Small Spaces

Small Spaces

19 feet by 6 feet…those are the dimensions of the home-on-wheels that I’ll inhabit for 10 weeks on the road. 114 square feet, though in reality, it’s smaller even than that, when you subtract the space taken up by seats, cabinets, and various mechanical systems. It’s smaller than the walk-in closets in many of the homes currently on the market here in Etown. And it got me to thinking about living spaces and how much space we really need.

An NPR story several years ago reported that the then-average US home size of 2349 sq ft was more than double the size of a typical American home in 1950 (983 sq ft).

The Worldwatch Institute’s 2004 State of the World report, “The Consumer Society,” reported that two European or Japanese houses could fit inside the average new home in the US. More startlingly, new American homes contain 26 times the living space of the average person in Africa. And Worldwatch estimates that as many as one quarter of our fellow human beings on this planet have “…inadequate shelter or no house at all…”

In India, average homes measure 500 sq ft, with one third of urban homes sized at 258 sq ft or less. Four or five people live in a typical Indian household, meaning many Indians live in less space, per person, than prison inmates in the US, where prison cells average 80 – 100 sq ft.

Obviously, that’s a lot of numbers to digest. But what really strikes me about all of this is the environmental impact of heating, cooling and lighting up our biggie-sized homes, not to mention equipping them with plumbing, flooring and fixtures, then filling them with furniture and appliances. Worldwatch reports that Americans use 2.4 times as much energy in our homes as Western Europeans.

Yet, none of the articles I’ve read about reducing our individual carbon footprints has dared to suggest that we simply jettison excess material goods and move to smaller living quarters.

Luckily, some forward-thinking small-house advocates are getting long-overdue attention from homeowners, investors and the media. See:

As I think about all of the places I’ve lived in my nearly five decades on the planet (22 different homes, at last count), I realize that some of my favorite memories are connected with small spaces in those homes: from the cozy closet under the basement stairs where I spent hours writing goofy poetry as a scrawny ten year-old to the tiny windowed attic alcove where I moped and dreamed as an angst-ridden teen, from the little glass-enclosed porch overlooking the back garden at our home, Green Gables, in England, (a space barely big enough to hold my grandmother’s wicker armchair!) to my friend Marion’s 500 square foot cozy cottage (a converted garage) where the four of us and our dog lived for a few months when a rental house was sold out from under us. We even survived living in a rattle-trap trailer (er, “mobile home”) for over a year, while we fashioned a new home from 200 year-old barn logs and assorted other reclaimed and recycled materials (photo above). It wasn’t that bad, though the high winds that accompanied Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd that year threatened to turn us and our trailer into a “News at Eleven” soundbite!

Small spaces embrace us. They welcome and comfort us in a way that cathedral-ceilinged “spacious” places never do.

So, I’m looking at my 19’ x 6’ home-on-wheels with fresh eyes. For ten weeks, I’ll live a simple, pared-down life, with minimal baggage. Clutter-free. Cozy. Liberating.


35 days until departure for the cross-country trip!


What’s your favorite “small space”? What makes it special? When was the last time you spent time there?


Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison book tour sustainability

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