Living larger

Americans crave space to live in and closets to hold clutter. But it hasn't always been this way.

Ever hear of maladaptation? Antlers on certain species of deer grow so big that instead of promoting survival, scientists think such appendages hinder it.

For humans, especially the American variety, a house can serve the function of stately antlers or brilliant plumes: It's a symbol of wealth and status, and sometimes of desirability. But with megahomes like 12,000-square-foot mansions in the Hamptons pushing the limits of extravagance, experts are reevaluating the logic of these lavish statements.

Setha Low, professor of environmental psychology and anthropology at City University of New York, suggests the American homeowner may have developed a maladaptation. A 26-car garage? A living room with 30-foot ceilings? A three-story foyer? These are hardly necessities.

In extreme cases, homeowners vying for space are clashing with neighbors. Virginia McAlester, author of "A Field Guide to American Houses," tells of a recent incident near her Dallas home. According to Ms. McAlester, a childless couple became embroiled in a legal battle with local officials because they wanted to build a 350-square-foot closet onto their historic home.

As long as the market permits, there may be no ceiling to this trend. Americans are eking out every square inch of living space from land that is increasingly scarce. In 1950, the average single-family dwelling was a compact 983 square feet. Today, the average is 2,225 square feet of stretching space. Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies sums it up: "We are, by just about all measures, the best housed that we have ever been."

The house as a consumer product

Never mind that "home is where the heart is," and countless variations on that theme. The American house consists of manufactured parts that can be packaged, shipped, and glued together. It is subject to fashion trends. It can be bought and sold.

Moreover, a house is a silo for thousands of other products, from Sub-Zero refrigerators to trendy heated bathroom tiles. Storage, once the default function of the attic, is now an industry unto itself, as the success of stores like Hold Everything attests. And multimedia "stuff" - books, CDs, videotapes - is competing for space with traditional bric-a-brac.

"We're developing a new Victorian era of clutter," says Richard Guy Wilson, chairman of the University of Virginia's architectural history department in Charlottesville. Bookshelves are a hot commodity because books are relatively cheaper, not because we've all become avid readers, he notes.

Clifford Clark, author of "The American Family Home" and a professor of American Studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., agrees. "Garages were smaller [in the first half of the century] because people had only one car. Closets were smaller because people had smaller wardrobes."

The kitchen and the bathroom - both rooms that went from merely functional spaces to public showcases - typify the rise of consumerism in this century. By the 1920s, popular magazines egged on homeowners with ads that asked readers: "What will your guests think of your bathroom?" These same publications featured appliances glistening on kitchen countertops.

Eventually, what was a luxury became a matter of comfort. "Once you've worked in a nice kitchen, you don't want to go back to a 1950s kitchen," observes Kent Colton, senior scholar at the Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Of course, the economy hasn't always kept pace with buyers' wants. Even as the nation rebounded from World War II and rationing, Americans' purchasing power was not what it is today. According to Professor Clark, people gave up porches so they could afford standard amenities: central heating, automobiles, and television.

Today, a time of 20-foot ceilings and walk-in closets, homebuyers still feel the constraints of the dollar. For example, soaring land prices mean that while average square footage of homes has gone up dramatically, lot size has stayed the same or diminished.

In other words, we haven't quite reached our limit. "I think there is still a major tension between what people want and what they can afford," says Clark.

Changes in home-building techniques

Homes are also bigger now simply because they can be. According to author and social historian Merritt Ierley, the introduction of central heating and the improvement of insulation made it possible to have bigger windows and larger rooms without sacrificing comfort.

Closets, which today rival bedrooms, also made their debut this century. According to Mr. Ierley, the method of construction popular before this century didn't create many opportunities for closets, except perhaps under stairways. Moreover, hangers date only to the middle of the 19th century. The rare closet in a 19th-century home was probably shallow, with a few hooks for hanging clothes.

"Something as simple as the clothes hanger was a factor in the increasing size of the house," says Ierley. "Not a great deal obviously, but it's there as a factor."

Not all improvements in home-building pushed up the size of homes. Ierley notes that many advances in design meant that rooms were more compact.

Before the 1850s, people didn't think to combine bathing with the business of elimination. The two occurred in separate places, the first activity in a tub stored in the kitchen and the second in a privy or outhouse. With plumbing, it eventually made sense to have pipes for both leading to the same room. By the early 20th century, it was common to find a tub, a toilet, and a sink in one room.

Sleek kitchen designs introduced in the early part of the century also reduced the need for space. The kitchen went from a disjointed arrangement of hearth, icebox, and pantry to a seamless workstation - a stove and refrigerator threaded by countertops.

Smaller families, bigger houses

When the planned community of Levittown, N.Y., was built in the 1950s as the prototype for family ranch homes, the houses were small by today's standards - just 700 square feet.

By contrast, structures that Victorians once termed "cottages" measure thousands of square feet. Today, it's not uncommon to find a dual-income, childless couple occupying a five-bedroom "cottage" that a century ago would have housed up to 10 people. Homes may have increased in size, but the family has steadily become smaller.

Perhaps more important, some experts would point out, technologies such as TV and the Internet have subverted traditional family interactions. Computer games win out over board games and backyard soccer.

Robert Sommer, who specializes in environmental psychology at the University of California, Davis, quips, "You even get people in the same house sending each other e-mail."

Despite this fragmentation of family life, the house is making a comeback as the center of activity - as it was before cars. With phones, then faxes, and finally the Internet, leaving the house is less and less of a necessity.

This justifies making the house as commodious as possible. Not only did postwar homes double in size, but rooms became more specialized. The family room split into a den for watching television and a living room for more formal entertaining. Playrooms for children evolved out of the unfinished basement. Exercise rooms popped up as the workout craze hit. And more recently, spare bedrooms are being converted into home offices.

Living large on the American landscape

Big Macs and Whoppers. The Big Top and the big screen. SUVs. Is it really any wonder that Americans prefer larger homes?

"There is this Texas mystique," says Clark. "Americans have a hard time not thinking bigger is better."

This sentiment carries into interior design. For example, many homebuilders today opt for a two-story family room over extra closet space on the second floor. "I think Americans prefer the look of spaciousness," says Clark.

The open plan, in which walls are left out in favor of an open vista, has been gaining popularity for at least 50 years.

A 1946 survey by Better Homes and Gardens magazine marks this trend. "If you are like the average American who is yearning to build a new house now, you are suffering from a sort of claustrophobia," the article says. Not surprisingly, sliding-glass doors that open onto patios were introduced about that time.

Even when the stock market wasn't on their side, Americans had land. Says Jan Jennings, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., "We're the only ones that have this kind of space to spread ourselves out on the land like we do and make these gigantic footprints."

At some point, the reality of the early frontier and American consumerism must have melded into an instinct. Even experts who emphasize the driving force of Wall Street recognize some inner impulse at work.

According to Harvard's Mr. Colton, a house is initially an investment; Americans are willing to spend more for extra amenities because they know it improves real estate value.

At some point, however, what used to be about money evolves into something more. "The house becomes a sense of who they are," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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