The Flying Shingle
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Focus on the Future
Small is beautiful and eminently livable
by Michael Mehta
Sunday, January 3, 2010

After spending several hours on a cramped airplane recently, I came to the quick realization that the human body can only occupy so much physical space. In spite of this reality, it is somewhat shocking to see a long-term trend in the Western world towards larger and larger houses. For example, in the 1930s our parents or grandparents often raised families in houses that hovered around the 700 square foot mark. In the 21st century, many people now think that a 2000 square foot house is “about right,” if not a little tight! What’s startling about this trend is that as families get smaller and children “leave the nest” it’s not uncommon to see couples or even singletons rattling around in these McMansions.

This lunacy must end. In many parts of the world, people are beginning to realize that current consumption patterns, individualized modes of carbon intensive transportation, and living large places unrealistic demands on Mother Earth. Small houses represent a significant cultural and social shift that may provide several lessons about the merits of living better on a smaller scale. For the sake of argument I define small houses as falling between 100-700 square feet of covered interior floor space. But don’t try to build anything smaller than 400 square feet in British Columbia. According to Al Dick, Building Inspection Supervisor for the Regional District of Nanaimo, this is the minimum-sized house that will currently meet code.

I was inspired to consider this topic after spending many hours perusing a website created by Michael Janzen. Mr. Janzen’s website, www.tinyhousedesign.com, provides countless examples of small housing options. He was kind enough to post an open call on his website to help generate ideas for this article. I received many excellent comments, which I share with you here in a composite form.

One topic that I posed on the website was how one could measure quantitatively the ecological footprint associated with building and living in small houses.

Intuitively, this can be calculated in a variety of ways including assessing the embodied energy of construction materials, energy inputs for heating and cooling, etc. Since many people in British Columbia heat with wood, it seems obvious that smaller houses can be heated more quickly, evenly and with far less wood and its associated noxious smoke. With good design, proper alignment to capture incoming solar radiation through windows, and appropriate insulation, smaller houses require less energy to operate.

In a separate email to me on this topic, Oliver S. Holmes Jr., an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York) indicated that: “Starting with small reduces everything that happens. From construction waste, site disturbance, site runoff, using recycled materials, using materials that emit no VOC’s [volatile organic compounds] or are low VOC, to energy used to heat.” Professor Holmes cautions that special attention must be paid to ventilation issues in smaller houses especially when they are well-sealed or when materials selection results in poor indoor air quality due to chemical off-gassing.

I was pleasantly surprised by the large number of comments from people on the socio-economic dimensions associated with smaller houses. Several respondents mentioned that smaller housing is closely connected to the return to a simpler life where tight-knit communities can provide a sense of comfort that flows from living in higher density conditions and with human-scale design. By contrast, urban sprawl is a feature of many cities that have built low-density suburbs that lack diversity and green spaces, and ultimately lead to a monoculturing of the mind and soul. Believe it or not Gabriolans, high density is actually a good thing. Consider the livability of many European cities and villages.

There were also several comments about how our size fetish has created a particular kind of debt slavery that we call “the mortgage.” Smaller houses can cost considerably less and may provide people with a way to live higher quality lives in well-designed houses that don’t require decades to pay off. As one commentator wrote, “As the world economies struggle, it is nice to know your house is paid for and your garden will augment your grocery needs.”

In spite of these advantages, living in a smaller house is difficult to do in our society. There is a stigma associated with living in a small house since many people believe that their personal worth is positively correlated with the size of their house. A rampant form of consumerism that encourages us to buy unnecessary things that invariably need space to accommodate often fuels this belief. Let’s break this cycle and start living higher quality, richer lives that don’t harm the environment as much. It’s time to embrace the smaller is better movement.

Dr. Michael Mehta is a sociologist who focuses on environmental and health risk issues.

Opinions expressed in this column will usually be those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Shingle.

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