Square Feat: Foot Steps

Posted by Dan Maginn

When it comes to building affordably, small is good. This much you know, because well-meaning but grumpy people such as myself have told you this. Fewer square feet mean fewer nickels you need to collect in order to build said square feet. Makes sense. Small is good, true, but you must be prudent, grasshopper: You don't want to go too small. Too small is even worse (economically, functionally, spiritually) than too big. Going small for small's sake gets you no special consideration from the prize committee.

How small is too small? For a two-bedroom, two-bath house, 100 square feet is too small. That's 8 feet by 12 feet: the inside of a UPS truck, basically. Three hundred square feet? That's ok for Ted Kaczynski, but it's too small for you. Assuming you're a relatively fit person in a moderately urban area who doesn't mind bumping into your partner once in awhile, I think you're going to need an absolute, bare minimum of around 900 square feet for your two-bedroom, two-bath house. Compared to the previous numbers, this sounds huge. But don't get too excited.

In your mind (or for real, if you're so inclined) go to a football field and stand in the end zone. Now, mentally (or physically) divide the end zone into five equal chunks. See the five chunks? Now pick your favorite of the five chunks, and stand in the middle of it. This is your house! You probably don't want to go smaller than this.

(For those unfamiliar with the game of football, here's an alternate method: Visit you local grocery store and cordon off five parking spaces with bright yellow crime scene tape. It's basically the same shape.)

Where did this number come from? It's the result of 10 painstaking minutes of deductive reasoning, based on 20 years of architectural practice. I didn't just lick a frog and dream it up-it's based on certain standard minimum human dimensions that correspond to certain standard human house-functions.

My wife and I could live in a 900 square foot house in a pinch. We currently don't have the nickels to pull off building a new one, but if it meant we could actually shack up in a cool new joint of our own, we could live that small. How small is too small for you? If you channel your inner Descartes, you can figure it out in about an hour.

First, buy a nice tape measure and a Big Chief Tablet. Next, break up the home in which you currently live into its constituent parts, and jot them down. (Think "events" more than "rooms": cooking, eating, hanging out, etc.) Pay attention to the way you currently live, and how it really feels. Then, measure the spaces and record if they feel too big or too small. Remember to include all the not-so-glamorous spaces in your house: utility rooms, storage areas, circulation space and the like. Next, think about how your life might change in the future-that will definitely affect the number.

Now start jotting down how big you'll need the spaces to be in your new house. Tweak the size of each space as required, until it feels right for your future life. Carefully consider each one-as carefully as you've considered anything in your life up to this point. Jot down the numbers and then tally them up.

What's your number? It might be 900 square feet, or it might be 1,200-but whatever the number is, it's your number. Be simultaneously prudent and realistic as you perform this exercise. (Remember: too big = not good. Small = good. Too small = suck.)

My wife and I were able to slap a meaningful number together in about an hour, and it was actually kind of therapeutic and fun. We went into the process with an open mind, and worked through our future life, event by event. Sometimes we agreed immediately, and sometimes we had to meet in the middle. The fact that she's six months pregnant made things particularly interesting. Here's how we fared:

Cooking: We function just fine in a tight kitchen. For the most part, we anticipate each others' moves and stay out of the way. With this in mind, we'd just need to reproduce what we have in our current house: a nice chunk of about 150 square feet to allow for basic food storage, prep and cooking.

Dining: We don't need a formal dining room. We like to think of our kitchen / dining area as a single space: our own little one-table, 24-hour bistro. This works in our favor, smallness-wise, so we're only going to need about 120 square feet glued onto our kitchen area to make it work.

Bedrooms: We need our future bedroom to be at least 130 square feet, with Junior's room clocking in at about 110, for a total of 240 square feet. For many people this won't quite cut it-they will want a more spacious master bedroom, and a larger closet. Good for them, but Keri and I don't need it: we're fit and we like each other and we smell good, for the most part.

Closets: I need a 16-square-foot closet, and Keri a bit more than that perhaps. Let's say our total closet needs add up to 40 square feet.

Bathrooms: We don't have any special needs like separate sinks or his and hers toilets-just a standard john, with a big sink and a nicely proportioned walk-in shower. At about 5-by-10, that's 50 square feet. Maybe a bit smaller on bathroom number two, for a total of 90 square feet. Note that the same rules apply here as to the bedrooms-many people must absolutely have a more spacious area to poop, and who am I to take that privilege away from them?

Living: Aside from the kitchen and bedrooms, this is where we'll spend most of our time: learning Chinese, teaching Junior about aardvarks, watching TV shows featuring attractive vampires. Two hundred square feet ought to do it.

Storage: Living small means you need to actively keep a handle on what stays and what goes. Adding all pantries, closets and storage areas together (and assuming we don't have a basement in our affordable micro-house) Keri and I are going to need a minimum of about 80 square feet. We can divvy this up all over the house, in clever little nodes and built-ins.

Circulation: You need to consider some basic walking-around area to connect all these nice chunks. Adding everything up, and assuming our affordable house is a single-level affair, 50 square feet ought to be about right. Sloppy circulation sucks nickels like an aardvark sucks ants.

Mechanical/utility: This is the often overlooked and supremely un-fun area where your furnace and water heater and trash bags and all the spiders live. Keri and I can be pretty well organized, so let's say 50 square feet.

And that's it. Sleeping, cooking, eating, bathrooming, living, storing, walking around, and utilitizing. All told, our event list totals out at about 1,050 square feet. Perhaps your number is smaller. On the other hand, you may very well want to increase the size of your bedroom or kitchen, or add another bedroom-which would easily swing you in the other direction a few hundred feet.

I polled a few of my architect friends to hear what they had to say about affordable house sizes. Their numbers ranged from 900 to 1,400, with the average coming in at about 1,200. Obviously, there are no absolutes with regard to house size, but it's interesting to get a better mental grip on one's own square-footprint and compare it to others.

Understanding housing has as much to do with sociology, psychology and self-awareness as it does economics. Understanding your square foot number is the first step. The next step involves understanding the implications of quality, which affects the experience of your square footage. Once you have a sense of size, quality and initial cost, the next step involves understanding longer-term costs associated with the daily operation of your home, and its ongoing maintenance. Stay tuned.

Guest writer Dan Maginn is a principal with El Dorado Inc, an architecture firm in Kansas City, Missouri. This is the second in a four-part series titled "Square Feat," which will explore the myths and realities surrounding affordable housing. Read the previous entries here.