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Are Our Homes Too Big?

In the 1990s, the United States seemed to be in an age of supersizing--cars, housing, soft drinks, and waistlines all got bigger. It was the era of the gargantuan houses often dubbed "McMansions." What counts as a McMansion? There's no drive-through window required, but New York Times architecture critic Fred Bernstein described one as a place where the master bedroom is the size of a tennis court. The infatuation with huge houses subsided over time, and the 2008 mortgage crisis and recession ended it (at least for a while).

We can't all live like the rich and famous, but over the last couple of decades a fair number of us have been aiming for our own mini-McMansions. Houses built since the 1990s have on average been 26 percent larger than existing ones, according to figures collected by the government.

According to an analysis by the Energy Department, "Larger homes require more energy to provide heating, air conditioning, and lighting, and they tend to include more energy-using appliances, such as televisions and laundry equipment. If you have teenagers at home, you're probably following this line of reasoning easily--the bigger the house, the more lights there are to be left on. Yes, that's exactly the point.

Is it the moment for the "smaller is beautiful" American home? More Americans do appear to be thinking along these lines, according to surveys by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). As recently as 2000, 51 percent of respondents said that they'd prefer more space with fewer amenities as opposed to a smaller house with "higher quality products" and more amenities. By 2004, the number of people choosing the bigger house had dropped to 37 percent.

Environmentalists would love to think this is mainly due to concerns about energy and global warming, and some of it may be, but population trends probably play a bigger role. In 1970, about 40 percent of households consisted of married couples with children. Now it's about a quarter. The huge baby boom generation is aging. With the kids heading off to live on their own, a lot of boomers may be looking for smaller digs. Even here, though, what's "big" and what's "small" may be in the eye of the beholder. According to another building industry study, homes in developments aimed at empty nesters are typically two bedroom units with more than 2,000 square feet.

What's more, zoning laws in some areas prohibit smaller houses and lots as well. Brooklyn Park, Maryland, residents who built small houses on narrow slices of land quickly found out that not all of their neighbors were charmed. For the owners, these tiny houses, ranging from 12 to 18 feet wide, were a smart use of space and more affordable than a larger house. But many of their neighbors feared crowding and declining property values. Some Americans look at small houses and see them as sensible little energy savers. Others start thinking about Pete Seeger's infamous "little boxes made of ticky-tacky."

Excerpt from Who Turned Out the Lights?: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

About the authors:

Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of PublicAgenda.org, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.

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