The Common Good
March 2007

Attack of the Monster Houses

by Julie Polter | March 2007

Why do Americans want to live so large?

They sit on treeless hillsides, big as the barns they may have replaced. Or they squeeze onto modest lots in older suburbs, as average-size bungalows cower in their shadows. What they often lack in style they compensate for in sheer mass. Some call them monsters; others fondly call them home. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you, they are The Big Houses.

How big is big? According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the size of the average new single-family home in the United States hit an all-time high of 2,434 square feet in 2005. That's more than double the 1950 average of around 1,100 square feet, and almost a third more than the 1,645 square feet of 1975. Twenty-three percent of new houses built in 2005 were 3,000 square feet or more.

The effect of all that bulk can be dramatic. A January 2006 report from the Department of Neighborhood Planning and Zoning of Austin, Texas, describes an area of that city where houses of 1,300 square feet have been replaced by ones from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet. It's not just floor plan numbers that get skewed. In December The Tennessean newspaper reported on new tax assessments in a long-affluent part of Nashville that, for example, values one 2,074-square-foot house at $8,000 while the lot where it sits is valued at $936,000. In several parts of the city, the real value of small houses has been determined to be in having them "scraped" (demolished) and replaced with much larger ones that may be assessed at $1 million or more.

Is there a Christian perspective to bring to bear among all this bigness? The "Chosen One has nowhere to lay his head," said Jesus. But Tim Gorringe, in his book A Theology of the Built Environment, notes that "there is no radical condemnation of the security of the house" in the gospels; rather "possession and exclusive use" of houses is challenged. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, among the prophets "luxury housing is the target of some of the fiercest invective," writes Gorringe. Particularly pointed is Amos 3:15: "I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end, says the Lord." At issue isn't square footage per se, but what such houses too often represented: Oppressive rule, exploitation of the poor and the land, pride in self instead of praise of God.

This suggests that how a building functions in relation to people and place is key. Does it help us serve and praise God and love our neighbor? Tim Gorringe names imagination, order, and justice as the keywords of a Trinitarian theology of the built environment. Under such a rubric, architecture, beauty, city and regional planning, care of the environment, housing of the homeless all find their place as means of grace. So too the choices we make about where we live and how.

An influx of monster houses changes the scale of an established neighborhood, drastically affecting the natural light, air flow, and lines of sight. Some longer-term homeowners struggle to pay property taxes ballooned by the new mansions down the street. Lower-income people search near and far for a modest home they can afford. City planning departments, perhaps wowed by the new tax revenue, often do little to challenge out-of-scale buildings, and neglect the value and stability a community gains from smart affordable housing schemes and mixed-income communities.

Perhaps most worrisome is the environmental toll of XXL houses. Big houses chew up a monumental amount of resources, from building materials to watersheds. Technological advancements in insulation and other energy conservation measures can't work miracles. "Small is Beautiful," an article by Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, compares heating and cooling costs for well-insulated 3,000-square-foot homes with those of poorly insulated 1,500-square-foot ones. Even with poor insulation, the smaller homes used significantly less energy.

With all the extra costs—bigger mortgages, higher utility bills, more time spent on upkeep, hastened environmental degradation, the potential enmity of neighbors, ripple effects on the affordability of housing—why do our houses grow? Cornell economics professor Robert Frank credits the escalation of house size to the spending power of the very richest people in the U.S., which has increased significantly for the past three decades. Some of that spending has gone to bigger and better starter castles, which in turn provide an inflated reference point for conceivable and acceptable house size.

But not everyone is simply trying to keep up with the Joneses (or Gateses). Americans tend to have more stuff than ever; if you don't weed out the goods, a large house can seem simply practical. Others end up with more house than they want because nothing smaller is available when and where they're buying. Some observers theorize that diminishing community and civic involvement, the emphasis on security, and deterioration of many public spaces has translated into a perceived need for bigger and better privatized space—controlled environments for formerly public or semi-public activities. That can mean restaurant-quality kitchens, patios with luxury grill set-ups, and dedicated rooms for extensive entertainment technology, working out, or other recreation activities. Don't bowl alone—do it with your kids in your private alley!

ARCHITECT AND WRITER Sarah Susanka, guru of what she calls the "Not So Big House," believes that many people with large houses are in a misdirected search for meaning and comfort. "We are all searching for a sense of home, but we haven't developed a language to help define the qualities that we seek," she wrote in Architecture Week, continuing, "so we keep building bigger in the vague hope that somehow more will be better." Susanka's solution for her middle-class-and-upward audience is to direct their building money into smaller, custom-designed, more detailed, and beautiful houses.

Beauty is a gift to be sought, and Susanka's approach is commendable for engaging, in some ways, the "imagination" and "order" aspects of Gorringe's theological trilogy. But those hungry for the third aspect, justice, will seek more than an exquisitely crafted dream home. Gorringe writes, "If reconciliation is to go beyond pious talk it needs to take shape in the built environment where social justice is, quite literally, made concrete." This puts a call on individuals to claim responsibility for the changes they can make in their own lives, but also to work for systemic change by creatively and prophetically wrestling with policies, regulations, and community values and encouraging innovation within the design and building industries.

Wilson and Boehland note that some municipalities and private developments have placed caps on maximum home size. Conversely, some subdivisions have minimum size restrictions that might be removed to allow smaller-scale houses. Success in changing of legal and community standards often pivots on how well advocates can promote new possibilities. Karrie Jacobs, writing in Metropolis about zoning and design regulations that encourage smaller, higher density, more affordable housing in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, praised those cities for "inventing mechanisms that say yes to small instead of no to big."

On the individual level, as Christians we might ask ourselves, whatever our house size, if we do all we can to welcome Christ, in his guise of the stranger, the child, the refugee, the hungry, into our homes and communities? Do we feed his sheep—and leave enough pastures that others might feed them too? Does our house help or hinder our love of neighbor?

And sooner or later, we may all have to wrestle with journalist Robert Jensen's warning that "if there is to be global justice, we can't live in these big houses indefinitely."

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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