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Excerpt from Jay Shafer's Small House Book (Part 2 - A Good Home)

The scale of our homes should be derived from the real needs of our daily lives, not from vanity, insecurity, or a need for public display. Home should be the setting for life, not the measure of it. James Gauer

A small house is not merely as good as its larger correlate, it is better. A home that is designed to meet its occupants’ domestic needs for contented living without exceeding those needs will invariably surpass the quality of a bigger one in terms of sustainability, economics and aesthetics.


Under no circumstances does a 3,000 square foot house for two qualify as “green” architecture. All the photovoltaic panels, solar gain and reclaimed materials in the world can never change that. At 2,400 square feet, the average American house now emits more greenhouse gases than the average American car, produces seven tons of construction waste, and occupies more than thirty times as much land per inhabitant as a home in China.

Our houses have quickly become the biggest in the world—four times the international average. Between 1950 and 2000, the median size of a new house in the U.S. more than doubled, even though the number of people per household shrank by more than twenty-five percent.

Not so long ago you could expect to find just one bathroom in a house, but by 1972, half of all new homes contained two or more bathrooms. Ten years later, three-quarters did. More bathrooms, more bedrooms and dens, bigger rooms overall, and, perhaps most notably, more stuff has come to mean more square footage. America’s houses have, quite literally, become bloated warehouses full of toys, furniture, decorations and a lot of things we most likely will never see or use again.

As prodigal as this may seem already, even a space capable of meeting our extravagant living and storage needs is not always enough. We still have to worry about impressing a perceived audience. Entire rooms must be added to accommodate anticipated parties that may never be given and guests who may never arrive. It is not uncommon for a living room to go unused for months between social gatherings and, even then, quickly empty out as guests gravitate toward the informality of the kitchen.

The issue of over-consumption is conspicuously absent from mainstream green discourse. You are unlikely to find the answer to sprawl offered in a sustainable materials catalogue. Accountable consumption stands to serve no particular business interest. Building financiers and the real estate industry are certainly pleased with the current trend. Bigger is better from their perspective, and they are always eager to tell us so. When adjusted for inflation, houses are the same price per square foot now as they were in the 70s. That means growth is only possible so long as more product is sold.

If you do only one thing to make your new home more environmentally sound, make it small. Unless supporting the housing industry is the kind of sustainability you hope to achieve, a reasonably scaled home is the best way there is to make a positive difference with real estate.

— Jay Shafer 

To read more from Jay's Small House Book, order your copy HERE.

You can also download the first chapter for free HERE

Posted by Alicia Feltman — December 12, 2012



You nailed it. I really struggle with all this LEED stuff as I think some of these folks’ hearts are in the right place. But adding additional mechanical systems and not changing ANY of our damaging habits is really just enabling. It’s also not accessible to the masses. We can’t all have photovoltaic arrays on our roofs and expensive ‘green’ alternative materials and devices. It’s not ‘SUSTAINABLE’ or realistic.

December 12 2012 at 01:12 PM

Jay Shafer:

There’s actually a somewhat new trend of people trying to build the biggest “green” house on record. I don’t know who’ll win, but I know who loses.

December 12 2012 at 04:12 PM

Jeff Taylor:

I will be very interested in following the development of your Napoleon Complex. The thought has crossed my mine as well. We have one small home community of about 10 homes several miles from where I live. The units appear to be surplus “Katrina” temporary housing and are all identical except for color. They face a small body of water and are offered as rentals only. The owner rents them for $900 per month with all utilities (including cable and internet), and furnishings. We live in a military community so I assume the $900 is somehow tied to BAQ.
When I first thought about this I was concerned homes with less than 1,000 square feet would not be permitted and I am still not sure if they would be here without a variance. Sounds live the zoning folks you are working with are willing to be creative and are not just bureaucrats. Anyway, good luck on your project.

Jeff Taylor

December 12 2012 at 05:12 PM


Where can I sign up to move to Napoleon and live in a Marmara? As I read this post I kept nodding my head in agreement, even uttering “yes, yes, yes” out-loud a few times. I am so excited about seeing a “trailer park” filled with tiny homes around a functional green space with alternative energy assisting those who live in the community. It’s such a fantastic idea.

Are the plans modifiable at all? For instance,would it be possible to move the front door on the Marmara off-center, to the left? Or even relocate it to the side of the house? Are those kinds of structural modifications feasible? And thank you so much for putting the floor-plan up for the Marmara – seeing a downstairs bedroom (that’s actually separate) in a home that’s under 300sq ft quite literally brings joy to my soul.

December 12 2012 at 09:12 PM

Renee Shatanoff:

Are your homes adaptable to those who have physical disabilities? I’m thinking of people who want to “downsize” and “age in place”.

January 26 2013 at 08:01 AM

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