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Commentary: Living Too Large?

By Dawn McMullan, KERA 90.1 Commentator

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kera/local-kera-517512.mp3

Dallas, TX –

A couple in Highland Park wants to get rid of their 2,000-square-foot home. They need more space and have plans for their 5,800-square-foot dream home on the lot. So if you'll pay to move their smaller home, they'll just give it to you.

The couple has a five-month-old daughter. Two adults and a baby. And a beautiful 1918 home has no value to them. What they're building in its place will give them almost 2,000 square feet per person.

I don't mean to pick on this family. There are certainly many others in our area who would simply tear the house down, throwing history and altruism aside. But I wonder if these people would be so dissatisfied with their current home if they'd spent last week with me in Juarez.

When I first visited Juarez in March to lay the groundwork for our church mission trip to build homes for the poor, my husband and I were considering our own remodeling projects. Our house, too, is about 2,000 square feet with two bedrooms, no showers, and two almost useless closets. Having been built in the 1870s, it's just badly designed for our family of four.

We had thoughts of adding an office, master bedroom, a bathroom, walk-in closet. (Having lived in this house for eight years without a single closet to call my own, you can imagine my excitement.) The kids would move upstairs to an enormous space that used to be the attic. Their current room downstairs would be an extra room for guests or maybe a library.

In 1975, the average square feet of a new home built in the United States was 1,645. By the year 2000, it was 2,250. The average size of a new home in the Dallas area is 2,341 square feet.

The homes we just built in Juarez were 12-by-24 or 288 square feet. But they had cement floors and cement walls. And they won't catch on fire, a common cause of death in these shantytown communities. Before we built the three homes, these families were living in homes made of plywood and cardboard. Crevices were stuffed with various kinds of fabric.

The kids on our trip didn't seem to notice the size or state of the homes. My sons would live in a tree house if I'd let them. Kids generally have an instinct toward the small and simple. I think we all have that instinct somewhere buried beneath our guest baths and media rooms. Interestingly, some folks in America are revisiting that instinct.

Although the people in Juarez have small homes as a result of poverty, the "tiny home" movement is making its way to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina for very different reasons. There is even a Small House Society, of which Greg Johnson is the president. His home is 70 square feet. It looks like one of those KOA cabins. My kids love those, too, by the way.

Jay Shaefer, who designed and built Johnson's house, is the owner of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. His designs go from 50 square feet to a luxurious 500 square feet. Some who still don't have a permanent home after Hurricane Katrina are buying these tiny homes. After what they've been through, I imagine having any sized space of your own is pretty comforting.

There is also the Not So Big House philosophy, created by author and architect Sarah Susanka, who has written many books on the subject. In Susanka's words, the secret to designing a "Not So Big House" is "the ability to think creatively, responding to needs and wishes, not to preconceived notions of what a house should be."

I have different ideas of what my house should be after Juarez. We don't have to live in a house made of trash across the border. We don't have to live in a 70-square-feet home. But we also don't have to be gluttonous. We're still going to remodel our house, basically just redesigning the space we already have. Honestly, 2,000 square feet is enough. I suppose, if it had to be, 288 or 70 would be, too.

For many reasons, the rest of the world suffers from our gluttony as we take more than our fair share of the world's resources. We use most of the world's fossil fuel. We are responsible for most of the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. We consume most of the world's meat, creating an industry that is killing rainforests and exacerbating the situation of world hunger.

Change starts at home. Perhaps it's time we do our part one square foot at a time.

Dawn McMullan is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.