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Is Bigger Really Better?

American homes are growing ever larger. Is that upward mobility or increased isolation?

Affordable housing is as elusive as ever, but American houses continue to get bigger, raising a variety of challenging ethical questions about our society and how we relate to each other.
Image Credit: Michael / Creative Commons license via Flickr

The United States is facing a housing crisis: Affordable housing is inadequate, while luxury homes abound. Homelessness remains a persistent problem in many areas of the country.

Despite this, popular culture has often focused on housing as an opportunity for upward mobility: the American Dream wrapped within four walls and a roof. The housing industry has contributed to this belief as it has promoted ideals of “living better.” Happiness is marketed as living with both more space and more amenities.

As an architect and scholar who examines how we shape buildings and how they shape us, I’ve examined the trend toward “more is better” in housing. Opulent housing is promoted as a reward for hard work and diligence, turning housing from a basic necessity into an aspirational product.

Yet what are the ethical consequences of such aspirational dreams? Is there a point where “more is better” creates an ethical dilemma?

The better housing craze

The average single-family home built in the United States in the 1960s or before was less than 1,500 square feet in size. By 2016, the median size of a new, single-family home sold in the United States was 2,422 square feet, almost twice as large.

Single-family homes built in the 1980s had a median of six rooms. By 2000, the median number of rooms was seven. What’s more, homes built in the 2000s were more likely than earlier models to have more of all types of spaces: bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, family rooms, dining rooms, dens, recreation rooms, utility rooms and, as the number of cars per family increased, garages.

Today, homebuilding companies promote these expanding spaces — large yards, spaces for entertainment, private swimming pools, or even home theaters — as needed for recreation and social events.

Each home a castle?

Living better is not only defined as having more space, but also as having more and newer products. Since at least the 1920s, when the “servant crisis” forced the mistress of the house to take on tasks servants had once performed, marketing efforts have suggested that increasing the range of products and amenities in our home will make housework easier and family life more pleasant. The scale of such products has only increased over time.

In the 1920s, advertising suggested that middle-class women who had once had servants to do their more odious housework could now, with the right cleaners, be able to easily do the job themselves.

By the 1950s, advertisements touted coordinated kitchens as allowing women to save time on their housework, so they could spend more time with their families. More recently, advertisers have presented the house itself as a product that will improve the family’s social standing while providing ample space for family activities and togetherness for the parent couple, all the while remaining easy to maintain. The implication has been that even if our houses get larger, we won’t need to spend more effort running them.

In my research, I note that the housework shown — cooking, doing laundry, helping children with their homework — is presented as an opportunity for social engagement or family bonding.

Advertisements never mentioned that more bathrooms also mean more toilets to scrub, or that having a large yard with a pool for the kids and their friends means hours of upkeep.

The consequences of living big

As middle-class houses have grown ever larger, two things have happened.

First, large houses do take time to maintain. An army of cleaners and other service workers, many of them working for minimal wages, are required to keep the upscale houses in order. In some ways, we have returned to the era of even middle-class households employing low-wage servants, except that today’s servants no longer live with their employers, but are deployed by firms that provide little in the way of wages or benefits.

Second, once-public spaces such as municipal pools or recreational centers, where people from diverse backgrounds used to randomly come together, have increasingly become privatized, allowing access only to carefully circumscribed groups. Even spaces that seem public are often exclusively for the use of limited populations. For example, gated communities sometimes use taxpayer funds — money that by definition should fund projects open to the public — to build amenities such as roads, parks or playgrounds that may only be used by residents of the gated community or their guests.

Limiting access to amenities has had other consequences as well. An increase in private facilities for the well-off has gone hand-in-hand with a reduction of public facilities available to all, with a reduced quality of life for many.

Take swimming pools. Whereas in 1950, only 2,500 U.S. families owned in-ground pools, by 1999 this number had risen to 4 million. At the same time, public municipal pools were often no longer maintained and many were shuttered, leaving low-income people nowhere to swim.

Mobility opportunities have been affected, too. For example, 65% of communities built in the 1960s or earlier had public transportation; by 2005, with an increase in multi-car families, this was only 32.5%. A reduction in public transit decreases opportunities for those who do not drive, such as youth, the elderly, or people who cannot afford a car.

Redefining the paradigm

“Living better” through purchasing bigger housing with more lavish amenities thus poses several ethical questions.

In living in the United States, how willing should we be to accept a system in which relatively opulent lifestyles are achievable to the middle class only through low-wage labor by others? And how willing should we be to accept a system in which an increase in amenities purchased by the affluent foreshadows a reduction in those amenities for the financially less endowed?

Ethically, I believe that the American Dream should not be allowed to devolve into a zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain comes at others’ loss. A solution could lie in redefining the ideal of “living better.” Instead of limiting access to space through its privatization, we could think of publicly accessible spaces and amenities as providing new freedoms though opportunities for engaging with people who are different from us and who might thus stretch our thinking about the world.

Redefining the American Dream in this way would open us to new and serendipitous experiences, as we break through the walls that surround us.

Alexandra Staub is an associate professor of architecture, affiliate faculty, Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University. This post originally appeared at The Conversation.


  1. JC72 | | #1

    Gov't has been waging a war on affordable housing for decades
    -Rent control/zoning restrictions; limit the supply of housing.

    -The progressive ideological war against boarding "rooming" houses.*

    -The Big Three: Monetary policy (Federal Reserve), fiscal policy (eg mortgage interest deduction), public policy (eg, GSE's Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac): All three have distorted the economy and/or the housing market by forcing people to sink more and more of their SAVINGS into ever larger homes.

    -Advancements in construction and the automobile have also had an impact.

    *See "They Way We Never Were" by historian Stephanie Coontz

  2. user-349933 | | #2

    Cause and effect
    My folks had a pool and it was a huge community builder in our family. That is the reason my kids are so connected to their extended family. I wouldn't want the work that goes into a pool but will be forever thankful for the opportunity it gave us.

    I would say more but I have to drop my daughter off at her summer job at one of the two public pools in our community supported by the huge property taxes from all the over size homes.

  3. cussnu2 | | #3

    What a load of BS. These
    What a load of BS. These larger houses with better finishes are built by SKILLED LABOR that is not low wage and they take longer to build leading to more wages per project. They have more complex systems installed by still more skilled labor and those systems are largely maintained not by the homeowner but by more high priced skilled labor. Most states fund a large portion of their public works on the backs of the extortion level property taxes paid on these houses. Many small business people make a very good living maintaining these properties. The fact that some people cutting grass or cleaning pools make minimum wage is not the fault of the homeowners or the size of the property.

    Without the pools and large yards, these UNSKILLED wrokers wouldn't have any job and many of these people go on to run their own businesses after they learn their craft. Owners of large homes are not responsible for people who cannot command a higher wage because they don't offer skills, and knowledge needed to command higher wages. Its up to the workers to make themselves worth a higher wage.

  4. user-6185887 | | #4

    This maybe the first time I
    This maybe the first time I have seen anyone be nostalgic for the segregated pools and buses of the 1950s!

    “For example, gated communities sometimes use taxpayer funds” Please provide the names of 5 gated playgrounds paid for by tax payers who cannot use the playgrounds. I clearly think you cannot, as I cannot imagine any government body could be so tone deaf.

    Everyone starts life as unskilled. If you have any sense at all you decide not to remain unskilled for long. Everyone needs one unskilled job just not for very long time. You make it sound like the low wage worker is being exploited nothing could be farther from the truth. If the pay is to low the workers will leave this job and take a better paying job.

    The rich person that makes the choice to pay a low wage worker to mow there lawn has made a choice to share some of their wealth with that person. The selfish thing they could choose to do is not spend their money on a big fancy house and pay someone to do the lawn.

  5. lance_p | | #5

    So regardless of how hard we work we should all be equal, right? I believe this is where this story is going... a world where there are no winners and no losers, just a bunch of people locked into a system of programmed mediocrity.

    No thanks.

    If I work harder than my neighbor I expect to be rewarded for it. Likewise, if my neighbor is working harder than I am, it shouldn't surprise me (or offend me) that they get ahead somehow, be it a nicer car, better clothes, or a higher level of education for their children. If my coworker works harder than I do it shouldn't surprise me if they get the promotion instead of me. The examples are endless.

    How far does this pendulum have to swing before we start heading back towards common sense?

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to John, Dan, But, Walter, and Lance
    I know enough about web forums to know that there is no use wading into a debate on the topic of, "Is it good for the community to have a neighborhood of really big houses for rich people?" The topic can be debated forever.

    Academic research shows that countries with greater wealth and income inequality have citizens that are unhappier, and less healthy, than countries with less wealth and income inequality. (See, for example, Inequality and Health; and Inequality index; and Income Inequality Makes Whole Countries Less Happy; and Income Inequality Leads to Less Happy People; and Reducing Income Inequality to Advance Health.)

    But, as someone will soon remind me, this is America, where freedom is a more important value than social cohesion, public health, or the happiness of our citizens. Fair enough, as far as the argument goes.

    But what I'd really like to do is bring the discussion back to the issue that matters to green builders: the environmental impact of our buildings, specifically our homes. There isn't much debate possible on this issue: smaller homes have less of an environmental impact than bigger homes.

    For more information on this topic, see "What’s the Definition of ‘Green Building’?"

    Green builders should be steering clients toward decisions that result in smaller buildings. If you don't agree with this principle, that's fine. There's probably a website out there for mansion builders. But this is a green building website, and a focus on small homes will continue to be part of the GBA philosophy.

  7. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #7

    Smaller mansions
    People (I am one of them) like to point out the hypocrisy of Al Gore adding geothermal systems to make his 15,000 sf house greener. Can a 15,000 sf house ever be green? Or is it better to ask, "If you are going to build a 15,000 sf house, how can we make it as green as possible?" Or in Gore's case, "If you already own a 15,000 sf house, how can you reduce your negative impact on the planet moving forward?" The obvious answer is to tear down about 12,000 sf of it or allow 5-10 other families to move in.

    When articles like this blog come out, many people react harshly and immediately, expecting this to be a call for more government intrusion on our personal freedoms. But John Clark gets it exactly right above - the government has been implementing policy for years that has led us in this direction. Is it not appropriate that We The People should discuss the possibility that these policies are not the best for our society and our planet? You would think that the small government folks would be all over the possibility of eliminating more government regulations, bureaucracy, and intervention in the economy by eliminating these wasteful and counterproductive policies.

    I happen to live in an area with dramatically large houses. I don't resent the owners for their wealth. Most of them are extraordinary hardworking, resourceful and creative people. However, the waste of space and resources does bother me. Several years ago I was looking at a rather typical 8000+ sf McMansion. The front door enters into a large 2-story foyer with curving stairs up both sides, leading to a bridge that joins the 1500 sf master suite to the other 4 bedrooms upstairs. To the rear of the foyer is the "family room" that measures about 30' square, with cathedral ceilings extending 2-1/2 stories to the roof. That space is so cold and unfriendly that the family spends all of their time in the 15'x20' wood paneled "den". Of course the house also has large (and largely unused) living room and dining room as well. As a part of my reason for being there, I calculated the floor area of the foyer and family room at 1800 square feet. Standing in that grand, open and completely unused space, I realized that you could actually fit my entire house within the space, with room to spare. And my house is larger than my family needs, with some rooms that get very little use.

    I think it is entirely reasonable to have a wide ranging discussion about whether or not it is good public policy to encourage this sort of waste of resources through all of the public actions that John discusses above. It is also reasonable to engage in thoughtful discussion about whether ostentatious displays of wealth are really what the American Dream is all about.

    My own opinion is probably clear. A smaller house, entirely hand-crafted and fitted like a piece of fine furniture, with systems engineered and installed to work like a Swiss watch, might cost as much as one twice the size. It would employ truly skilled workers in its construction and operation. But's negative impact on the planet would be offset or eliminated by making careful choices in selecting materials, methods, and systems with consideration of their true lifecycle costs. I think something like this ideal is the reason that most of us are hanging out at this forum rather than the McMansion forum.

  8. user-349933 | | #8

    Interested in articles about small homes greener
    Martin I'm interested in reading about how smaller homes are"greener" Maybe a comparison of say how a smaller existing home may be "greener" then a newly built "energy" efficient one.

    This particular article doesn't seem to have any conversation about "green" building unless I'm missing it. Please point out say one sentence.

    "Green" building is dependent on trained motivated individuals that are committed to the trades. Fine Home Building has responded to this challenge through the Keeping the Craft Alive segment to help promote the trades. This author does the exact opposite.

    When this author refers to those of us who earn our livings keeping homes up as "servants" I take offense. Sorry that isn't how I view the guy that came to fix my air conditioner or my friend that runs a landscaping business and it isn't the feeling a get from my customers when I work on their homes.

    Maybe the unhappiness from income inequality is growing because it is being taught to our kids by the college professors that look down on work like mowing a lawn as equivalent to slavery. I actually enjoy mowing my lawn. I fear for my kids as they enter college.

  9. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Dan Vandermolen
    Like you, I believe in the integrity and value of physical work. For most of my life, ever since I was a teenager, I have been hired by people wealthier than myself to perform a wide variety of physical tasks, ranging from yard work to painting to roof repair. At the end of the day, when I was completely exhausted, I went home and performed similar tasks at my own house, because I couldn't afford to hire anyone to do the work for me.

    This arrangement points to a power imbalance. Talking about that power imbalance does not demean the value of my work. We shouldn't shy away from a discussion of class issues just because the manual labor we engage in is meaningful and dignified.

  10. JC72 | | #10

    Martin. You of all people should know
    there's no such thing as guaranteed equal outcomes. If it were possible then everyone attending an Ivy League school would be guaranteed the same level of income regardless of their field of study.

    The 20th Century is full of examples where tens of millions of people died in the quest for equal outcomes. In fact, death is more often the result (ex, Failed grain harvest and famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33).

  11. lance_p | | #11

    Buildings Consume A Lot of Energy
    Building smaller is more efficient. Makes perfect sense. Building smaller costs less. Obvious. On an individual basis we can choose to build smaller for various reasons. We are free to do so, and many would applaud it.

    The trends show we are building bigger. Bigger than we need? Sure. Bigger than what's practical? Sometimes. I'm not sure where an 8000 sqft McMansion is considered a "typical" house, but that certainly seems to be a case of bigger than practical.

    Hoping to reverse a trend like larger housing is wishful thinking, especially if the sales pitch is mainly based around energy conservation. Let's face it... energy is cheap here in North America, and as long as that continues to be the case we will continue to see people living with a lack of concern over energy use. People will continue to buy bigger and bigger houses and trade their cars in for SUVs and trucks until they can no longer justify the cost of doing so.

    Perhaps when energy costs quadruple overnight we'll see a flood of McMansions for sale and nobody willing to buy, similar to when gas prices spiked in the mid 2000's and you couldn't give away a full size truck.

  12. vinewood | | #12

    You need a flat shovel to read this article.
    We do not need more mandatory government regulations under the guise of "building green". We need MORE FREEDOM to build as we see fit, using the BEST available information, and the BEST options. Some of those options are “green” options, and some are not. I do not support mandatory "green only" building decisions on the location, size, and type of home I can build from people like the one that wrote this article who mainly seem to be pushing a political/social agenda. I also do not support the limitations to personal freedoms that much of the current "sustainable development" movement wants to impose on the rest of us either, since many of their goals are also social or political in nature and have nothing to do with sound building practices.

    I have the right to build my home/business on acreage, away from the "city core" and public transportation access. I don't have to be within walking or biking distance of anything except the creek that flows through my own land. I don't need a city park or city services or anything provided by a city government at all. Put me out in the “country” with the least taxes and regulations possible, and leave me alone.

  13. dtaylor | | #13

    Mind your own business
    How about people just mind their own business. If you want a big house, great. If you don't, great. Society is a collection of individuals and their wants and needs. It's not some overarching political hierarchy to be managed by some select group.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Settle down, readers
    I'm going to remind Charles Taylor and Rod Vining that this is a green building web site. This is a forum for environmentally conscious builders who are interested in building homes with as small an environmental impact as possible. Here at Green Building Advisor, we advocate the construction of small, energy-efficient homes.

    Plenty of builders have values that differ from the values espoused here at GBA. That's OK. If your values differ from those of green builders, there are probably other web sites where you can read articles that won't get you as agitated as this one did.

  15. shtrum2 | | #15

    woodshed tavern
    This all reminds me of the contentious debates in Breaktime's Woodshed Tavern before the Great Purge of 2007 - 2008 . . . I miss that place. :)

  16. ethan_TFGStudio | | #16

    Freedom? Or policy and design?
    If we have learned anything over the past few years, we must have learned the hard lesson that individual tastes and preferences are heavily influenced by marketing, peer pressure, and available knowledge.

    Early in my construction admin and architecture career I had a mentor who warned me that being an architect in the United States would be difficult and frustrating because of the almost complete lack of emphasis on aesthetics (art, music, dance, etc) in our education system. We have an education policy which emphasizes reading, math and science at the expense of design. "Hard science"... but to what end?

    We can go all the way back and reference Vitruvius' "Commodity, Fitness, and Delight" to recognize that responsiveness to climate has been a component of building design and construction from the beginning (with our current break from tradition facilitated by intense mechanical intervention).

    As I wander the vast expanses of terrible design covering our landscapes, I can't help but see that what has become "desirable" to a large swath of our populous is basically a built variant of the elementary school house facade, facilitated by mechanical systems to simulate a Mediterranean climate on the inside - be damned what's going on outside.

    A great breakdown of the aesthetics of McMansion can be found at the always entertaining Really, even if you don't like what I have to say, check out that blog.

    With all due respect to the posters above who possess great building knowledge, I find it infuriating that the age old trope of "Freedom" is being dragged out from the cellar to defend large homes and large swathes of land built miles from available infrastructure. I'm not saying you can't do it, but don't pretend that in doing so you aren't being supported by public resources or responding as much to public policies as you are to personal desires which are welling up from the depth of your soul.

    Large homes in exurbs are supported by vast infrastructures (sewer extensions, road extensions, public safety - fire, police, etc). Secondly, there are policies (Federal, State, and private) in place, such as Federal Mortgage Interest tax reduction, emphasis on GDP growth and New Home Building starts, Square foot valuation on MLS, mortage underwriting, etc, which tend to emphasize and encourage higher square footage and larger swaths of land at the expense of other methods of valuation.

    Also, I have seen first hand how design software such as Softplan play right into the McMansion juggernaut by easily creating engineered cut sheets for dormer explosions...

    How can we sit here all day and talk about thermal bridges and the like without discussing design? And isn't scale, order, layout, form, position in the landscape all part of design? Green Bulding can't be just about minute details and material specification any more than transportation is about what type of tire you put on your car.

  17. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #17

    Well said.

  18. vinewood | | #18

    To Martin Holladay and others:
    I eagerly read Martin Holladay’s columns in Fine Homebuilding and value his knowledge of building science and energy efficiency. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Holladay or the general audience here, but this article was written by a self proclaimed “scholar” who drags homelessness, diversity, public swimming pools, servants, and blatant class warfare into a discussion about green building, and then tells me what to do based on their “superior” knowledge and intellect. The author acts as though there are only so many “amenities” to go around, and since some people have too many of them, other people are doing without, and they want to put a stop to it.

    Why am I here? I, and probably some others who did not immediately fall in line behind the author, happened upon this post since it was featured in Fine Homebuilding’s “eLetter” email.

    I own EVERY issue of Fine Homebuilding ever printed. FHB was one of the many sources I used to help me design my current energy efficient "hurricane/tornado bunker" home. I used ICF (concrete/rebar) construction, brick outside, 24 ga. metal roof over radiant barrier over peel/stick over 3/4" plywood glued/screwed to the trusses, sealed attic construction, geothermal HVAC with desuperheater to heat water, the highest rated impact windows/doors/garage doors I could feasibly use, energy efficient appliances and light fixtures, a fire sprinkler system, and all built to a wind load of 200mph. I also sawed the trees that I cut down into boards for forms and trim.

    My family and I lived and ran a business out of a little 1500sqft ranch home for 25 years before purchasing 15 acres and building our new home/office building. It’s a big single story ranch home with everything under one large hip roof with no dormers, gables, or skylights to catch the wind or leak. I also have no roof penetrations for plumbing vents. The county road I am on has been there for about 175 years, and is lined with homes large and small, on plots of land large and small as well. We don’t have, want, or need a city government, a municipal sewer system, city garbage service, public transportation etc. Nobody extended any “infrastructure” so I could build my home, and as county residents, we pay fees and taxes for fire and police protection and road maintenance. I pump my own water out of the ground, and put most of it right back in the same ground. Yes, on site septic systems are “green” when properly maintained. I am also prepared to install solar panels when the cost and battery options are what I consider “right”.

    I think all new homes in high wind locations should be built mostly of ICF, concrete, brick and steel, but I allow other people to disagree with me. Just like the folks who poke fun at McMansions, I see design elements in the “award winning” green homes of Fine Homebuilding that make me want to “pull my hair out” they are so impractical.

    Here is the bottom line: I want to learn as much as I can about green and energy efficient building without being beat with a “social justice” stick if I disagree. Use real science and logic to justify your arguments for or against a building size, style, or technique to persuade your audience there is a better way. Since people are going to build them anyway, larger homes can be designed and built to be more energy efficient and therefore more “green”, even if some people think they are still too big.

  19. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Response to Rod Vining
    I'm glad you are a GBA reader. Of course, GBA welcomes readers of all political persuasions, and we appreciate reasoned contributions in our comments section. It's perfectly OK to disagree with a GBA blog post, and we welcome all viewpoints here.

    Thanks for your kind words about my Fine Homebuilding columns.

    Here at GBA, we publish guest blogs from a wide variety of authors. Not all of our authors agree with each other, and GBA editors (that's a group that includes me) don't always agree with views expressed by authors of guest blogs. It's fine to consider multiple opinions.

    Now that you've decided to hang out with the greenies and environmentalists at GBA, you'll probably have to put up with a few authors who care about social justice. I'm one of them. Lots of environmentalists are concerned with social justice.

    Perhaps you'll decide that the energy-efficiency tips you read here are worth it, even if you encounter a few environmentalists and social justice advocates on these pages.

    Green Building Advisor is an unabashed advocate for environmental responsibility. That's what makes us green. It's fair to say that the vast majority of environmentalists feel that there should be limits to individual "freedom." If a U.S. citizen asserts that he or she wants the "freedom" to emit large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, most environmentalists would say that this type of "freedom" can't be unlimited. At some point, the community must insist that our need for a habitable planet -- a goal we probably all share -- requires limits on individuals' rights to pollute.

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