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February 20, 2007

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Zillow_1_9 I've argued for a long time now that part of what's going on in cities is smaller families - 1 or 2 people - taking over spaces that once housed much larger families or even groups of families. You can see this everywhere from Brooklyn's Park Slope to Chicago's Lincoln Park, Boston's South End, and lot's of other places.  So I was  delighted to see the folks over at  Zillow have  crunched the requisite numbers. 

American families have shrunk dramatically and consistently over the past century. In 1900, the average American family was 4.6 people. By 1940 it declined to less than 4. In 1980 it slipped below 3, and  hovers around 2.5 people today. Over the same time, our houses have gotten much, much bigger.  In 1900, the average new home was about 700 square feet and most families lived in much smaller quarters than than. By 1940, the average new home was 1500 square feet where it hovered through the 60s and 70s. Before climbing to more than 2000 square feet in 1990 and around 2500 square feet today.

Zillow_2_3 Or think of it this way. In 1900 the average American family in a new home was using up about 152 square feet per person.  By 1940, each of them was consuming more than 400 square feet.  By 1990, the figure was roughly 750 square feet. And today it's about 1000 square feet each.

We don't need all that space. In many ways, big houses have become a status good. And a costly one at that. The environmental costs and impacts of our super-sized housing are a no-brainer. But there's also the tremendous opportunity costs that come from chanelling a large share of national investment and savings into real estate as  as opposed to say new technologies, new innovative industries, or improved health care?


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Interesting post. On today's Oprah (which my wife tivos).. she discussed small spaces with nate berkus (sp?) her interior design guru.

I turned to my wife and explained that this show was really for folks in expensive, urban areas.. of course, most of the spaces were in fact in places such as manhattan, seattle, sf, etc...

check out nate redesigned his a 250 square foot manhattan apartment


perhaps the big houses (mostly outside of the city) are meant so that those areas can 'attempt' to stay in the same value range as urban real estate (such as that shown on oprah)...


In addition, there are all the costs to your wallet and the environment of filling up 4,000 s.f. of housing space. With that kind of room you can have 4 or 5 televisions, a few computers, 4 queen sized beds, a princess bed (for the .5 child per household), bookshelves (which must again be filled), a dedicated movie room, art work on the walls, area rugs, tables, chairs, sofas, etc. Then of course, there's what's in your 500 s.f. garage: a couple of SUVs, all-terrain vehicles, bikes, rollerblades, etc.

No wonder it would take about 7 planet earths to supply all the materials if all 6.2 Billion earthlings lived like this.

This also helps explain the success of places like Wal-Mart and Target -- lots of inexpensive things to fill your house with.


I have a 3400 sq ft house with only 3 people (including myself) living in it. For us, it was just an opportunity we couldn't miss considering the crazy housing prices around here. It's not so much as a status symbol, but I'd be lying if I said it doesn't matter. It's more of an investment than anything else. The perks (and pains) are the side effect. I tried my best to live green: no SUV, energy efficient appliances and light bulbs, less use of water (no baths, jacuzzis, hardly use the lawn sprikles).

And yes, we like going to Walmart and Target around the area.


Remember the negative correlation of CEO home size to corporate performance? Kevin over at Evolving Excellence wrote about it a couple months ago.


And perhaps it also ties to restaurant portion sizes?



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I'm concerned about this 'big house' insanity. Every year my parents visit our relatives in Belfast and come back with stories about their great big new fancy houses. I guess I'm supposed to be impressed but I'm not. My parents, in their 70's now, consider big houses to be the be all end all. They can't understand why I want to live downtown in a small old house. They can't understand that I feel energized and grounded in my small piece of the world; to me it is a mansion. I don't need space to dream.

I don't bother trying to explain, they'd never understand. The general concept that size matters has spread like wildfire in our society. Neighbours fight with neighbours over property lines, people are eating mammoth size portions of food, SUV gas guzzlers are everywhere, theaters have to be huge, shopping has to be at large outlets, grocery stores have to be 'super' sized. It doesn’t make sense, what happened? And when?

I believe there is a huge sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment in our society. People are unfulfilled and looking for gratification, anything to get some attention and fulfillment. I think we've been raised in an uncreative mind-numbing environment and we've lost the ability to create our own lives. In school, college and university, we've been trained to not think for ourselves, but to learn what we've been told to learn. And so, after we 'finish' our education, we go to work and live our lives unable to think for ourselves. Marketers say "buy this if you want to be admired and stand out". We say, "Yes, OK, thank you". And then we wait for the next, best and newest product to hit the market.

How to reverse this trend, and hopefully help to reduce the incredible environmental damages we cause? Bring creativity back into the education system and let people learn how to learn, how to think, how to create. We can't go on like this.

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