Small green homes trend reflects desire for healthy, sustainable lifestyles

| by Gary Wollenhaupt
Small green homes trend reflects desire for healthy, sustainable lifestyles

In the land of the super-size value meal and gigantic SUVs, new homes in America are getting smaller, and greener. Will the shift to efficient green building be permanent? Some industry insiders think so.

Look back a few years. The median home size in America was near 2,300 square feet at the peak of the market in 2007, with many McMansions topping 10,000 square feet. Today, the median home size has dropped to about 2,100 square feet and more than one-third of Americans say their ideal home size is actually less than 2,000 square feet, according to a survey by real-estate site Trulia.

Architects and homebuilders welcome the trend toward smaller homes built with sustainable techniques and designed with energy-efficiency and green living in mind. recently spoke to two architects leading the way in designing small, green homes that maximize livability and sustainability in an efficient package.

CC: Architect Chad Cornette operates Cantilever Design, an architectural firm in Green Bay, Wisc. He has designed numerous small homes, including a group of 16 homes for low-income residents certified by the Wisconsin Green Built Home program.

DM: Architect David Maurer is president of TightLines Design, a design and consulting firm that specializes in small green home designs. Many clients are non-profit developers such as municipalities revitalizing a neighborhood and Habitat for Humanity organizations across the country.

PGH: Do you see the small home trend taking hold?

CC: I’ve always promoted to people to build as small a home as they can.

DM: We’re starting to see a move toward smaller homes, starting to see for profit developers starting to contact us for retirement communities, for people who were in the 4,500-square-foot big house but are now empty nesters. They realized they can get by on 1,500 square feet.

PGH: Why are people looking for smaller homes?

CC: Most of my clients are people who are going to retire or are people who in the 35-to-45 year-old range who seem to be looking for quality. One, because it’s energy efficient and, two, you get better quality.

DM: I am seeing people much more interested in smaller homes and the affordable living aspect. A 2,000-square-foot house is simply going to cost less to build and maintain than a 4,500 square-foot house.

PGH: What do you consider to be a small home?

Cantiliever Design small green homeCC: I’ve seen people build houses that are very small, and you could do that for a cabin or cottage or a back yard building, but you’re going to need at least 850 square feet to live in.

DM: Our specialty has been in the 1,000- to 1,500-square-feet-size house. Our premise is that for permanent living you need three bedrooms. You have a master suite and a secondary bedroom that can be a guest room or a kid’s room. Then you have a third bedroom that’s really a flex room. It can be a workout room or hobby room or another child’s bedroom, and also a second bath.

PGH: How do you make a small home not seem so small?

CC: I look at a home from spatial flow point of view rather than from a functional point of view. That’sBedroom with corner windowsespecially important in a small home. You need to open spaces up to each other and achieve something that seems larger than it is. You can see different qualities of light coming through different spaces. Those kinds of elements go toward making a small space seem larger.

One of the tricks I promote is connecting to the outdoors. I like putting windows out the corner of the projects. So instead of having a corner in the room, it’s now windows. Stand in that space and you’re surrounded by the outdoors. 

DM: That’s when it comes down to providing good, flexible designs. That’s when you have smaller living rooms but have a lot shared spaces, such as kitchens that are open to dining rooms so that the space feels bigger but you’re using much less square footage.

PGH: What are some of the benefits of building and living in a small, green home?

DM: We did a Habitat for Humanity house for a single mother with three kids, two of whom have asthma. We made sure all the products that went in were healthy, the house envelope was tight, there was no off-gassing and there was good filtration on the mechanical system. We don’t have a lot of data yet, but think about what happens for these kids if the asthma symptoms go away. Think of the costs this family is now saving from not having to deal with this, and the better quality of life. Try to put a dollar amount on that, you can’t do it.

PGH: Are your homes green certified?

Tightlines Design small homeCC:  Most of my clients want the cheapest form of green certification possible. They just want it to be built green; they don’t care if it’s certified most of the time. But they want to see that checklist and know they are making wise decisions. They want to know how much insulation we’re using, how we’re sealing the package, like caulking all the framing seams and recessed lighting.

DM: We’re not seeing that many smaller homes go through NAHB or LEED for homes because of the expense of the certification. They’re just trying to balance the money. For example if it’s an extra $2,000, those fees could go toward a higher energy-efficient HVAC unit. All our designs meet Energy Star standards.

Thanks again to Chad Cornette and David Maurer for educating and inspiring us about small green homes.

(Photos courtesy of Cantilever Design and Tightlines Designs)

Topics: Building Green, Certification / LEED, Indoor Air Quality, Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Products

Companies: TightLines Designs

Gary Wollenhaupt

Gary Wollenhaupt is an experienced writer and editor, with a background as a daily newspaper reporter as well as corporate and agency public relations and marketing. He is constantly looking for affordable green upgrades to make to his home in eastern Kentucky.

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