Sunday, October 26, 2008

The End of the McMansion


The McMansion is soon to be a thing of the past. Passe' at last, thank god. There are property lots a quarter the size of mine up on the foothills of Salt Lake with houses that fill the lot, are three stories high, and block the lovely views for the home owners around them. They're hideous, and now they're too expensive to heat and cool and too large for one person to clean--it takes a cleaning crew to clean a McMansion. I've seen a lovely neighborhood with normal sized houses get up in arms about the neighborhood going to hell when someone buys one of the old houses, tears it down, and builds a monster house that blocks the view and crowds it's lot. Bigger isn't always better, but during the Bush years, it became the mantra of newly wealthy, upwardly mobile, living on stock dividends home buyers--tear it down and build it bigger, and seldom do they build it better.

It is possible to do more with less. Less money, less space, more efficiency, and a much smaller carbon footprint. I live in what was once a garage with a 400 sq ft original floor space. When I decided to convert it to "the little house," I added one room--a bathroom with a greenhouse sitting room. I carved a bit out of the original 400 sq ft room by building a large closet for my clothes and some storage, and I added a small utility closet that holds the water-heater. So in the end I'm back to roughly the original 400 sq feet. I don't feel crowded. I feel cozy. I have everything I need in terms of space. And everyone who's visited this space has asked when I'm going to move out, so they can move in. I have rented it in the past and never had to post an ad or wait more than a couple of days to find a good tenant--I now have a waiting list of people who want to live here and hope I move out again. I rented it once to a couple (I worried that it would be too small for two people) who lived here for five years. If you've lived in Manhattan or San Francisco and rented, this space is huge. I now realize that a family of three or four could live here, and in other countries it would be considered luxurious for that sized family.

There are things I hope to do someday that will make the little house energy independent. There is a small company in California that makes glass that is photosensitive--it turns darker in bright sunlight and it acts as a year-round solar collector for energy to heat the water used in the house. I have three door length panels of glass in the ceiling of the greenhouse and three along the south-facing wall. And there are two porthole skylights in the main room. There are two other windows and a door with a window. All that glass could be collecting and storing energy. I have a ceiling fan that brings warm air down in the winter, and reversed, it creates a cool breeze in the summer in conjunction with the swamp-cooler. I'd like to have a solar panel on the roof for the heating and cooking. For now I have a small gas stove in the kitchen that does not have a pilot-light (it must be lit with a match) and a small gas heater in the main room. There is a little electric heater built into the wall in the bathroom greenhouse that pumps a bit of warmth into the bathroom on snow days when sunlight isn't heating that room. It is at worst 60 degrees in the bathroom some mornings in the depths of winter. On sunny days it's toasty and a good place to soak up sun when days are short. I can live with that. Apparently so can everyone else who's lived here, since I've had to pry them out when I wanted to live in the cottage again.

The floor in the big room is concrete and painted. The bathroom/greenhouse floor is tiled--I did it myself and enjoyed every second of that work. I have some nice old rugs and these floors are a lovely background for them. But in the winter I wear warm socks and slippers.

Landscaping the area around the little house was done with an eye toward creating a space with it's own little forest and is mostly self-sustaining. I xeriscaped it before I'd heard the term. Where I planted, I planted bulbs and perenials. Some things took over and crowed out others, but I was too busy taking care of my mother by then to notice or do much about it. Eventually I realized that letting the strong survive is, in most cases, a good thing in a xeriscaped garden. It doesn't require a lot of human energy or water. Mint was one of the big winners in the survival race of the back garden. For a few years I tried to contain it. But now I make a lot of mint tea, and the dogs smell great when they've walked through one of the mint patches. Some of my tree plantings were a mistake and have since required removal--I planted two Navaho willows on the east side of the little house. They grow fast and can thrive in almost any kind of soil, and they provide deep shade--they're sometimes called Globe Willow. Yes, they did grow fast, and they became a problem for the public utilities guys who trim trees over-hanging power poles. The roots are notorious for invading sewer lines and create a lot of business for the rotorooter guy. I took one of them out when I had the money to do it, but those days are past and I no longer have the money to remove the other. It crowds the fence and has been trimmed by the utility companies into near death. Once I get my property taxes paid, I'll try to save for getting that remaining tree removed. I pray I won't need dental work or major car expenses in the meantime, or that tree will still be there next winter.

It's hard to get a good photo of the exterior of the little house because it is will hidden by plantings of shrubs and trees. But as best I can, I'm going to give you a look at this space. This or something like it is the way of the future. Here are some photos of the little house.

18 comments:

Mauigirl said...

What a wonderful house! I so agree with you about the McMansions. I hope that trend is finally over.

Our cabin in the Adirondacks is quite small and will be cozy also - I hope someday it is as cozy and self-sufficient as yours!

Demeur said...

The trend up here in the Seattle area has been to tear down the little house and put up multiplexes. But yes we still have the McMansions here too. I think the days of McMansions and SUVs are over.

Utah Savage said...

I agree and thought of going back and editing a little to compare the McMansion with the Hummer.

DCup said...

Your cottage and its environs are lovely. You have a flair for decoration inside and out.

I have fantasies of an underground house - small and energy neutral.

Utah Savage said...

When I first saw some of the underground houses being built in the '80's I too thought they were a great idea. That was before I had converted the little house into a house. Now I can't imagine living anywhere else. Unless you want to turn your garage into a little house for me. Then I'm gone deep South. Just no banjos. OK? Since "Deliverance" I've been afraid of banjo music.

Ghost Dansing said...

that's a very nice little house..... haunted castles......

susan said...

I live in Portland and just a couple of weeks ago one of the McMansions slid down it's steep slope and knocked two older houses off their foundations. No rain, no water main break, no earthquake and no insurance payment. Now the five Mc's nearby are condemned. The weird thing is that houses were built well in the past but I don't think the new ones will hold up; they may be big but they were constructed by low bidders and we all know what that means.

Great house pics btw.

anita said...

i am so totally in agreement about the mcmansions. i've been saying the same thing myself. and i am 'thrilled to death' that their days are finally gone (or, at least, hopefully gone).

my house is a tiny cape cod built in the 1920's. it's really small, the rooms are very tiny but it's very cozy for me. my bedroom is essentially what was originally meant to be the attic, but it feels pretty lofty up there and i have a full bath up there as well two very lage skylights. i remember when i looked at this house, after spending 20-some-odd years in small apartments in brooklyn and manhattan, i told the realtor that the upstairs bathroom was almost the size of my apartment!! a huge exageration of course, but it felt that way.

anyway, since real estate values have, as they say on wall street, "swooned" i keep looking at all these lovely mid-1800's era colonials that are now priced very close to what i paid for my house (which is worth 1/3 less than what i paid for it two years ago), i often start feeling all mad at myself for not getting one of those (not that i could ever have afforded one of them back in the height of the market).

but then, i hit myself on the head (again) to remind myself that last winter, my averge cost for heat AND electric for the month was less than or equal to my monthly cost for only electric in my apartment in brooklyn. if i had one of those colonials with 10,000 rooms (and who knows what i'd do with them, or when i'd be able to put furniture into them) i'd probably be looking at thousands and thousands of dollars more for utilities.

plus, when the prior owners put this house up for sale, the put siding directly onto what was there before, some kind of stucco, so, as i was told by a contractor, i've got super-duper insulation.

all of which to say, i agree that "small is beautiful."

i think that's the name of a book from the 60's or 70's ... i'll have to check that out.

:)

Nan said...

Definitely cozy.

I've never understood the McMansion thing, but then I come from a cold, cold climate. When I see those big, echoing 'great' rooms with the 15 foot high vaulted ceilings all I can think is "how the fuck are you going to heat this??" Here in Atlanta they're not quite as irrational (hot air rises, so with some good venting they could actually help keep a house cool) but still. . . the bizarre thing is that as families have gotten smaller and smaller in this country, houses got bigger and bigger. I watch HGTV a lot and it floors me when I hear a couple that's been living in a 3-bedroom house with no kids say they need to find a bigger place now that a baby's on the way. Or a single person who's househunting say he or she needs at least 3 bedrooms and 2 full baths -- why? Unless a person is planning to take in boarders, just what are they going to do with that space?

The S.O. and I live in a loft style one bedroom townhouse. Our square footage is probably slightly larger than yours, but not by much. Think the footprint is something like 16 x 30 I have an occasional day when I think it would be nice to have a second bedroom to use as a home office and for sewing, but most of the time the space feels just about right.

For those of you who like underground houses, check this site out: http://www.simondale.net/house/index.htm.

Comrade Kevin said...

I hope being energy efficient will become the new fashion, for sure.

Utah Savage said...

So nice to hear from Susan, and Nan and Anita. I'm so happy to have you all here at once. I have a fairly large house and a small house. It's the small house that feels cozy and comfy to me. The big house is too much work. It gets rented. And that's what supports me.

Utah Savage said...

It's good to see you out and about also Comrade.

Kulkuri said...

I spent the summer living in a place that had about 250 sq. ft. I didn't have running water inside or a bathroom but push come to shove I could live there year round as long as I had enough firewood. Maybe the McMansions and the Hummers are meant to overcome other shortcomings.

Utah Savage said...

Good point Kulkuri! I think that as well. Overcompensating for intelligence, good taste, and a "little" well, something else as well.

Dusty said...

Lots of work but damn well worth it U.S.

Spectacular, your little corner of the world.

Could you put me on the list of possible renters? Not kidding...

Utah Savage said...

You're on the list darling, but I have to inform you it's a damn long list.

linda said...

I love your house...it's darling and also love the gardens, patio and the trees! And your bike :)

I have the Mc's above me and I don't know what they were thinking excepting let's make it BIG and BIGGER! It's disgusting and now, they can't sell them! We built a nice sensible, energy efficient house, excepting couldn't afford solar so did passive solar, etc. instead and we are quite happy with it all. Still have terrible utility bills but can't imagine what they would be in one of those McMansions....stupid fools!

anyway, back to what's important....do you have more pictures...love the dogs too. They look about as spoiled as mine. We have 3 dog beds for *1* dog..sigh...

Blueberry said...

It looks beautiful. I love how the plants are so much a part of it. Minty-fresh dogs - now, that's a nice touch too.