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In Homes, Smaller is Smarter

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home in Greenbelt Homes Inc with clothes lineFinally we’re seeing a trend toward smaller homes being built in the U.S., after decades of increasing square footage.  For example, the U.S. Census reported that from 2007 to 2010 the average size of a new, single-family home in the U.S. fell from 2,504 square feet to 2,381 square feet.  The figured does not include condominiums or apartments, some the overall number would be smaller still.

Findings like this have led to lots of publicity about Americans’ new appreciation for smaller homes, but at the risk of being Debby Downer, is that really what’s going on?  Or does it just reflect the economic downturn and a tightening of mortgage availability?

It’s hard to pin down, but environmentalists are encouraged, asking “What’s going on with new home sizes – is the madness finally over?”  That story cites a study by the real estate research firm Trulia finding that in 2010 the median “ideal home size” for Americans had declined to around 2100 square feet, with more than a third of respondents saying they preferred homes smaller than 2,000 square feet.  Okay, maybe this is real.

a2The “Not So Big” House

More signs of a trend are found in books on the subject, especially The Not So Big House by Raleigh-based architect Sarah Susanka, who’s become a publishing and publicity powerhouse by promoting this idea.  The design ideas she’s popularizing include: less space without sacrificing beauty or comfort; lots of energy-efficient features; multiple rooms and spaces that do double duty; and a modifiable floor plan that lets homeowners age in place.  As she says, “Most people spend the majority of their time at home in the kitchen and informal eating area.”

So she designs homes where each room is used every day, as opposed to the typical suburban tract homes with its unused dining rooms and too many bathrooms, homes she derides as “massive storage containers for people.”  Susanka’s projects are selling like hotcakes but at 2,450 square feet on average, they may be well designed but I wouldn’t call them small.

The “Tiny” House Movement


Also in the news a lot are examples of what’s called the Tiny House Movement – homes in the 100-400 square foot range.  Tiny by anyone’s standards.

Getting Perspective on House Size

Average American home sizes have come a long way in the last few decades – and not in a good way.  Back in 1950 the average American home was a mere 983 square feet – smaller than most GHI homes.  And that’s while the size of American households was shrinking.

Even more impressive/appalling is the comparison of home size in the U.S. versus other developed countries:


CountrySq. feet
United States2,349
New Zealand1,900

Draw your own conclusions about the American character, our consumer culture, et cetera.

Why Smaller is Smarter:

  • Fewer materials used in construction.  Plus, small homes requires fewer furnishings to fill them.
  • More efficient. Smaller spaces are cheaper to heat and take less time to clean.
  • More comfortable.  Big spaces aren’t as intimate and comfortable as a room that’s scaled down to a person’s size.  In other words, Versailles may be impressive to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. A lot of today’s 5,000-square-foot homes are designed to overwhelm, not welcome.
  • More affordable.  Which has countless secondary benefits – like less pressure to work long hours, more money for education and recreation, et cetera.
  • Easier to customize. It’s easier and more affordable to improve or customize small homes.
  • Connectedness. Experts cite the increased connection among family members living in smaller smaller homes.  And when the smaller homes are attached, increased neighborhood and community connections result, too.

Greenbelt’s “Just Right” Home Size

home in Greenbelt Homes Inc


I started thinking about the “smaller is smarter” concept after GHI member Alice Mitchell suggested it as a theme for promoting Greenbelt.  (This was during a Member Outreach Committee meeting).  We all loved the idea, and seconded Alice’s suggestion that it be pursued.  More will be revealed!

Homes in Old Greenbelt are somewhere between the not-so-big homes and the tiny ones – they’re in that sweet spot of small but livable.  And unlike so many of the tiny homes popping up across rural  America, Greenbelt’s smaller homes are clustered in a smaller, smarter community, too.

After decades of “bigger is better,” more savvy, eco-conscious an community-minded souls would love it here, if they only knew it existed.  Greenbelt is ahead of the curve.

More Resources

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

8 Responses

  1. Melissa Ehrenreich
    | Reply

    5 people in a 1,100 SQ foot house. Tiny living standards is approx 200sq ft/person so GHI for 5 people is actually tiny house living. We would do far better to use tiny house innovations in GHI and I don’t know why we don’t offer technical services to add in storage (stair drawers etc)

  2. Christina Kavanagh
    | Reply

    We have lived here for 32 years and raised 3 children here. As I have always told people who think our houses are too small, “You don’t just live in your HOUSE in Greenbelt, you live IN GREENBELT” Ours is a unique environment that offers a great lifestyle. It is easy to become devoted to the community and passionate about “Greenbelt” instead of about just your own house.

  3. Jeff
    | Reply

    Greenbelt Homes Inc. has done a nice job of allowing additions, so that people can add a downstairs bathroom or open up their kitchens.

    The wonderfulness of the GHI homes is also in the shared inner court spaces and landscaping. Our GHI had a huge common backyard and playground where the kids played all day.

  4. Carol B.
    | Reply

    What is the square footage of typical GHI homes? It would be interesting to compare the numbers.

    • Susan
      | Reply

      About 850 to 1,200, not counting additions, right?

      • Ethan
        | Reply

        I think it is even less. We have roughly 800 with a 2br frame. The 1br units must be 600 or so. Thanks, Susan, for the great article!

    • Gregoor
      | Reply

      Our 3 bedroom block home is roughly 1150 square feet, and does not have an addition.

  5. Karl Hille
    | Reply

    It’s charming, but with three children, smaller just feels tiring. There’s a lot of discipline to living in a smaller home.

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