The average newly built single-family home nationally tops out at nearly 2,900 square feet, up from 1,700 square feet in 1973, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Is it possible to craft a supremely livable abode in far less space?
That was the challenge for Arlington Designer Homes, which recently completed a single-family home at just 860 square feet on North Cleveland Street.
“More and more of our clients are looking for smaller, well-designed and well-organized spaces, especially in Arlington,” said Andrew Moore, president of the firm. The 2-bedroom/2-bath home “demonstrates that you can build smaller and smarter without sacrificing style or comfort.”
The Sun Gazette recently checked in with Moore for a little deeper examination of the challenges and opportunities that building small offer.
How did you connect with the family that was seeking to have the home built, and how did the design process go? Was it demonstrably different from the give and take when designing a larger custom home?
The family found me through local connections and the Internet. They were looking for a company that had a track record of working with customers to build smaller houses. They also wanted an Arlington specialist.
At first, we were exploring renovating the existing structure that was built it 1923. The structure had reached the end of its useful life, so we explored other options.
The process for designing this house was the same process that we use for designing bigger homes. There is no difference between designing an 860-square-foot house or a 4,000-square-foot house. The main difference on this project was that we had to go through the Board of Zoning Appeals to get permission to apply for a building permit. The lot is sub-standard and so we could not meet some of the required setbacks, so we had to apply for relief.
What were the two or three biggest challenges in making the home seem more spacious than the actual square footage? What tradeoffs had to be made?
When you are designing a house like this there are always tradeoffs, this was a game of inches. Did the bedroom need to be 11’6”, or was 11’4” OK? Do we want the countertop in the kitchen to have an overhang or not?
One of Arlington Designer Homes design principles is “poly-space” – space that can be used in many different ways. If there is one thing I have learned in my years as a home designer/builder it is that you can never anticipate how a family will use the space. So, we try and give the space flexibility to be used in many different ways. That comes from thoughtful design and observation of how people live.
For example, many people do not use their formal dining room for dining any more. However, for some people a dining room is a must. What we are doing in many of our projects today is adding doors so that the dining room could be used as an office or a playroom.
We try not to lock the design in but to give flexibility for the occupants to design around their needs, not design around layout’s shortcomings.
What do you think has been holding back the arrival of accessory-dwelling units (ADUs) in Arlington, and is this home proof that they can be viable?
The first issue was zoning. The County Board recently changed the rules to allow for more ADUs by relaxing the setback requirements. However, the other zoning requirements, such as lot coverage, still exist.
I believe that there are three things that are preventing wide-spread ADU development:
• Many lots already are at their maximum lot coverage and they cannot add 500 square feet of impermeable coverage.
• The regulatory process, as I said previously, is the same process for building a single-family home of a larger size. You still need to get the same permits, effectively, and get the same inspections.
• Lastly, the cost of these projects. What we are doing is building a new (small) single family home. The most expensive parts of any home are the kitchen and the bathroom, which represent half of an ADU. And I am not sure banks are financing them, so you would need to have the capital up front to build it.
Nationally, the average square footage size of homes was on the rise for decades. Where do you see it going in the next 20 or 30 years, and why?
I think Arlington defies many national trends because of where we live. We have many 5,000- or 6,000-square-foot lots. People still want to have a yard and do not want to necessarily have the house cover the entire lot.
What I have seen as a trend over the past 10 years or so is people are willing to live smaller as long as it FEELS bigger. What that means is sensibly designed space that is well organized. Many new homes out there are a square peg for a round hole. One size does not fit all. Not here in Arlington.
What we try to do is build for the way YOU live. That means taking into account what life is like today with three kids under 10, and then thinking about what that will look like with three teenagers in the house. It can be the same house, but it will live very differently. It is our goal to design a house that can grow and change with the occupants of the home.