Shrinking the American dream house

New trend fights against bigger is better mentality

Published: Monday, Nov. 28 2011 7:00 p.m. MST

Perry and Linda Cunningham remodeled a 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. This is a view aross the kitchen, eating area and into the living space. Several walls were removed to make the space open. Rennovation Design Group designed the area.

Michael De Groote, Deseret News

Whenever architect Sarah Susanka would visit a potential client's home, they would invite her into the formal living room. "We would stand until they would determine that I am a nice person and then they would say, 'Let's go visit in the kitchen, it is more comfortable there,'" she says. "It happened every single time. I don't think I ever sat in someone's formal living area. The joke is we build formal living areas for the people we would rather not have in our houses."

Today, however, many people would not hesitate to ask her to plop down at their kitchen tables. Susanka, is the author of the best selling "Not So Big House" series of books on how people can have a richer experience inhabiting their homes and lives. She found many people were not happy with the standard homes being produced. They all had traditional elements -- living rooms, dining rooms, family rooms, kitchens and so forth. But they didn't seem to match the reality of modern living.

And part of that reality is a recovering economy. As people look to buy a new home -- or if their economic situation instead leads them to consider remodeling -- the new trend is to scale back in size and eliminate the expensive wasted space in homes.

"I had to take my clients through a thought process to help them see they were not looking for a quantity of home, but a quality of home," Susanka says.


The American way has been quantity is queen. And as the years have gone by, the size of homes has increased.

Around the 1960s people started adding on family rooms to their homes -- usually adjunct to the kitchen. Susanka says adding extractor fans and dishwashers in kitchens transformed them from smelly utility spaces into living spaces. The family room and kitchen became the places where people spent their time -- the place where they really lived. Less and less time was spent in formal spaces.

Yet home builders kept building the rarely used dining rooms and living rooms -- many with furniture encased in clear plastic covers. "We have this notion about formal dining," Susanka says. "Then we have the reality of how we live."


Perry and Linda Cunningham remodeled a 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. Linda Cunningham says the home was at one time one of the "dogs of the neighborhood." But by the time the retired couple purchased it in 2007, it had already been renovated to a better condition. The Cunninghams then changed it even more. It began as a simple remodel of the kitchen to upgrade the kitchen cabinets and expanded from there. "Sarah Susanka's books were a major inspiration for us," Linda Cunningham says. "Build small but open ... and put the money into fine details that will make you happy every day of your life."

They took out walls to open up space to the kitchen. A bedroom was also changed to a media area and office and opened up to the larger living space. "We created a much more open feel," Perry Cunningham says.

"We spend a lot of time removing walls," says Ann Robinson of Renovation Design Group. "You don't have to necessarily add on a great room, you can take the space you have and open it up."

Robinson writes a column on renovation with Annie Schwemmer for the Deseret News and their firm worked on the Cunningham's home. Robinson says the main differences in homes from prior decades and new homes comes from the way people live. "Part of it is we have a lot more stuff and part of it is we don't have these individual boxes of rooms. Mainly it is the kitchen needs to be opened up so it is the center of the home."


For decades "open" meant "larger." Census Bureau data says that the average new single-family home in 1970 had 1,500 square feet. By 2007 new homes had burgeoned to 2,521 square feet. Government policies, tax incentives and a thirst for what seemed like bigger-is-better home investments encouraged larger living.

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