Most families don’t use large areas of their homes — which means they’ve essentially wasted money on space they don’t need.” Our house design problem isn’t too many rooms, it’s too much stuff.

 July 30, 2018

Life At Home in the 21st Century
© J. Arnold

Why do people want bigger houses? For more storage.

There has been a lot of recent interest in a couple of old posts discussing the size of houses recently, including one titled Houses keep getting bigger, but the number to watch is the area per person in it and another, which includes the chart above, titled What would our homes look like if designed around how we use them? It was picked up recently by Marketwatch, and titled Why the American Dream of owning a big home is way overrated, in one chart and another, Does the American Dream require a big American home?where the author writes:

“The findings were not pretty. In fact, they helped prove how little we use our big homes for things other than clutter. Most families don’t use large areas of their homes — which means they’ve essentially wasted money on space they don’t need.”

Most, including our own David Friedlander, interpret this all to mean that people’s houses are too big, full of rooms they don’t use. All those headlines imply that people could happily live with less space.

In fact, if you go back to the book and study where this chart came from, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2012 by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs, you find that people had the opposite problem: They needed more space, because they had too much stuff. Some of the findings, listed in the UCLA press release:

  • Managing the volume of possessions was such a crushing problem in many homes that it actually elevated levels of stress hormones for mothers.
  • Only 25 percent of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with stuff.
  • The rise of big-box stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club has increased the tendency to stockpile food and cleaning supplies, making clutter that much harder to contain

There were other problems, including that they rarely used the back yard even in good weather, never used porches, and even with fancy kitchens generally ate frozen meals and ate separately, often in separate rooms.

But in the end, that drawing of Family 11 huddling in the kitchen and media room is a distraction; of course nobody needs two living areas and two dining areas. The bigger lesson from the book is that we have a problem of too much stuff. It is embedded in our culture; take food, for example. J. D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly talked to one of the study authors, Elinor Ochs, who describes food clutter:

If you brought someone from Rome or from a town in Sweden, and you showed them the size of the refrigerator in the kitchen, and then walked them to the garage and they saw the size of the refrigerator in the garage, they would be pretty astonished. The refrigerator, then, becomes something to think about culturally. Why do we have these big refrigerators? And what does that say about food in our society?

Another author tells Roth:

We have lots of Stuff. We have many mechanisms by which we accumulate possessions in our home, but we have few rituals or mechanisms or processes for unloading these objects, for getting rid of them.

This is a fundamental problem of North American life; we keep getting more stuff. It all came to a head for me when TreeHugger hero Marie Kondo started selling boxes to store stuff where she used to sell books telling us to get rid of stuff, on the same day that I am writing about the vast infrastructure of storage lockers.

For years on TreeHugger, we have argued about whether one should have a separate dining room or an open kitchen, when George Carlin was smarter than a million studies and posts when he said “a house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”

Before we can solve our big house and big car and big box store problem, we have to solve our problem of stuff.