How do we design homes without mortgages and smaller utility bills? As you might imagine - this is a sizable question.
The first step is to start with the floor plan. The perception of what size of house we need has drastically changed over the last few decades. In 1950, the average home was under 1000 square feet. Today homes are typically 2500 square feet or more. Our family size has decreased from 3.37 people/ house to 2.5 people per household, but the square footage we expect has risen. Why is that?
The real question is why do we need all that space? Larger square footage requires more fuel to heat and to cool, as well as a larger mortgage. Larger mortgages require us to work more and might force us to work in jobs that don't fulfill us. We may be spending less time with our spouse or family to pay for our family home. Sound like a vicious cycle?
Several years ago I was working a home show with a colleague of mine who is a gifted designer of modest-sized homes. A young family of four approached our booth. Before we could inquire about their budget, needs, lifestyle, or how they liked to spend time at home, they informed us that they needed us to design them a 4000 square foot home. My colleague asked them how they had arrived at that number, and they said that's what their builder had told them.
The intention is not to blame builders but to empower homeowners to educate themselves before getting talked into a home that doesn't fit their needs. Any house requires a significant amount of money and potential debt. It is worth spending some time in the planning phase.
As homeowners, we can keep the price of our homes affordable by clarifying our needs before approaching a builder. Once you know your family's needs, you will be able to narrow down the floor plan or work with a designer to arrive at a design that fits you perfectly. It is this type of home that feels abundant and luxurious everytime you walk through the door.
Building a home that is larger than your needs will only tax your wallet, the resources it takes to construct it, the energy it takes to clean and maintain it, and the fuel required to heat and cool it.
Begin by asking yourself a lot of questions. Take time to answer them and to reflect on them. Take time to sketch out your ideas. Nothing cost anything or is set in stone as long as it is just lines on paper.
Erase and redraw.
Laying out a home is like drawing a spiral - not a line. Start. Refine. Draw again. Each time you go through the questions, you'll get more refined and closer to the perfect house for you.
Imagine yourself in this house. Walk through an imaginary day in your ideal home. Then ask yourself these questions again. Add some of your own. You can't ask too many questions.
What do you need to meet your needs exactly?
Do you want a sunny kitchen?
Do you like your bedroom dark or filled with morning light?
Where do you spend most of your time? The kitchen table? The living room? In your bedrooms?
Do you need a separate room for every function?
What rooms could have many purposes?
Do have pieces of furniture you want to make sure fit in your new home? (I drew out these pieces to scale and placed them in my floor plan to make sure I would have a place for them.)
For example, do you need a separate space for an office, dining room, family room, guest room, etc.?
If you run a business from home, you may need an office. But with today's near-paperless devices, I find I don't need as much space for filing cabinets and office tools as I did a decade ago. I designed an office in a closet in my bedroom while the kids were young. There are many creative office solutions available without needing an entire room. Planning a nook or closet with doors that close to hide a work area and signify the end of the workday may be all that is necessary.
The dining room is also a place that is often rarely used. Consider using a table that has leaves that can slide out and expand for the holiday meal. My grandmother always hosted a lovely dinner party. She had a drop-leaf table that was usually tucked into a bay window until she hosted a fancy dinner. Then she rolled it out of the window and expanded it to fit the group. I have fond memories of having formal dinners in her living room with the fire crackling in the fireplace.
Do you need a guest room? How many times a year is it used? Are there other alternatives? Bed spaces can be tucked away in lots of creative places — a bump-out with a sliding door, futons folded away in a cabinet, a window seat that doubles as a bed.
How many bathrooms do you need? These are some of the most expensive rooms in the house to build and furnish.
If you want to dive deeper into thinking through your spaces, then I highly recommend digging into The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka. I read this book cover to cover before I began designing Twisted Oak.
The exercise in chapter 2 will help you understand how you live in your current space. List all your rooms, the square footage, and then list how many hours you spend in that space. I would extend that list to consider storage. Storing items that we rarely or never use is also an expense. This exercise can help you pare down the things you need to build space for in your new or remodeled home. Assigning a dollar value to that square footage may make the exercise even more realistic.
It can be incredibly eye-opening to see how little square footage we live in most of the time. I found that we spend almost all of our time in the kitchen and very little time, aside from sleeping, in our bedrooms. Therefore I designed Twisted Oak with a spacious great room and a large kitchen table. The bedrooms are comfy, but not intended as living space.
The idea is to come up with the best, most affordable home that will make YOUR FAMILY comfortable. Most of us can live in smaller spaces than we've been conditioned to believe.
For some, a tiny house may feel like the perfect fit, but for others, it may feel cramped or confined. The critical lesson is to understand what YOU need - exactly what you need. No more and no less.
I write about my design process in creating Twisted Oak, our self-sustaining home in my book: Twisted Oak: A Journey to Create a Self-Sustaining Life and Home
Please leave me a question or comment below. I read all my comments, and I look forward to your answering questions.