Downsize Nation: Welcome to the New, Smaller American Dream

As heartbreaking as the job losses and foreclosures are, there is also a bright side to the downward economy -- Americans are beginning to see that "less is more."

Editor's Note: Vision Quest: In these trying times of frustration and confusion, of Tea Party Right Wing ascendance, and too much Obama and Democratic party  impotence and failure of the imagination, let's pause. It is again the moment to step back, stimulate the imagination, rethink, and bring together the best ideas, models, and blueprints for change, especially the ones that can work. The world many of us aspire to, which seemed much closer just two short years ago, is again rapidly disappearing from view. But let's not let it. Let's keep the ideas, vision, and alternatives in play, and in discussion. Because it seems clear we need some fresh thinking. Most of those folks inside the Beltway, along with the tens of thousands of lobbyists all with their special agendas, which have almost nothing to do with what is good for us, seem to have a hard time imagining things much different than they are used to day after day. After all, they all do quite well that way. But for the rest of us, that won't work. AlterNet is resurfacing this excellent article by Enviro editor Tara Lohan for the new year.

It's been two years since 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by a frenzied crowd of Black Friday shoppers at a Long Island Walmart. The stampede is a twisted symbol of what's become of the American Dream: We'll apparently stop at nothing in the quest for more stuff.

But that wasn't the holy grail that James Truslow Adams had in mind when he first coined the phrase "American Dream" in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. Instead he believed in "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone ... It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

Adams wrote that as the Great Depression was beginning to swallow many Americans' dreams -- and their fortunes. Perhaps that time of financial instability helped him to see something beyond just the grasping for wealth. As Americans today are trying to claw their way out of our worst economic rout since the days of Adams, have we gained any similar insight?

The end of the second World War ignited the spark of our consumer culture -- one that reached a conflagration by the 1980s as spending outpaced the median income and has ended, for many, in catastrophe in recent years. As heartbreaking as the job losses and foreclosures are, there is also a bright side to the downward economy -- Americans are beginning to see some value in the "less is more" adage.

RIP McMansions

The era of "bigger is better" has brought us the infamous McMansion, which Wikipedia defines as, "a pejorative term for large new houses which are judged as pretentious, tasteless, or badly designed for their neighborhood." They could otherwise be likened to the all-you-can-eat buffets of the building world. Or as Kim Derby writes for EcoSalon, they are "Poorly built and inauthentic, most look like they belong on a movie set because their facades are just that, a facade."

Once ubiquitous on the suburban skyline, the days for McMansions may now be numbered, much like the way the mammoth Hummer has been pushed toward extinction.

Cindy Perman writes that the median home size has shrunk from 2,300 square feet in 2007 to 2,100 today. That may not seem like a huge jump, especially considering the average home size in the U.S. in the 1950s was 983 square feet, but the downward decline is a first in modern times and compared to the building frenzy that produced 10,000 square foot McMansions, it's definitely a step in the right direction. After all, the average family size has actually shrunk from 3.8 people in the '50s to 2.6 people today.

Kermit Baker, the chief economist at the American Institute of Architects told CNBC, "We continue to move away from the McMansion chapter of residential design, with more demand for practicality throughout the home. There has been a drop off in the popularity of upscale property enhancements such as formal landscaping, decorative water features, tennis courts, and gazebos."

This year's Buildermagazine concept home is only 1,700 square feet and many builders today, Perman writes, are rethinking how they design homes -- getting away from the myriad "bonus" rooms and instead focusing more on great rooms -- large family rooms that can accommodate different uses and bring family together in communal spaces. The trend is catching on -- one-third of people surveyed by the real estate Web site Trulia.com said they'd actually prefer a house under 2,000 square feet.

Tiny Homes Make Big Gains

For a growing number of people even 2,000 square feet is too much space and so they're saying goodbye to the albatross of expensive mortgages and buying into the "tiny house movement" instead. "I woke up to the reality that I had taken on too much risk during good times and was totally unprepared for tough times," wroteMichael Janzen for Yes!magazine. "Armed with this better understanding of the financial risks I'd already committed to, I started looking for answers and found the tiny house movement, which offers a different way of thinking about housing."

This movement focuses on how much space (and stuff) we actually need, instead of how much we want or think we're suppose to want. Janzen learned about tiny living from Jay Shafer who started Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and spent years living in spaces under 100 square feet. Janzen is in the process of building a house with found and reclaimed materials that will be built on a trailer and contain 80 square feet of indoor living space. What do you get for 80 square feet? In this case, room to sleep three (two in a loft and the third on a flip out bed), a small kitchen and bathroom with a composting toilet.

Janzen is thinking of his new house as a second home and safety net if times get tough. Others use tiny homes as offices or guest rooms in their yards, or affordable vacation homes. But many people are happy to call a few hundred feet of space their sole residence. "It's very un-American in the sense that living small means consuming less," Shafer told the AP. "Living in a small house like this really entails knowing what you need to be happy and getting rid of everything else."

A hundred feet of space may make some people claustrophobic, but so too can mountains of debt. For people struggling to pay expensive home loans, the idea of getting a house for only 20,000 bucks or getting the plans for only a few hundred and building it yourself may seem like a breath of fresh air. Shafer's Tumbleweed Tiny Homes business is booming, the AP reports he now sells 50 blueprints a year instead of the 5 he was averaging a decade ago. And it's not just Shafer, the Tiny House Blog run by Kent Griswold gets 5,000 to 7,000 visitor a day and the Small House Society, has grown from 300 members just five years ago to over 1,800 today.

Dee Williams is one that has joined the ranks. In 2004 she sold her 3-bedroom Portland bungalow, got rid of her $1,000 monthly mortgage payments and instead invested $10,000 in a 84 square-foot cottage, complete with solar panels. Now her only home-related expenses are $8 a month for heating.

A smaller living space inevitably means rethinking how much stuff we own. "The more intentional you are in your choices, the more every change makes room for more changes," she told Yes!magazine. "It doesn't make me feel bad about myself. I just love that there's this endless potential. To see that you have this power. You get to choose what you want. That's been cool."

Downsizing by Design

Somewhere in between McMansions and tiny homes are most of the rest of us. And even those who are in the middle are looking for less.

Between 2007 and 2009 first time home buyers made up 41 percent of the market and the National Association of Home Builders reported that these buyers were purchasing houses that average only about 1,800 square feet -- considerably smaller than the national average. And it turns out, it's not just first timers that are getting smart about saving money and doing more with less space, as Baby Boomers are finding themselves with empty nests, and some with tightened retirement funds, downsizing is becoming more popular.

Erin Conley recently helped a Southern California grandmother move to San Francisco and switch from 1,300 to 950 square feet. Conley owns the San Francisco-based business Rightsize By Design, which helps people downsize and relocate. Conley's company helps people figure out which stuff to keep and what to get rid of (in the greenest possible fashion), packs boxes, coordinates with moving companies, and then unpacks and redesigns the new space -- from hanging art to setting up electronics.

"What I do is 'interior redesign,'" said Conley. "It's not about going out and getting new stuff, but about using what people already own and getting rid of the stuff they don't need."

Some of her clients are green-minded San Franciscans who are conscious about reducing their consumption and others are hoping to save money as they get older.

A Greener Housing Market

As people have become more inclined toward smaller spaces, they've also become more aware of energy efficiency -- not only do people want more economically-sized homes, but they also want to spend less on their energy bills -- they're looking for renewable energy sources, smart appliances, water-saving fixtures, and energy efficient windows and insulation.

And the green benefits are even more robust when you consider another trend: walkability. People are increasingly preferring to live in walkable neighborhoods and are passing up houses in car-dependent suburbs.

"Boomers are downsizing as their children leave home while the millennials, or generation Y, are setting out on their careers with far different housing needs and preferences," wrote Patrick C. Doherty and Christopher B. Leinberger for the Washington Monthly. "Both of these huge demographic groups want something that the U.S. housing market is not currently providing: small one- to three-bedroom homes in walkable, transit-oriented, economically dynamic, and job-rich neighborhoods."

Not only it is a quality of life decision -- it's also an economic one. Families in walkable neighborhoods spend 12 percent of their income on transportation Doherty and Leinberger report, compared to 24 percent for those in car-dependent suburbs -- that can mean the difference of $100,000 when it comes to affording a mortgage.

This new urbanism will require bold steps in sustainable development -- something that may get a boost from an unlikely source: the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), now under the leadership of Shaun Donovan. He told the Senate: "HUD can help develop communities that are livable, walkable, and sustainable by joining up transportation and housing to give families the choice to live closer to where they work and in the process cut transportation costs."

This initiative is being driven by Shelley Poticha, the head of HUD's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. "When you look at the regions that are really embracing walkability, investing in transit, and thinking about natural resources protection, these are the regions that are weathering the downturn best," Poticha told Builder magazine. "We're looking at changing the rules of the game so that sustainable communities have a fair chance of succeeding in the market."

All this is good news for the environment and for community, too. A focus on smaller homes in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods means that people are more likely to hang out in public spaces or at local businesses. Smaller houses for many has also meant smaller yards, which can result in more people visiting local parks or participating in community garden spaces. One couple who downsized from a two-bedroom apartment and few cars to a studio and bikes realized they could afford to work from home, go back to school and have more time to travel, visit with family and volunteer.

Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to create a little growth -- cultural growth, instead of economic growth. Instead of our ravenous hunger for more, some Americans are learning that living with less has a lot of rewards even beyond the obvious economic benefits. E.F Schumacher of "Small Is Beautiful" fame wrote, "The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity." As we pick up the pieces of our shattered economy, perhaps we can rebuild with a more enlightened idea of how much is enough and a more holistic view of wealth -- one that does not merely reflect the size of our homes, but instead the largeness of our lives.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
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