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Supersizing Our Homes and Lives

Sara Grochowski
Do It Green! Minnesota

While the size of the average family continues to shrink, home sizes have grown substantially. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the profile of a typical home in 1900 was estimated at the following: 700 to 1,200 square feet, two or three bedrooms on two stories, and one or no bathroom. Over 20% of the nation’s population lived in crowded units, with entire families often sharing one or two rooms. Most existing homes were small, rural farmhouses and lacked the basic amenities, such as complete plumbing and central heating. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the most common household size during this time was seven people, while the most common household size from 1940 until now is two people. Typical new homes today average 2,265 square feet and including the following: three or more bedrooms, 2½ bathrooms, a garage for two or more cars, and central air conditioning on two stories.

How did the need for all of this space happen? Family size may have shrunk over time, but our need for “stuff” and space to store it in has grown. The ability to buy now and pay later with credit, a development of the past 60 years, has had some influence as well. According to creditcard.com, in 1951 the first bank credit card appeared in New York’s Franklin National Bank for loan customers and bank account holders.

The introduction of the credit card and globalization are the two big culprits that have helped to create a consumer-driven society. There are now so many products available, we often fill up every space in our homes with “stuff.” Our parents grew up without GPS devices, cell phones, and digital cameras; our grandparents did not know microwaves, televisions, or health clubs. It may be easy to blame corporations and manufacturers for developing all of these new products and for their sneaky advertising campaigns, but how we spend our money is also supporting the manufacturing of all of these goods. The 2,265 square foot house for a two-person family now feels normal. We fill it with new electronics, furniture, and tools while staying tuned in to the computer, radio, HD television, and our iPhones.

As our culture has changed, studies have questioned whether our “needs” have contributed to the deterioration of family life and whether our brains are overworked from the constant stimulation and noise. Children have fewer hours of time in natural spaces, resulting in a new field of research: the deterioration of children’s free play and its role in their development. Without cooperation or sharing from neighbors and friends on projects or in borrowing tools, we become distant from our communities both physically and emotionally.

Critics can argue every angle about our obsession with technology, space and desire to spend and buy new. For example, Facebook can be taken as an invasion of privacy or it can be taken as a way to stay connected with friends and family. Everything, from where we live to the technology we use, has its advantages and disadvantages. However, it is easy to get caught up with what we “want” in life versus what we need in life. Making less wasteful decisions in each aspect of our life is critical to the future of the planet—decisions that are sustainable from an economic, social, environmental and cultural context. Many times such decisions will bring us back to our roots of simple living: living in a space appropriate for our family size, scaling down and enjoying life. Living simply does not have to mean living without, but rather living without identifying possessions as the good life. Simple living is not about living in poverty or self-inflicted deprivation. Rather, it is about living an examined life—one in which you have determined what is important, or “enough,” for you, and discarding the rest.

Read Up

Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More by Elaine St. James Hyperion 1998.

The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful More Joyful Living by Janet Luhrs. Broadway Books 1997.

Supersizing Our Homes

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