Small Is Beautiful


New American Home show house. Image credit: Author


Most American homes are serious mismatches to the needs of their occupants… most are far too large. —Dhiru Thadani, architect and urbanist

Since 1984, the National Association of Home Builders has built The New American Home, a show house showcasing the current trends in home design and construction. NAHB describes the 28-year project as “America’s residential construction laboratory” and boasts that, “concepts first used in TNAH often go on to become industry—and consumer—favorites.”

In theory, the idea of a residential construction laboratory is a fantastic one. Why not build a house that tests out the latest building and energy technologies, explores the functionality of different floor plans, and showcases new materials and trends? But in practice, the New American Home is a failed experiment badly in need of a new hypothesis.

Why? One only need look at the list of New American Homes built over the past 28 years: the first ever home was 1,500 square feet and priced at $80,000. Then, in 2006, just before the boom went bust, the NAHB commissioned and built a 10,023 square foot McMansion that listed for $5.3 million in what is today one of the nation’s foreclosure capitals, Orlando, Florida.

In 2010, the International Home Builders Show stirred things up when it presented a 1,771 square foot design as its annual concept home. Designed by Marianne Cusato, and touted as “A Home for the New Economy,” it was big departure for the show, which has in the past featured homes as large as 6,000 square feet. But it was an aberration. NAHB’s 2011 home was close to 9,000 square feet and appraised at $3.3 million. Again, the organization missed its opportunity to lead the industry toward a way of building that is more in line with the way we live today.

Which is too bad. Cusato, who also designed the much touted (and at 300-square feet, very tiny) Katrina Cottage designed for displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina back in 2006, observes that, “We’re not going to go back to 2005. What was built then is not going to come back, and this is not a bad thing. What we were building was so unsustainable, and it didn’t really meet our needs.”

Housing is rebounding in some places but might the message of smaller is better begin to resonate? It should. In 2009, the American home began to decrease in size for the first time in over a decade, from 2,629 to 2,343, but the jury is out on whether the McMansion will return to its 5-digit square footage glory. Let’s hope some of the lessons of the past few years can provide ample impetus for the creation of smaller homes and the benefits they can provide.