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The down-sized dream house.

"New homes are small but exciting," the New York Times says. I suppose that's true, if you like darts in your guacamole dip.

I should explain. Roughly 413,000 new houses were sold in the United States in 1982. One of them was mine. It is what realtors politely call "downsized." It encloses a modest 1,210 square feet of living space, which gives it only slightly more legroom tham the '63 Cadillacs.

Funny how comparisons with cars seem to come naturally when one is talking about the new down-sized house of the '80s. The Times calls it a "subcompact version of the American dream," but then so was my budget. It is true that my house gets great gas mileage, so to speak. And it is a little hard to squeeze all the relatives and their presents into it at Christmas. A lot of people are used to seeing cars housed more spaciously during construction. One of my new neighbors asked me why I was putting a picture window in my garage. I didn't wish to embarrass him by correcting him. To this day he thinks I sleep in the back seat of my Rabbit, and I've noticed that he won't let his kids play near my yard.

The high costs of land, energy and money, coupled with the downsizing of the American household, led to smaller houses as surely as OPEC led to Toyotas. A member survey published in the fall of 1982 by the National Association of Home Builders revealed that three out of every four builders respondout of every four builders responding were building houses that ranged in size from 850 to 1,400 square feet. As recently as four years ago, the median size of a new single-family detached house in the United States was 1,655 square feet. Small may or may not be beautiful, but it appears to be inevitable.

Adjusting to my new house was a little like breaking in a new pair of shoes--tight at first, but one gradually gets used to it. My Dalmatian, for example, now turns only 1-1/2 times before setting into his bed in the kitchen, which isn't in the kitchen anymore but the kitchen area. And though my friends can accommodate those few extra pounds they put on over the holidays by buying new trousers, I'd have to take out a home-improvement loan.

Living in less is a lot like living on less. The trick is to budget space as if it were money. Apparently Murphy beds are enjoying their best sales in the United States in 20 years. Other than his first name--which was William--I know nothing about the man who invented beds that fold up into walls. I am confident that, were he alive, he would stand before the down-sized house the way Hillary stood before Mt. Everest.

I would love to get Murphy's advice about marketing my own Krohe Nibble-Nook. It's a card table, actually, mounted so it folds up into the wall for storage behind my Pele poster. For chairs I use stacks of back issues of New Shelter magazine. The system is adaptable to all kinds of houses. Old New Yorkers make nifty chairs, too.

Economics may dictate that one's house be small, but that doesn't mean it has to feel small. Architects have come up with all sorts of tricks they can use to give new small houses the illusion of spaciousness. Cathedral-type ceilings help give a sense of space, as do wall-less "great" rooms--usually the kitchen, living and dining rooms combined. Sightlines through the interior are thus lengthened, an effect enhanced by placing glass doors or windows at strategic spots to extend interior views outdoors.

My house has them all. The company that designed my house calls this model the "Sunburst." I call it the "Alan Ladd" because its producers had to resort to so many optical illusions to make it look bigger than it really is. My Nibble-Nook opens out in front of a double glass door and gives me a view of the garden so intimate that I can pick fresh lettuce for the table without leaving.

This openness involves some loss of privacy, however, as I learned one evening while sitting at my table and working the Times crossword. I was stuck on 34 Across, a four-letter word meaning "Scaly scavenger." The phone rang. It was Mr. J., my new neighbor from across the alley. "Carp," he said.

It is the great room that really impresses people. Fully half my house consists of it. The term "great room" is not yet in common use, however, which makes descriptions awkward. A friend dropped by to see the new place. Hoping to be helpful, I said, "This is a great room."

I am now thought to be house-proud.

Problems of terminology aside, the great room in great. The space is interrupted only by a waist-high wall that separates the kitchen from the rest of the room. Rather than dirtying dishes unnecessarily at parties, I merely toss hors d'oeuvres to my guests on the sofa from the kitchen, the way one might toss bits of fish to traind seals.

Historians may puzzle over what constitutes greatness in a leader, by the way, but in may room it is a cathedral ceiling. The ceiling rises to a peak 14 feet or so above the floor. Here again, spaciousness has its price. The sloped ceiling complicates the geometry of one's attic, for example. Christmas decorations, my old high-school yearbooks, that basketball with a hole in it--all the junk in my attic keeps sliding down the rafters and clogging my soffit vents. (No, I didn't know what a soffit was at first either.) A soffit vent may be described as that part of a house that doesn't work when clogged with Christmas decorations, yearbooks and basketballs.

A cathedral ceiling makes a great place to hang a ceiling fan. It was explained to me that a peaked ceiling makes possible the installation of such a fan, which I needed to draw down the warmed air that rises and collects near the peak in the wintertime. But of course the warm air wouldn't be up there if the ceiling weren't peaked in the first place. This illustrates Krohe's Second Law of Architecture, which is expressed: "If it's so smart, somebody would have done it a long time ago."

One other problem. In the armer months, moths and mosquitoes like to congregate in the great room's upper reaches and take advantage of warm-air currents rising from the kitchen the way condors soar atop the thermals off the Chilean coast. No fly swatter can reach them. So I bought a toy pistol that fires plastic darts--you know, the ones with the suction cups on the ends--hoping that what worked for Britain in 1940 would work for me in 1984.

I quickly learned that the pistol lacked the oomph needed for long-range aerial combat. The bugs amused themselves by darting about in front of the passing missiles, the way reckless young men dare danger during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. For all I know, moths were changing their vacation plans to be able to visit my house for the shooting of the darts.

That's not the worst of it. During my housewarming partly, a spent dart landed with a plop in the dip. I explained to my startled guests that, although it looked like a dart, it was really a kind of spoon. "The French," I insisted, "won't serve guacamole without one."

Imagine my surprise when I learned later that one of those very guests was the sister-in-law of the "Style" editor of the local newspaper, which now wants to do a profile on me as part of a Sunday feature to be called "Home Dining in the '80s--High Tech Goes Continental." I've been busy practicing my hors d'oeuvres toss, just in case they want pictures.

The other night I dropped a canape and it rolled out of sight. I was on all fours looking for it when the phone rang. It was Mr. J. again. "It's under the buffer," he said. I thanked him, and as I was about to hang up, he added, "You know what they say. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw throw-parties."
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Author:Krohe, James, Jr.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1984
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