House Party Fail - Part 1
It seems the party may be over for proponents of America’s prohibition on small houses. A lot of folks have been enjoying the upside of a ban on diminutive dwellings for decades, but the end is nigh. The short-term prosperity afforded by requiring people to live in more house than they really need was as clear from the beginning as the inevitable consequences should have been. Those who once profited from this country's legislated drive towards ever-bigger houses (banks, municipalities and the housing industry in particular) are now facing its not-so-profitable outcome. New home construction and home financing are showing about as much promise right now as a McMansion for sale.
A Brief History of America’s Mandatory Consumption Laws:
Since its inception in 1994, the International Code Council (ICC), along with its corporate members and underwriters, has been developing and maintaining the minimum size standards originated by some in the insurance industry decades earlier.* By dictating how large American houses have to be, these building codes have helped make our homes some of the largest in the world (four times the international average). States and municipalities have eagerly adopted and enforced the codes as law. When you consider the immediate revenue generated by oversized houses through permits, construction materials, labor, infrastructure development and land costs, as well as the lingering profit to be made through heating fuel, property taxes, remodels, inordinate maintenance and (perhaps most notably) mortgage interest, it’s no wonder the regulations have been so popular with state and corporate groups alike. By requiring Americans to pay for larger houses than many of us really need, it almost seemed that sponsors of the code would enjoy prosperity without end. And they may have, if the citizens supporting them hadn’t run out of money.
Like the building department, American banks generally require borrowers to buy houses of a minimum size. The long-term cost of such seemingly unviable policy becomes clear when borrowers are, predictably, unable to make payments on their oversized investments. This little glitch was successfully mitigated in 2008 when it was announced that the same borrowers, along with every other American taxpayer, would bail out the banks in order to sustain the unsustainable system for just a little while longer. For now, at least, it’s back to business as usual.
Where our codes and banks fail to generate unwarranted consumption, zoning laws often pick up the slack. Modern zoning was developed back when over-consumption was considered an American virtue. What we now view as wasteful sprawl didn’t happen by accident. It’s the product of a conscious design to drive up consumption and increase revenues. Consider the enthusiastic prediction of pioneering urban planner, Le Corbusier, “The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the opposite direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up trees, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work… enough for all”.
Zoning has traditionally entailed dividing our built environment into different zones according to their primary intended function (commercial, residential, industrial, etc.), thereby creating more places you’d need a car to get to. Zoning has further limited efficient design by dictating how many people can live on your property, if you put a granny unit in your backyard and if you can legally turn your garden shed into an extra bedroom. With regard to mandatory consumption, zoning ensures that you can’t simply escape the laws by selling your house and living in a trailer in a friend’s backyard.
Viva la Tiny Revolution!
* In accordance with the International Residential Code, current laws mandate that all newly constructed residential structures have no less than one habitable room of at least 120 square feet (§303.3); Every kitchen must be no less than 50 square feet (§303.4); Other habitable rooms shall be no less than 70 square feet (§304.2,3); Rooms shall maintain a minimum ceiling height of 7 feet. The required height shall be measured from the finish floor to the lowest projection from the ceiling (§303.6). Habitable space is defined as: Any space intended for living, sleeping, eating or cooking.