Small Is the New Big

John Dwyer
AIA, Founding Partner, Shelter Architecture and Interior Design

Historically, home values in the U.S. have been based heavily on size. As homes have increased in size over the last decade, so has our consumption of goods, services and energy. Today, if everyone on earth lived like we do, we would need about 6½ planets to sustain our lifestyle. Recent economic changes have affected the housing market, and perhaps now we will begin to see that the values of our homes are linked to the destructive nature of our lifestyles. It is conceivable that small is the New Big and a well-designed smaller home is better than a large poorly laid-out one.

The term “living small” means maintaining a small ecological footprint. Whether remodeling or building new, designing your home to promote a “small” lifestyle will decrease consumption and increase the quality of your life.

  1. Consider your location. Live closer to the places and services you frequently visit like work, grocery stores, schools, hospitals, park spaces, public transit and family. Spend more of your life living and less of it in traffic.
  2. Plan for circulation. Set up an efficient way of moving through your house and your landscape. It will minimize the square footage you need, maximize the livability of your home, and make it safe for people of all ages.
  3. Design your storage. Take an inventory of everything you own. Place functional things in places where they’re most commonly used. Place important artifacts in places of honor. Consider storing seasonal items when not in use. Sell or donate things you don’t really need.
  4. Multitask. Design rooms to function in multiple ways and scale them down to the number of people that will use them. Make a dining room expandable. Use a guest room as an office or an art room. Turn a stair landing into a study area or laundry room.
  5. Consolidate. Bathrooms use lots of energy, lots of water, lots of materials and cost lots of money. Consolidate them and make them efficient. Consider one bathroom that can be partitioned to create usable areas for more than one person at a time.
  6. Invest in your home’s thermal envelope. With all the renewable technologies out there, you still can’t beat a great envelope. Upgrade your windows and insulation. Make the home as air tight as possible.
  7. Go mechanical. Second only to a great envelope is the power of efficient heating and cooling. Get the best you can out of your appliances. Seal and clean all the ductwork. Get a furnace with a high AFUE, an air conditioner with a high SEER and an air filter with a high MERV.
  8. Live easily. Design everything to be durable and low maintenance, especially the landscape and exterior of your home. It will save lots of time, lots of materials, and lots of water.
Read Up

Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn. Island Press 1995.

Massive Change by Bruce Mau. Phaidon 2004.

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Small Is the New Big

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