How do You Define Small?

I wanted to point out this article that appeared in USA Today to my readers here at Living Large.

It talks about the dream home featured at this years’ International Builder’s Show. “Small, virtual, affordable,” proclaims the headline.

I admit, I think it’s a pretty home, but small?

Sometimes, when I’m interviewed by my colleagues in the press about living large in a little house, they ask me how I define small.
I’ve heard many different definitions from people associated with the small house movement.

I believe a “small” house is subjective, given the person’s perception. I thought our “starter” home in the city was small at 1,110 square feet, compared to some of the behemoths my friends and family lived in. I definitely think 480 square feet is small, however, there are some who live in much smaller.

It is relative and subjective to how you define “small” in your own mind. For someone downsizing from 4,000 square feet, I suppose 1,700 square feet would seem small.

I’m just glad that builders are recognizing there is a desire for people to live in smaller homes. At least the conversation is now in the mainstream media.

What do you think?

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24 Responses

  1. Meredith says:

    This is so interesting. Our place, which is about 1230 sq ft feels..well, big! But lots of people in our area (southern CA) wonder how we manage in a place so “tiny”–or why we’d want to. We looked numerous times at larger homes and contemplated buying one, but always came up feeling less than enthusiastic in the long run. Your blog has really helped me pay attention to this big-little issue, which I find fascinating.

    • Thanks, Meredith, for reading. Since 1,250 is larger than anything we’ve ever had, I’m sure it would feel very big to us. As you say, it is a matter of what makes a person comfortable. When I read comments on other blogs or on articles that appear about small space living, some people think it is about making everyone live in a small space. They’re definitely missing the point.

  2. T.J. says:

    I, too, grew up in a small 2 bedroom, 1 bath home, with parents and 2 siblings. We learned how to share a bathroom among the five of us, make rooms multipurpose, and carve out a corner somewhere that was your own. Many retirees are in mobile homes with 1000 sq ft, and have more than enough room. Perspective is everything, and I remember wonderful Christmases in my parents small home when the grown kids came home with their kids. We just all scrunched in, hugged and laughed a lot, and were glad to be together.

  3. RowdyKittens says:

    My perspective of small has changed over time. I think it depends on your life circumstance, how big your family is, etc. 🙂 5 years ago, I thought living small was 1,500 square feet and now I consider 100 to 500 square feet living small. :_

    Great question and awesome comments!

  4. One thing to consider, you can be sustainable and not have to be small…ant least really small.

    We are thinking of a modified earthship…maybe..1500 to 1800 sf. That may seem bigger than most small homes but there are some other reasons…part of that space will house the work/shop studio and part will also be planting beds to grow food…the roof area will be used for rain catch..since this will be an off grid no well type of home in the high desert of NM.

    I wrote some more at my blog.

    • I agree, there’s many things to consider when defining “sustainable” and “environmentally friendly,” such as insulation, method of heating/cooling, gray water or rain catch systems, etc. Also, as Mo pointed out, the number of people living in a home that has green aspects.

  5. Mo says:

    This is an interesting discussion. Having been in the building trades for most of three decades I’ve seen a few trends. This is not meant as an excuse but “Builders”, a vast majority of which are small businesses are simply building what people will buy and within the regulations imposed on property owners by the government – which always skews toward producing tax revenue.

    In the 1980’s their was a time when energy efficiency was promoted and marketed. Unfortunately frugal homeowners wanting to save heat disabled or didn’t use the homes ventilation system which lead to mildew, rot and health issues.

    In the 1990’s it was all about Square Footage… the more the better. Quality didn’t matter to buyers as much as size.

    The late ninety’s saw “green” building getting traction again. Building departments even had personal to promote “green” building. The problem was that they didn’t want to surrender any tax revenue so minimum size was not reduced, instead they increased density for a net gain to their coffers. Frustrating…

    I attended a number of “Green” and “Affordable” symposiums finding the government definitions of both incongruent without a healthy dose of delusional thinking…

    Another trend that I have observed in our current economy is that many of the McMansion homes are now being occupied by extended families. While a 4,000 sf house might not be considered “green” I would suggest that the number of occupants should be considered when applying the “green” label. 8 or more in 4,000 sf vs. 2 in 1200…

    • Good point on the number of occupants in the green consideration.

    • Kerri,

      What a simple question that has led to some fascinating discussion and a few trips down memory lane. Mo’s trend response is quite interesting. I can’t say I live in a small house. I moved from a 3000 sf home to a 2200 sf home. It’s just me. I have too much space and too much stuff. I daydream about downsizing! What would work for me? I think I’d like something in the 1200-1500 sf range. I can’t imagine why I’d need more space than that. But I don’t think I could go as low as you, Kerri. I just think I’d feel too confined. Still, I like reading about your experience in the little house.

  6. Alexandra says:

    Thanks for pointing out this article. Now “small” also needs to be perceived as the right choice for the coming century. Building big today makes no sense at all.

  7. Kim says:

    Mary, I’ve eyed those Eureka treehouses as well… I hope to visit someday! I’d love one of my own, but I’d be afraid, once I built one, that my host tree would end up like that ice storm victim Keri described!

    Keri, I share your opinion… even Susanka’s famed “not-so-big house” designs are still much bigger than my idea of a small house.

    • Kim, I think my own personal history helps me define small too. I lived with my parents in a bungalow with no more than 1,000 sq. ft. until I was 15 and then we moved to what was always referred to as “the big house,” a Victorian Tudor with probably 2,000 or so sq. ft. and I think it’s funny that many people today would even see that as “small.”

  8. You should do it, Mary! Our neighbors were so disappointed last year as the ice storm fell a huge tree they had planned on building a treehouse in. I think it would be a great studio! When I was a kid, I made a writer’s studio on top of the neighbors woodpile. Not exactly a treehouse, but I could pretend!

  9. Great post. 1,200 sq feet feels like ample space for me, a husband, two dogs and soon a baby. Maybe two babies. i think we’d like a bit bigger once we have more children and the children are older — mainly so we can have a bit of privacy from the kids. a ‘bit bigger’ to me would be two extra rooms, not extra extra floors. another article that raised my eyebrows this week was in the paper i used to write for, the tribune, about a developer pushing 4,000-sq-ft homes as small and environmentally friendly in a very rich chicago suburb where the 8,000-sq-ft palace has long been the norm. i must admit i was comforted to see readers light up the comments section with concerns that 4k sq ft. isn’t “green”!
    here’s the link to that story:,0,6587120.story

    • Thanks for the link, Emily! I have to agree with the commentors!

    • Keri says:

      Privacy from the kids? It’s not gonna happen until they move out of the house or you go away somewhere. 😉

      One of the trends today is that each family member has their own room or the master bedroom is as far away as possible from the kids’ bedrooms saddens me. Families are drifting apart from each other because of this trend. I feel that we have a close connection with our kids because we share the same space day in and day out.

      I would say that ‘small’ depends on how many occupants in how many square feet of space. A family of four in a 1,000 sq ft house may see small. Our house is 1,450 square feet which seems to be the average but we only use half of that space the majority of the time. The first floor is one big open room: dining room, kitchen and living room all jumbled into one room. Upstairs we have 3 bedrooms, only one of which we use during the night: the 4 year-old sleeps on the floor in our bedroom while the 1-year-old sleeps with us. The boys’ bedroom is mainly used as a playroom. The office/guest room/junk collector room is rarely used but I imagine that when we have 1 or 2 more kids, it will be their bedroom.

      Some people can’t imagine raising 4 kids in our house but I remind them that my grandmother grew up in a one-room house in Ireland with 9 brothers and sisters. If they can manage, we can too. It’s a matter of mind over matter. 😉

  10. Cindy t says:

    I have been Doing research on how others are managing in smaller homes as I will be downsizing to a 1064 sq foot cabin soon. I stumbled on your site this weekend!!! My Closing is pending, and I am frantically sifting through a hundred years (exageration) accumulation of TruckLoads of STUFF (not exageration). Have made 8 pick up loads of stuff to Goodwill to find new homes for my un needed STUFF. Have 7 large boxes of Books in my wagon to go 1/2 price books, (don’t worry still have 4 boxes of favorite books to go to the new place) Thank goodness for my oldest daughter who has brutal and helping go through all of the STUFF…..”Now Mom how many years ago did you intend to do these projects, stenciling, take up this hobby/craft”…you get the picture it has really helped me get rid of the STUFF. Amazing how much STUFF I have held on to thinking maybe…someday…! I feel lighter already. I know 1064 sq ft is big by some standards but seems just right for me! Little Log cabin next to a lake! Can’t wait! I will be working from there too! Hope to be back and visit you some more for more ideas! Cindyt

    • Welcome, Cindy! Glad you found us! Good luck with your move. Your description sounds just like ours – I made countless trips to the Salvation Army and 1/2 Price books and still had over 50 boxes more to give away when we got here! I still have more stuff than I need.

  11. 1,200 square feet is big enough for me and it appears to be too big when I am cleaning. I have a book on tree houses. I thought it would be neat to have one as a studio. People are building them to be used as an office or a guest cottage. A business in Eureka Springs rents their tree houses.
    I would love to stay a week-end in one to enjoy and to dream.

  1. February 1, 2010

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