energy demand are easier to analyze in a small home.
Infrastructure scale pertains to utilities like heating, electrical, plumbing, and communication networks. It may seem obvious, but the escalation in building scale increases the lineal footage of communication cables, waterlines, sewer, venting, electrical lines, roof gutters, and even walkways. Every one of these infrastructures, when reduced in scale, simplify design and construction in time, cost, and technology. What this means is a trade off: less infrastructure, more budget for the aspects of the home that make it client specific, comfortable, and beautiful.
The scale of the home directly relates to the lineal footage of construction materials that are both hidden and exposed. More wall length and floor area equals more roof area. A large home can lead to a runaway budget. Every single exterior surface needs to be insulated and the interior covered with finish materials. In many larger homes, building materials are cheapened in order to bring the budget into check. Instead of being built with beautiful and durable materials, large homes are constructed with cheap, generic, and short-lived materials.
The interior of a large home often suffers due to budget. Generic usage of cheap materials like drywall or paper based window, door, and baseboard trim are what the inhabitant lives with. Certainly, the flooring/carpeting will not be of any longevity either in order to cover the many square feet needed. For example, Pergo may look like wood, but it is just a very thin veneer of wood over paper, which when wet will expand and fall apart. Most of these cheap interior products not only look fake with fake wood grains and textures, but are also unhealthy. Most of these products are filled with glues and toxic resins. They usually are not meant to be left in their natural state and must be painted in order to look good.
One of the largest expenses in home construction is labor. Cheap materials require initial labor to install.  Sadly, due to their short life cycle, more labor is required down the road in order to tear them out and reinstall once they fail. This is where a huge compromise is made with most modern, large-scaled homes. Cheap materials are wasteful not only because they fall apart and must be replaced, but also because they are mostly non recyclable. “Built to last” is the way to save money in the long run; this requires using quality materials and construction methods. Reducing a home’s size makes a “built to last” home possible to build without taking out huge loans. Quality materials look better and can be crafted rather than ‘installed’ to give a home unique and lasting qualities. Certain materials carry not only visual impact, but allow the home to function more efficiently. For example, designing a stained concrete floor into a home not only adds to the durability of the floor, but offers mass for a passive solar heating strategy. Stained concrete floors are attractive and do not require additional flooring, reducing the total materials needed.
Rufus the cat loves radiant heating
Smaller homes, compared to large homes, share natural light better across the building, especially if the main living spaces are kept open. In large homes, natural light is usually  cut up or blocked by walls and compartmentalized rooms. A lack of natural light and views of the outdoors causes rooms to feel gloomy, requiring more electric lighting and associated infrastructure.
Daylight and views present everywhere in this computer simulation
Views and daylighting
A smaller home footprint reduces spans of rafters and joists, eliminating the need for midpoint bearing walls. With fewer walls, window views and natural light are shared across the building, reducing electric lighting energy. Living in small home with well-placed windows allows the inhabitant to feel more connected to the outdoor environment. Window views can be arranged to connect the inhabitant with trees, sky, and wildlife. Window views provide the home with ‘natural decoration.’ Natural light also tends to kill mold and mildew due to its ultraviolet wavelength.
Passive venting or across room airflow= cooling
Having fewer walls also encourages airflow throughout the home. Air movement, or convective cycles, keep the building fresh and not as stagnant, creating a healthier environment for the inhabitant. Air convection set up by heat and cold promotes an even heat exchange throughout the building without the need of fans or air-conditioning apparatuses. During the hot summer months, windows around the home can be opened to create a pressure difference across the building. This pressure difference is due to heat differences between the sunny sides and shady sides of the building. The pressure differences set up a small airflow and encourages evaporative cooling.
Large homes require more windows and doors, which are one of the more costly materials in home construction. Because of this increased cost, builders often install ‘economy’ windows and doors that are made from cheaper, less environmentally-sustainable materials (such as vinyl with inferior gasket systems). Because a small home intrinsically has fewer windows than a large home, quality, energy-efficient windows can be purchased and designed into the building. Although more expensive up front, quality windows and doors ultimately save on home energy expenses.
When choosing to build a smaller home, plan to build small with the option growing as your needs and budget grow. Plan to save materials before the home is built. Plan on using quality recycled materials by designing them into the home and saving them before construction begins. Building an affordable, functional, and beautiful home is all dependent on design.

As one can see, there is truth to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s expression “Less is More”. In this time period with rising materials and labor costs and energy becoming more expensive, small homes make more sense than large, cheaply-built, inefficient homes.


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