Too Big

I would first like to congratulate Linda Ligon for fessing-up to her angst over building a house that is perhaps too big ("So Big"-September/October 2002). If she is conflicted, I am not. Her house is too big. But I say this only because I value minimalism and not because I think it is fundamentally greener to build small than large. Though, given today's building technologies it is likely the case that smaller is better.

Over the past 50 years we have witnessed the steady increase in the size of single family, detached housing. This housing is not merely "detached" from adjoining houses, but is increasingly detached socially as well. According to NAHB, in the last 30 years, the average home size has increased from 1,400 square feet to 2,200 square feet while the size of the family has actually decreased from 3.4 to 2.7 people. Linda herself points to the reasons why. The feeling of a "need" to be constantly doing things to maintain a level of happiness. Spinning, weaving, vintnering, planting, and now building. And along with these activities the need for more rooms for all the gear and the ubiquitous gear-hauler, the SUV.

Why have we become such a restless people unable to sit and contemplate the innate beauty of nature? To revel in more than our own creations? To ponder the stars without making it an opportunity to buy a telescope? To walk, see, hear and touch nature without trying to "improve" it?

Nowhere is this more revealed than in the description of the homesite as, "broad, flat, featureless." It seems to me that broadness, and flatness are its features. How is a home of 2700 square feet going to lessen this feeling? By offering a place to hide from featureless nature with a home crammed with stuff?

And why not have one or two multi-purpose spaces? What about having several small buildings rather than sinking everything into one concrete block barracks? Something that looks like a settlement rather than a singularity? My guess is that in the end it is not the moon she will find monstrous, but the sore-thumb of a house sticking up out of nature's perfect expanse.

Dear Mark,

Thanks for your comments on my column. I've taken some pretty brutal hits over it, but yours is the first really thoughtful response I've gotten that moves the discourse forward. I agree with you that small isn't necessarily greener--for energy efficiency and use of the land, I'd put our house up against most any in our community, regardless of size. But I was intrigued by your comments about our society's trending toward detachment and restlessness, and how this is reflected in our housing choices. Gives me a lot to think about on a personal level. But we're finding more and more that our readers are interested in hearing about community-building, co-housing, urban in-fill. And we're finding wonderful stories to share from all over the country.

(I can't help being a bit defensive here, though--spinning, weaving, and gardening are my meditative practices, not my busy work. Our house is nothing like a barracks--and it does in fact sit well on the land, which was chosen for its clear view to the east for the sunrise, the most important part of my day. It's really hard to tell the whole truth in 750 words--I'm
often startled at how I'm judged on the basis of these sketchy personal stories.)

So--ouch, but thanks for bringing a wise perspective to an important issue.

Linda Ligon
Interweave Press and Natural Home Magazine

Thank you for taking the time to reply and apologies for the cheap literary shots.

I picked up my first copy of Natural Home at the well attended Green Building Materials show at the Pacific Energy Center in San Francisco last week. I very much appreciate the magazines design and content. I hope you do well with it.

The best book I know of on urban sprawl and the known cures is the eminently readable "Suburban Nation" by Duany, Plater-Zyberk.

The book that establishes a new vision for a positive relationship between humans and nature and shows real world examples of how to get there is "cradle to cradle" by William "Bill" McDonough, et al. I recommend them both to you if you have not read them already.

Finally, I do wish you luck on your home. May it fulfill your every wish for it.



Marc--thanks for your gracious reply--I feel a little less like the Leona Helmsley of the West! (You can tell I have a certain amount of internal conflict here.) I'll look forward to checking into the literature you've suggested. (I'm familiar with Cradle to Cradle, but the other one is new to me.)

Best wishes, Linda Ligon