Though the era of McMansions and its resulting explosion of constructed square footage may have been abated in the aftermath of the recession, suburban American homes still suffer from bloated, inefficient floor plans. Even without architectural training, most of us can look at the high volume/low quality constructs of overnight, palatial residences as the hallmark of excess in our culture, but even many of our average homes suffer from a prolonged reversion to an antiquated formula of planning that no longer reflects how we live. High on the list of such traits are formal living rooms and dining rooms: amenities that people seldom use but routine tells us that we need. We need to begin the process of working these components out of the American archetype to save energy, materials and money. In the process we could open up home ownership to more people while taking an important stride to a more sustainable lifestyle.
Working From an Historic Model
Living and dining rooms are both creations of an archaic residential paradigm responding to the formal nature of affluent living. Traditionally, living rooms were a formal setting for conversation between family members or guests, serving as part of the progression of more public receiving spaces beginning with entry at the front door (another traditional component that suffers from dwindling use). Dining rooms once served as the primary place for families to eat given that kitchens were smaller and only occupied by service staff.
Today, few households function on the historical models of family living. For many of us the role of the kitchen and the people we design it for has changed not only because it now serves as the primary place for dining, but it also stands as a social center in many homes. Cooking is no longer a removed event to be hidden but something that can be enjoyed. As a result kitchens are larger with eating tables of their own and often opened to other rooms so that the person cooking can interact with guests or children. This in turn changes the dining room, which has turned into a seldom-occupied amenity used only for special dining occasions.
The living room has suffered a similar fate. For homes that also have a family room and/or playroom, the living room is still reserved for formal entertaining but it is now a smaller part of how Americans live and interact. Given the choice, televisions will usually end up in a family room before the living room. While they may come in handy for large holiday parties, I would argue that not having a living room would cause minimal change in the course of a regular day for most families.
It may be easy to trace the line of ancestry to explain present-day layouts, but history alone does not justify perpetuating an outdated model. These rooms can—and should—be removed from American homes with no result aside from savings in multiple metrics, including dollars. As a culture that has developed a reputation for attributing size and square footage as a reflection of professional success, it is easy to imagine that cutting this space out could be seen as “downgrading” one’s accommodations. On the contrary, it’s a smarter choice. We should not be building space for its own sake and architects have countless ways to create interesting homes with less square footage.
Efficiency is Greener
Unsurprisingly, a look at the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 Buildings Energy Data Book reveals the average American house has both a living room and a dining room. If the entire home has an average square footage of a pre-recession home is 2,500 square feet then these two rooms can easily add up to 300 to 400 square feet, or 12-16% of a home. It is also no surprise that the same agency finds that each person in an average detached, single family home uses up to 61% more power annually than their urban counterpart in a multi-family building. Proponents of suburban development should be trying to tighten up building massing to not make living so inherently less efficient. If we complimented smarter homes with a more distributed power grid and more efficient transit options then we could change the face of suburban living and its glut of resource consumption.
I imagine the largest reason we do not see a change in the paradigm is a result of cultural momentum. As a staple in determining residential value, not seeing a living room or a dining room on a plan could strike a prospective buyer as detrimental to overall value. Not having one of these standard components could be perceived to emulate buying a car without a passenger seat (despite the fact that it is anything but the same). It is more like buying the car without the free boat trailer. The challenge becomes not only getting one generation of home buyers to detach themselves from building excess space, but convincing the next generation that they are not vital as well.
A recent post from Kaid Benfield, fellow blogger and NRDC Director of Smart Growth, pointed to some evidence that we may be on the right track as the median home square footage dropped to 2,100 square feet from its 2008, pre-recession high of 2,500. An architect named Sarah Suzanka, author of The Not So Big House book series, that points to ways we can utilize more activity in less space. She and I see eye-to-eye on formal living rooms. “You’re not having the king and queen of England to dinner but Joe and Kathy from next door — and they’d prefer to be in your informal space!” Susanka says.
If we started to build more homes with combined family/dining rooms that open up onto a kitchen then we would use less resources to build less walls and roofs, winding up with less interior surfaces to finish. All of this would help housing costs to go down, allowing more people the opportunity to purchase a house on less land. Futhermore, living in the space becomes more efficient given that we are not using energy to heat and cool parts of volume that are not being utilized—lowering the cost of living. Tragically, this would force us to move in the opposite direction from our pre-recession mission: using cheap credit to spend money we don’t have on space we can’t use, filled with things we don’t need.
Yes, the average family would have less room to put a spare Persian rug, or that aged bronze bust inherited from the grandparents, or the crystal ash tray from the corporate retreat three years ago, but… maybe that’s okay?