Did you know a new, single-family American house is now nearly 240 percent larger than it was in 1950? According to the National Association of Home Builders, an industry group, in 2004—the most recent year for which data is available—a single-family home measured 2,349 square feet; in 1950, it was 983 square feet.
Yet as our houses grow, Americans have become increasingly insular. Sure, the latest home-oriented trend is hiving—using your home as a base but making forays into the larger world—and there has been an increase in the number of porches, patios, and other places that link public and private. But real community involvement is still lacking. Membership in church, political, and social groups is down, voting rates are scraping the ground, and books like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and Richard Sennett's The Fall of Public Man detail and decry our atomized society.
How can we fix the alienation? Author Shay Salomon has a suggestion: Build smaller houses. In her book Little House on a Small Planet: Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats, and Energy Efficient Possibilities (Lyons Press), Salomon, a carpenter and construction manager, takes us through a practical and personal examination of how we use our homes and what they symbolize to us. Questioning whether we really require media rooms, suite-like master bedrooms, music rooms, and wine cellars, she concentrates on methods to maximize the area we've got, plus ways to use communal spaces, such as parks, gardens, and playgrounds, to connect with others.