I came across this on the web – an article titled “Is Living in Small Spaces Cruel to Children?”  Naturally I had to read it – wouldn’t want children’s protective services to come knocking at the door, after all!  It turned out that CoteMaison in France profiled a very space-age and small (431 SF) apartment that houses a family of four and a dog. It has a kids’ room that any kid would love in a raised section (I think the kids’ room is larger than our trailer), a sleek kitchen (with counter space), a living room with a Murphy bed for the parents and a porta potty sized bathroom.

Personally I was impressed by the use of space, although I would never chose to have such a WHITE apartment with kids and a dog.  I lived in a little cottage of only 400 SF with my first daughter (and 3 cats) – a 20×20 square divided into three 10×10 rooms (2 bedrooms and a living room) and two 5×10 rooms- the bathroom and kitchen.  Built as a vacation home over half a century ago it had no closets and very little storage.  I found it cramped.

The French apartment story was picked up by Apartment Therapy in the U.S, where some respondents called it cruelty to children.  Americans just couldn’t believe that 4 people could live in such a small space.  One respondent even went so far as to suggest that “in the US the children would be taken.” Interestingly the Europeans who commented scoffed at US sensibilities and told their own tales of living in very tiny apartments with their parents while growing up, and continuing to live in small places as adults.

However not all Americans were disparaging. The following comment reminded me of what a youngster living in an RV with his siblings and parents (previously mentioned in my post “The Romantic Version of Our Life”) had to say about how when they lived in a house everyone disappeared into their own rooms and only emerged at meal times and that living in an RV was bringing them closer together.

“Overall I think learning to manage living in closer spaces with family teaches children tolerance and vital social skills to adapt to new environments and to be comfortable and stress free in a variety of living situations.”

While some people – you know those liberal environmentally aware, frugal-living folks – have embraced the small houses movement (see Tiny House Blog), most Americans still think bigger is better.  And we aren’t alone. In fact we’ve been out McMansioned by the Aussies!  The typical size of a new Australian home hit 215 square meters (2,314 SF) in 2009, up 10 per cent in a decade, according to Bureau of Statistics data compiled for Commonwealth Securities.

In a sea change, the US figures show the size of new American homes shrinking from 212 square meters (2,281 SF) before the financial crisis to 202 square meters (2,174 SF) in September 2009.  For years, the size of the average American home has been getting larger and larger while family size has been declining.  But now USA TODAY reports an abrupt change. As of last year, the average size of a new home was roughly 15% smaller than it was the year before.

What’s brought about that change?  Global warming and environmental consciousness?  Loneliness as we rattle around in houses that could house an extended family or two?  Or maybe the recession? We may think bigger is better, but can we afford it?  Of course, our spending has been reduced in so many areas. But the pivotal expense in our lives still remains housing. Having housing expenses that are too large can really eat up your budget, limiting the amount you can spend on discretionary purchases (new car, vacations, private schools) or save for your children’s college, and your own retirement.  Simply put, buying too much house is an unproductive use of American capital.

And globally, our competitors and trading partners aren’t expending their capital on ‘too much house’.  New homes in other parts of the world are far smaller, with Denmark the biggest in Europe at 137 square meters (1,474 SF) and Britain the smallest at 76 square meters (818 SF).

According to China Tibet Online, the average residential area of Tibetan herdsmen is 172.6 square meters, or 1,857 square feet – the size of a 3 bedroom house in Morningside, FL listed for sale at $450,000.  How weird is that? What’s more (if you can trust their figures) 98.7 percent of Tibetan herdsmen own their own homes.  Currently (2009 figures) home ownership in America is only at 67.3 percent.  

“It will be a long time before people think of owning a home as a good investment again,” said John Vogel, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “A lot of what drives housing is psychological, and right now there’s a distinct lack of confidence in real estate.”

Wonder what skills it takes to become a herdsperson in Tibet?

An article titled “Family life in less than 1,000 square feet” on MSN Money details how squeezing four or more people into a small apartment or tiny bungalow can be done, and the families who say the payoffs can be worth it.

Even in the median-sized 2,469-square-foot American home, many parents would tell you there’s more stuff than space. And yet families of four, six and even eight are willingly squeezing themselves into apartments and bungalows of 1,000 square feet or less, sacrificing space for nice neighborhoods with good schools or rich cultural amenities.  (Umm, like living in Paris?)

Families living in RVs have taken the sacrifice to another level!  Check out this nicely done blog – Traveling on the Outskirts – chronicling the life of 2 professionals who have sacrificed the house, car, big TV and full-time jobs to travel around the country while living in a pop-up trailer!  You think our place is small- well theirs is teeny-tiny! 

We haven’t sacrificed for nice neighborhoods or rich cultural amenities!  The interior dimensions of our trailer – including the bed, sofa, and dinette and bathroom, not just the floor space – are approximately (it’s hard to measure – do we include the sinks, bathtub, stove and frig in the available square footage?) 9 x 23 or 207 SF.  Is it cruel to children (or their parent, why does no one think of the parent?) to live in such a small space?  Possibly.  My young son sleeps on the floor, and chafes at the lack of space to spread out his Legos and hot wheel cars.  My youngest daughter sleeps with me, as do numerous hard plastic Barbie dolls, the 2 dogs and the cat (who defends her claim on our pillows with sharp claws), which results in a very poor night of sleep for mom.  My middle daughter has claimed the sofa as her own since it is her bed at night, spreading out her possessions and tucking books, stuffed animals and homework in the crack between the bed and wall, and we no longer bother transforming it from bed to community seating during the day. 

But I think my oldest, my 12-year old tween, suffers most of all. Her bed must be remade daily into the dinette. She wants to talk to, or text, friends in private but has to retire to the car in order to do so.  She crushes on a boy in her class but we can’t have him over to hang out and they are too young to go off on their own.  She ‘needs’ to wash her long hair daily, and attend to other adolescent ablutions but as soon as she locks herself in the bathroom a sibling is pounding on the door with an urgent need to ‘go’!  Adolescence is the time to begin separating (within reason) from one’s family, to develop some independence, a sense of self.  I wonder how our living situation will hinder her.  She is a remarkable good sport and great help, even with the occasional flaring of teen attitude.  She is a straight A student and is involved in sports and theater.  She wants to help the homeless and study to become an architect.  I promised to take good care of her when I adopted her.   Some days I wonder if she would be better off adopted by a Tibetan herdsman.