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June 20, 2019

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Size matters: It's the first thing that most people ask

By Andy Chappell-Dick
Small House Bluffton

Size matters.

How many square feet?  It’s at the top of a realtor’s house listing. Banks keep track. So does the county tax assessor and the municipal zoning board.  And by far, it’s the first thing that most people ask about the Small House Bluffton project at 207 North Lawn Avenue.         

960. Or perhaps 1,677. It’s an interesting question.

How do you figure out square feet?  Length times width, except then it gets complicated; you don’t just measure each room and add them up. Depending on who’s asking, there are several different sets of rules. Most measure from the outside of the exterior walls, so the thickness of the entire wall is counted. 

Some rules count a stairwell only once; others count it on each floor. Most agree that any part of a room with a ceiling under five feet tall should be excluded, unless less than half of its ceiling is lower than seven feet in which case you exclude the whole room. Some systems count porches; others allow them if they’re heated; others leave them on the outside. 

An attic is sometimes counted if it’s finished, heated, and you can reach it by stairs.  Nobody counts garages or basements, except the Village of Bluffton zoning ordinance which specifically adds sub-grade rooms to the total.

Perhaps the most widely accepted standard was adopted only recently by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). By their measure, our new house comprises 960 square feet. Bluffton’s zoning ordinance requires that all new dwellings built within village limits be at least 1,000 square feet. But by the very specific terms of the ordinance, which measure gross floor area and exclude nothing, our one-and-a-half-story house with basement is a not-so-small 1,653 square feet.

The average size of a house in the United States was well under 1,000 square feet in the 1950’s. The U.S. Census says that by 1973 it had risen to 1,660, and in 2007 it peaked at 2,521. The recession halted this steady growth, but recent data has the average climbing again as the housing market recovers. This transformation has happened as the average household size—the number of people living in a house—has dropped steadily.

According to data on file with the county auditor, there are at least 18 houses within two blocks of our project that are smaller than 1,000 square feet.  We don’t expect that these figures conform to the new ANSI standards, but it suggests that houses tend to be smaller in this neighborhood of Bluffton, which is the oldest part of town.
A parking space is 200 square feet. A tennis court is just over 2,800 square feet. Most Americans find themselves in a living space somewhere between these two. (Some people skew the average: consider that Bill Gates lives in a 66,000 square foot mansion.  Production homebuilder Jay Shafer sells houses that are 96 square feet. My daughter’s college dorm room has no visible floor space at all.  But these all stretch the definition of HOUSE.)  

So what is small? It’s important to clarify. An internet search for “small houses” reveals a downsizing movement towards houses better described as “tiny.” More often than not, “tiny houses” are creative dwellings built upon old trailer frames, or in trees, or made out of steel shipping containers, or avant-garde art installations. With some exceptions, they’re usually not actual houses--with a foundation, with utilities, in a neighborhood with other houses.  Tiny houses rarely exceed 400 square feet.

But at Small House Bluffton, we’ve decided to build small houses, a bit bigger than tiny, and permanently rooted in a neighborhood. Our definition of a “small house” is one between 600 and 1,000 square feet. It has all the amenities of the “average” home, just in less space. 

The national trend is to fewer people per square foot—and more square feet for each person. Why would anyone choose less space? This is one question for the community, as we all seek answers to the challenges of our times.