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Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Smaller Homes for Sustainable Living

Living a simpler, more earth-friendly life begins with the kind of home you wake up in every morning.  If contributing to a sustainable future is important to you, one single change in your lifestyle can make the biggest difference of all: living in a smaller house.  Just as any motorcycle is more energy-efficient than any car, small is beautiful when it comes to houses too.

Oversized House Compared to everywhere else on earth, American homes are gigantic.  Since 1970, the square footage of the average American home has nearly doubled, even as American family size has shrunk by a similar amount.  Since 1950, Americans have quadrupled the residential space per person.  The ideal of an enormous house filled with specialized, rarely used rooms is a purely American one, and it is purely wasteful.  No matter how many “green” materials a large home has, its sheer size, unutilized space, and uninentional design make for a very ineffiecient living space, in many respects.  A humble, uninsulated 1920’s bungalow wins a sustainability contest at a walk.

The Benefits of Small Home Living

For many people, the idea of a smaller home elicits images of being cramped and inconvenienced, with no place to put the toaster, or an overnight guest, or to throw a party, and certainly nowhere to go for privacy.  These challenges are now addressed by American architects by building bigger rooms and more of them, but they not only can be better solved by clever design—there are many existing examples of houses that do just that.

A smaller home means a smaller footprint on the earth, in every measurable way: fewer trees cut down, less earth bulldozed, less petroleum burned, less steel mined—less usage of every resource . . . . A small house IS an eco home . . .

There is a plethora of purely personal advantages to living in a smaller home:

  • There is less to clean, less to maintain.
  • Small homes are inherently energy-efficient.
  • Smaller homes are cheaper to buy and cheaper to build.

Housing is almost always the largest expense most people will ever face.  Imagine living comfortably in your small house with your small or even non-existent mortgage, and the idea of small being beautiful takes on new meaning:

  • If you are building new, your upfront costs will be far less.
  • Because you won’t have large expanses to cover, you’ll be able to use finer materials and employ superior craftsmanship for your home: quality over quantity.
  • With limited space, you’ll be less apt to accumulate unneeded objects and useless clutter.
  • In a nicely designed small house, everything is cozy and convenient, helping life to run more smoothly.  With the savings in time and money, you can devote more of your leisure to your social life and hobbies.

Micro House The environmental positives of small space living are even greater than the benefits that you reap.  A smaller home means a smaller footprint on the earth, in every measurable way: fewer trees cut down, less earth bulldozed, less petroleum burned, less steel mined—less usage of every resource.  And these advantages continue giving for the entire lifetime of the house, as every room must be furnished, heated, cooled, and so forth.  In addition, the land occupied by a house’s foundation cannot be used for growing things—the smaller space occupied, the better.  A small house IS an eco home, and using green materials, appliances, and building methods makes it even greener.

Addressing the Challenges of Building Small with Creative Design

A home that expresses your values, a home that’s a joy to be in, is not a function of square footage.  Think of your house as a tailored suit, just big enough to fit you perfectly.  This is where good design comes in.  Here are 10 proven techniques for making small home plans work:

Space Design

  • Design for Privacy. To feel alone, you do not need distance as much as insulation.  For example, instead of a whole suite at the end of a hall, consider just putting the master bedroom behind an exterior-thickness, weather-stripped door and a sound-insulated wall.  Add a tiny private garden view for luxury.  Remember to put only quiet activities upstairs, as vibration noise carries through floors.
  • Make Maximum Use of Semi-outdoor Spaces. Use porches, roof decks, pergolas, and patios to extend the usable area of your house without heating, cooling, and finishing costs.
  • Multiple Uses. A “farmhouse” kitchen with a big table is emotionally warmer and eliminates a room used just for dining.  This is a table where children do their homework, mom does the accounts, and the family plays board games.  A study that doubles as a guest room and meditation room, a bathroom that doubles as a laundry room – make every space earn its keep several times over.
  • Think Out Your Circulation Patterns. Make sure that all living spaces are to the side of where people need to pass, so that each place feels whole and undisturbed.  Eliminate hallways as much as possible, as they are just wasted space.  Use an open floor plan to eliminate the sense of being stuck in a box so common to older small houses – it works better, and is much more energy-efficient, than the exaggeratedly high ceilings so often recommended.

Design Elements

  • Natural Finishes. The intimacy of a small house makes soft, touchable, interesting surfaces more important.
  • Niches. Use lofts, bay windows, and nooks to create places within rooms.
  • Window Seat

  • Perfectly Positioned Windows. Don’t waste wall space on a window that looks out on something you don’t want to see, or that never lets in sun.  One inviting window seat is worth twenty sheets of glaring glass.  Wall space is precious in a small house–clerestories are a good way to let in light and still keep some wall for other uses.  Use windows to frame beautiful views and make sunny seating spots.
  • Size Your House for Daily Life Rather than Special Events. If your kitchen is a comfortable size for Thanksgiving dinner, it will be too large for 364 days of the year!  Instead, just assume that a few times a year things will be slightly squeezed.  If you like to throw big parties, do it when the weather is good and it can be outdoors.


  • Borrow from the Community and from Nature. Suburban isolation breeds large houses, as people must try to fulfill every function of life privately.  Urban areas with common public spaces, or rural areas with easy access to parks and wilderness, make happier sites for small houses.
  • Organize Your Stuff and Get Rid of the Extra. A small house makes it more difficult to acquire and hold on to things you don’t need, which is a good thing.  Build clever storage spaces into your design (think sailboat), purpose-built for the kind of storage needs you have.  Use unfinished spaces such as garages and attics for longer-term and occasional-use storage needs.  Don’t waste valuable house space on bulky items.

The Politics of Small Spaces

The oversized-house trend has been largely driven by the “housing bubble” of endlessly escalating housing prices and easy interest, in which tearing down a perfectly good older home and building a monster house in its place makes perfect economic sense.  Though this epoch may be over, the political and social climate it has spawned remains.

If you want to build a noticeably smaller-than-average house, you may find your housing development doesn’t allow it, your bank won’t loan you money for it, or your planning department refuses to okay your design.  Persevere!  Your efforts will make it easier for the next sensible person who doesn’t buy into the supersized mentality to build in your neighborhood.

Tiny Homes and Modular Eco Homes

Small HomeMicro houses, or mini houses, under perhaps 500 square feet, are a subset of small homes.  A cabin in the woods, a studio with an RV-sized kitchen, a tree house, are all examples of downsizing logically extended to its extreme.  There is no reason why such houses, suitable for one or two people, cannot become a larger part of the continuum of housing options.  Read more at

European countries have long used modular construction techniques to cut building costs.  In modular construction, whole sections of wall are pre-built, often complete with inside and outside finish materials, in a factory, and the pieces are assembled on-site.  A selection of floor plans is usually available.  These techniques have been given a green twist by a number of companies in the U.S.  Visit OutsideOnline to read more.

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