Building Small, Building Better
On December 9, 2021 Bea and I spoke at the 2021 AIA Tri-State conference on the topic of “Building Small + Building Better”. Following our presentation, Robin Lobez, Director of Communication at the New York State AIA, asked us if we would like to continue sharing our expertise by submitting an article for their quarterly digital publication, Architecture New York State. The theme of the issue is “Return to the Future”. We have included the article in its entirety as we feel the issue is particularly important. It is intended to be read by other architects.
It is common for clients in need of architecture services to meet with their chosen architect and ask for the moon thinking that bigger is better. Rather than postponing or avoiding the subject, it is important for architects to let their clients know that it may well be possible to fulfill their programmatic needs with less area. As we will discuss, architects also need to make this argument with local municipalities and at the state and national level.
COMMUNICATING WITH CLIENTS
Advocate for Quality: We live in a MORE IS MORE society. Many owners feel like big houses are status symbols. In our experience at Fisher ARCHitecture, owners are more concerned with how THEY will live than with saving the planet. So we make the argument that building small presents a huge opportunity to focus on QUALITY construction. We show our clients precedents from our own work and from around the world that demonstrate that oversized spaces aren’t required if their homes are designed thoughtfully. Better quality finishes and details can result when folks build smaller.
Advocate for saving money: More often than not there is a gap between our clients’ available budget and their construction goals. We let them know that designing fewer rooms but connecting them in a skillful way means buying less construction materials and using less resources. This leads to smaller mortgages, reduced energy bills, and fewer maintenance costs.
When hard discussions about the project budget are postponed the result can be shattered expectations and unhappy clients. Not only do we share projected cost per square foot numbers with our clients before we draw a line, we also advocate for having a contractor budget the project as soon as possible. This is made possible with a “negotiated bid” process in which the contractor becomes part of the team at the very start.
MAKING THE ARGUMENT
Advocate for efficiency: Here is a big truth: Most people only use a small amount of their living space. The “Center on Everyday Lives of Families” at the University of California has collected data on where in the home people spend their time. The study found that close to seventy percent of the time was largely spent either a) congregating around food prep/consumption areas in the kitchen or b) sitting on the family room couch in front of the TV or a PC. Designated “formal spaces” like dining rooms were barely used at all.
We caution our clients against including “one day a year spaces” in their programs. Owners are creating big problems for themselves when they build additional space in their homes that they pay for one hundred percent of the time but only use five percent of the time.
Inefficient use of space often starts in the kitchen. We tell our clients that well-designed kitchen spaces require less area, less cabinet/counter construction, and fewer closets than they may imagine. And once the kitchens are built, less food will be wasted.
When it comes to “room to grow”, we ask our clients to think carefully about their projected future needs and ask themselves questions like, “How much room will our future kids really need?” and “Will this be our forever home?”. And we talk about phasing, suggesting that we can design their projects now so that they can easily grow in the future.
A “whole-house systems” approach to design will increase a new home’s efficiency: When you and your consultants consider all the variables, details, and interactions that affect energy use in a building from the beginning, not only are you designing with the future in mind, you are making your home more valuable.
Advocate for simpler interior designs: Americans have a “stuff” problem. European interiors typically have less furniture than those in the United States but more “special” pieces. We recommend custom built-ins to optimize space. All that extra furniture more often than not just ends up in self storage facilities – a building category that has grown by almost eight percent per year since 2012 – or in clients’ garages. Amazingly, a third of all families that own two-car garages can only park one car due to clutter. Eliminating the area of a two car garage can reduce your total home area by as much as a quarter!
Advocate for living outside your walls: We recommend to all our clients, whether they are renovating or building new, that they maximize the connection between indoors and the outdoors by means of windows, porches, and screened elements. This makes their interiors seem much larger and creates richer, more varied home experiences. Biophilic studies have shown that more natural light improves our mental wellness.
Then we advocate that clients upgrade the quality of their outdoor spaces. The more livable clients’ yards become, the more likely they are to spend time in them.
ADVOCATING AT THE COMMUNITY LEVEL
The world is shrinking. How can architects communicate that the American dream of owning a big house should change? We should start by advocating for multifamily living and by urging each generation to share their homes with those preceding theirs. Living smaller doesn’t mean that our great country has lost its capacity to provide opportunities to its citizens. To the contrary, smaller homes means more home ownership and more money left over to invest in our free market economy!
There simply isn’t land left for affordable single-family home construction anywhere near city centers. And NO single family home built today is truly sustainable. Unfortunately, existing zoning rules encourage the construction of large single family homes at the expense of other more modest types of construction. Building fewer homes on larger lots drives up the price of both land and homes, increasing gentrification.
Zoning regulations must change. One solution may be the use of form-based rules that use physical form rather than separation of uses as their organizing principle. In principle this allows more flexibility for what can be built on a property. Form-based codes are certainly not the only way to go. Yet our belief is that architects should always rethink default approaches – or at least consider doing so – as we are considering the future.
The development industry still thinks that people want big. The norm is for developers to max out their lots. Yet, there is an increasing demand for smaller, better spaces. Single-person households are now thirty percent of the market and that number is expected to grow even more. Empty-nesters and young folk especially are looking to downsize. Big homes today are like the fake wood-clad station wagons of the sixties. Buyers are becoming increasingly aware that they will not hold their value.
We believe in the MAYA principle, “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” The task is to push as hard as you can without losing your audience. Living in places that are too small can produce stress. Tiny houses are great for some but not for everyone.
There are environmental, budgeting, and aesthetic reasons for building less area. If architects are not ready to design better and smaller buildings, we risk losing opportunities to generic builders and developers who will build with much less quality. Change is coming, and architects must evolve professionally into thoughtful design and construction leaders in order to stay relevant in a changing world.