A woman is looking for a bigger square
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America is a place defined by bigness. It is infamous, both within its borders and abroad, for the size of its cars, its portions, its defense budget—and its houses.
Rightly so: U. According to the real-estate firms Zillow and Redfin, the median size of an American single-family home is in the neighborhood of 1, or 1, square feet. About five years ago, Sonia A. Hirt, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at the University of Georgia, was working on a book about land-use patterns in the U. Looking just at the average size of newly built houses—as opposed to an average for all houses in a country, which is a smaller number— Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are on par with the U.
These same four countries have the most rooms per household occupant o f 40 mostly wealthy countries studied by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Read: Are McMansions making people any happier? And comparisons get further muddled by the fact that different countries have different levels of urbanization and density. The country attained this status in the past half century or so as a result of its peculiar history, culture, and economics. Kazakhstan is a big country.
Government policies, however, do. As Hirt explains in her book Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation , the dictates of government have for the past century effectively steered Americans toward living in detached single-family homes—the formal term for a prototypical stand-alone house with a yard.
Roosevelt said in Many houses in postwar suburbs—such as those in the famous preplanned Levittowns—were actually quite modest, at roughly square feet, says Dolores Hayden, a former professor of architecture and American studies at Yale. But over the course of the 20th century, government policy, the invention of cheaper, mass-produced building materials, marketing by home builders, and a shift in how people regarded their houses—not just as homes, but as financial assets—encouraged ever larger houses.
In the realm of house sizes, Europe is a common point of comparison to the United States, because things have played out very differently in the two regions and because comprehensive data on house sizes in other parts of the world is harder to come by. Being able to drive farther from a city center meant cheaper land, which meant more space and bigger houses. This contentedness might reflect a preference, but it also might be a matter of necessity: European cities were established much earlier than American ones.
And when cities were fortified, that created boundaries and walls and control mechanisms, [which] has a huge impact on housing patterns. Another point Hirt raised is that land-use regulations in the U.
Besides, many cities were focused on rebuilding after the damage of World War II. Another potential explanation is that some cultural difference is at play, though this is harder to isolate as a direct cause of big houses. Perhaps a fondness for space helps explains why Australia and Canada—both former British colonies with some cultural roots similar to those of the U.
The size of American houses, though, could have less to do with laws and culture than it does with simple economics. The richer a country is, the thinking goes, the more space people can buy for themselves. And the U. Indeed, the median size of a newly built house in the U. When I spoke with Lars Pettersson, a housing economist in Sweden average house size: about 1, square feet , I asked him if he thought more Swedes would choose to have bigger homes if they had the option.
In the case of the U. The results of this process determine what people consider normal. Often, this is driven by what people see their neighbors, friends, and co-workers doing. So much of what people think is adequate depends on their context.
Frank told me about his time volunteering with the Peace Corps in Nepal, when he lived in a house with two rooms, no plumbing, and no electricity. From to , the median square footage that home buyers said they wanted dropped from 2, to 2,, according to the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group.
This might have something to do with the growing share of American households that include only one or two people. But it also might be a matter of lifestyle for some people. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. Skip to content. Sign in My Account Subscribe. The Atlantic Crossword. The Print Edition. Latest Issue Past Issues. Link Copied.
Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education. Connect Twitter.
Why Are American Homes So Big?
America is a place defined by bigness. It is infamous, both within its borders and abroad, for the size of its cars, its portions, its defense budget—and its houses. Rightly so: U.
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