According to the National Association of Homes Builders (NAHB), the average size of the American home expanded from 983-sf in 1950 to 2,340-sf in 2004, an increase of 140 percent. More recently, an opposite trend is taking hold. Thanks to a growing level of environmental awareness as well as a desire for simplicity and freedom, more Americans are joining the movement towards simplified living. “Voluntary downscaling,” as its been called, is about learning to live joyfully in smaller spaces and with less stuff.
Architect Sarah Susanka’s 1997 book entitled The Not So Big House is credited with starting the movement towards smaller living. Susanka describes a philosophy of quality in housing over quantity of space. The foundation of this philosophy is that spaces such as guest rooms, multiple bathrooms per occupant, and formal areas do not necessarily add to function and may increase the needed resources through additional cleaning and heating/cooling costs. Despite the allure of the expansive or impressive areas found in large homes, some homeowners report that they prefer their home’s cozier, more intimate spaces where comfort, beauty, and efficiency meet.
Additionally, in the digital age when library-sized book collections and endless photos and videos can be easily accessed on a hand-held device, downsizing a home is not only feasible, but also economical and eco-friendly. Albums of photos, home videos, and hardbacks can be easily accessed with the swipe of a finger. Thanks to the advent of electronic medical records, paperless bills payment, and online wealth management, the giant stack of mail waiting to be methodically alphabetized into a filing cabinet can be eliminated, too.
There’s a new trend in housing but it isn’t a big one. Whether you call it living small, voluntary downsizing, or even the tiny house movement…the trend towards simplicity in living is catching on fast.
Willow Valley Communities resident Dolores DiBartolo and her husband Anthony are from Staten Island, NY. The DiBartolos began looking into senior living to plan for potential future needs after experiences with relatives who depleted their savings paying for long-term care. “That is not what we wanted for our future,” Dolores shares. “We learned about Lifecare at Willow Valley, and the promise that no matter what level of long-term care you may need, you are entitled to receive it without a change to your monthly fee. Lifecare’s promise brought us to Willow Valley.”
After living in a large home, though, Dolores wasn’t ready to give up all her space. The DiBartolos were planning on selecting one of Willow Valley’s large Willow Gables town homes, but a visit from their daughter, Cindy, changed their perspective.
One weekend, the DiBartolos were staying in a guest apartment at Willow Valley Communities called the Raleigh, a 925-sf, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with a study, so Cindy could look around the community. “She told me when she walked into the lobby at Lakes that she thought she’d walked into the Waldorf Astoria!” Dolores says.
“As I looked around the guest apartment with Cindy, we noticed it was set up almost exactly as her apartment in Manhattan. I said to Anthony, ‘We could live in this space,’ and he agreed,” Dolores recalls. “It made so much sense. Why would I want to move into another large home and still have to downsize again later?”
Making the move from a larger home to a smaller space may be daunting, but there can be practical as well as economic benefits. Furniture, rugs, wall hangings, and décor items you no longer need can be gifted to children, donated, or even sold. It can be a chance to start fresh with a different, updated look for your home. Instead of furnishing a dozen rooms with odds and ends, you can really invest in three or four integrated designs.
As a bonus, a smaller living space can actually help reduce clutter. If a home doesn’t have “extra rooms” where the occupants can close the door to hide boxes of old sweaters, worn chairs, and stacks of paperwork, the incentive is much greater to stay organized and tidy.
Pennsylvania-based author Francine Jay, known as “Miss Minimalist,” writes, “I never think of minimalism as deprivation. Rather, it’s eliminating the excess – unused items, unnecessary purchases, unfulfilling tasks – from your life. I may have fewer possessions, but I have more space. I may have fewer commitments, but I have more time. Minimalism is making room for what matters most.”
Other countries have more fully embraced this “smaller is better” philosophy. Every other country in the world averages smaller home sizes than the US. For example, compared to America’s 2,300-sf average, France’s average is just 1,216-sf, and the UK’s is just 818-sf!
Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, writes, “Simplicity of living, if deliberately chosen, implies a compassionate approach to life. It means that we are choosing to live our daily lives with some degree of conscious appreciation of the condition of the rest of the world.”
“My daughter really put my mind at ease on the decision to select one of Willow Valley’s smaller apartments,” Dolores continues. “She pointed out that all 12 people in our family were not going to come at once, and when they would come, it would be just as easy for them to stay at a guest room at Willow Valley or in a hotel. And for holidays, she said it was time for me to relax and give her a turn to host!”
Going smaller is not for everyone, and Willow Valley Communities certainly has a broad range of residence sizes. But those who find the philosophy of voluntary downscaling intriguing should consider some key points before making a new housing selection. Architect Marianne Cusato believes proximity to public spaces is fundamental to living small. “The house does not need to be the size of an entire town if it is connected to a town,” Cusato says.
Dolores DiBartolo notes, “People might believe that a smaller apartment is not comfortable. That’s definitely not the case for us! Plus, Willow Valley’s amenities like the fitness center, the pools, The Clubhouse, the activities, the entertainment, and of course, the delicious food, are all here to enjoy, no matter where you live in the community. Our home is not just comprised of the four walls we live in, but of everything Willow Valley has to offer.”