In my last post, I discussed the shrinking size of multifamily units and how that was just as reflective of a shift toward studios and one bedroom apartments as the contraction of all unit types. But size reductions were not limited to multifamily units. Single family housing units shrunk as well—from 2,689 square feet in 2015 to 2,634 in 2016. It's a small change, but many believe it hints at a more global trend toward smaller homes. These reductions can be attributed to some of the same factors as multifamily units, and a few particular to single family housing:

  1. Smaller household sizes. Smaller families and an ever-increasing numbers of empty-nesters, a great deal of whom live in single family homes, likely influenced decisions to build smaller homes. 
  2. Record low homeownership rates. Many who would otherwise be purchasing single family housing are renting. For new builds positioned as rentals (or end up that way due to market conditions), smaller, more affordable single family units are a better match for this market segment. 
  3. Somewhat relaxed lending climate. The average new single family housing unit in 2015 was over 2,700 square feet. This record high size had less to do with market preferences as who was being approved for lending —namely, established homeowners. Housing starts dropped precipitously following the housing crisis, so the fewer homes that were being built catered to wealthier homeowners who preferred large, luxury homes. With an uptick in lending, developers are starting to build smaller homes for first time buyers with smaller budgets. 
  4. A preference toward walkable neighborhoods. The last 70 years of single family housing development has been characterized by large homes on greenfield sites. Now market preferences are skewing toward more compact, transit-friendly and walkable neighborhoods. Developers are building smaller, more economical homes to contend with the scarce availability and high value of land these neighborhoods often carry.
  5. Labor costs and shortages. A national scarcity of good and available labor might also be compelling developers to favor smaller, less labor intensive housing units.
  6. Size fatigue. This is more of an opinion, but I suspect many people are growing tired of huge homes. While having a spacious home can be great at times, it can also be a burden to clean, heat, cool, and pay taxes on. It’s a factor alluded to in a recent NAHB survey, which found "more than two-thirds [of those surveyed] are willing to trade size for high quality products and features."

This mix of factors suggests a growing need to rethink how we design single family homes. Until very recently quantity has won over quality. But this formula seems to have run its course, and now many are asking, what does a modern single family house look like? What can it do?

Answers in our Past

There are major cultural and technological shifts presently underway: smaller household sizes, longer life expectancy, increased digital nativism, increased access to on-demand services and goods, to name but a few. These factors impact how we live and therefore should inform how we design our homes in the future.

In thinking about how to design this future home, it helps to look at the homebuilders' past responses to similar cultural and technological shifts. The Chicago Bungalow is one such response.

Built primarily between 1910-1930, the bungalow was catering to a particular cultural phenomenon, namely the waves of first generation immigrants who were rapidly moving from lower to middle class citizens. As their financial resources grew, their tolerance for sharing 500 square foot tenements with five other family members shrank.

The bungalows represented a vast improvement on the cramped urban quarters many of its occupants had previously lived in. They had 1.5 stories and measured around 1,200 square feet. Unlike apartments, they were well lit and ventilated, and featured 2-3 bedrooms.

They were built on narrow lots, big enough for a yard and a modicum of privacy, but small enough that large numbers of them could be built within easy reach of Chicago’s urban core, making them accessible by streetcars and other public transit (car ownership, while growing, was far from universal).

Their size, while larger than an apartment, was also smaller than the single family homes of the previous century. The bungalow’s dimensions, as Dominic A. Pacyga explains in Chicago Bungalow, were a function of the incorporation of many recent innovations:

Electricity, most of all, allowed the single-family house to become smaller in scale and more efficient in plan. In the kitchen, the innovation of the cooking range, the oven, the percolator, and the refrigerator reduced floor-space requirements throughout the house. The central heating system, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, and sewing machine made cleaning easier and less time consuming. In addition, the telephone enabled immediate communication to shop, which made storage space less important; stocks stayed on grocery shelves rather than in the house closet.

The bungalow adapted to these new cultural and technological realities and became wildly successful. Over 80,000 were built in Chicago, most of which stand today.

A Bungalow for the 21st century

The years following WWII saw an increase in car ownership and improved highways, which allowed developers to build larger and push homes further from city centers. It allowed us to build almost as large as we wanted to. And we did. The median size of a new single family home, while shrinking, still has over 1,000 square feet per person (based on the average American household size). Today, I think we’re collectively wondering, is bigger always better?

It is my contention —bolstered by data like the NAHB survey and other sources —that an increasing number of people want their detached single family homes to be sensibly sized, feature a host of amenities, and be in locations they love. This all favors, to quote famed industrial designer Dieter Rams, a “less, but better” design approach.

Using the Chicago Bungalow as its inspiration, my company URBANEER set about imagining what this kind of house would look like and what it could do. We thought this house should be relatively compact, flexible to adapt to the changing nature of household compositions. It should also be fully tech enabled and extremely energy efficient.

What we came up with is the URBANEER Bungalow. Like the Chicago Bungalow, its dimensions are compact: there’s an 800 square foot ground floor, a 180 square foot half floor above that, and a 550 square foot basement. But the numbers don’t tell the full story.

Just as the Chicago Bungalow was a response to the cultural and technological conditions of its day, we wanted our bungalow to meet today's conditions.

The only thing that defines culture today is change: smaller households sizes overall, more adult children living at home than ever, more people working remotely, many people choosing to age in place, and an increased dependence on technology—these are but a few things that characterize modern American culture. This shifting cultural landscape made adaptability a top priority in the bungalow's design. 

In order to achieve the greatest level of adaptability, we took a different approach to interior design. Conventional homes meet different needs by having you move to different rooms —dedicated dining rooms, studies, guest rooms, and so forth. This leads to multiple rooms, many of which become irrelevant as household members come and go and people enter new phases of their lives such as retirement.

In designing our bungalow, we wanted the rooms to move to meet your needs. We incorporated the URBANEER moving wall, two murphy beds (one on the ground floor and one on the second “half” floor), and a table that pulls from away from the kitchen island. These elements give one space multiple purposes, providing for several use-cases depending on the household makeup. It also allows the house to be quite compact without any sacrifice (and perhaps an increase) in functionality.

And like the Chicago Bungalow, we incorporated the latest technology in our home: sustainable, durable building materials, ultra efficient HVAC and energy management systems, programmable LED lighting and smart home features throughout. While the home is a prototype of sorts —one my wife and I will be living in —we designed it to be easily replicated; for example, its dimensions are designed around standardized panel sizes to reduce cutting and labor.  

Also of note is that the size enabled us to built it right where we wanted to on a small lot in the Heritage Hill area, a short walk to downtown Grand Rapids.

I believe there is a need for myriad housing options for different demographics. But given that 60-70% of the U.S. housing stock is single family housing, it’s especially important that we make sure we get this particular housing type right.

Stay tuned for more images, videos and information about the URBANEER Bungalow in the near future.

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