Ever-Expanding Houses

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 27, 2006

According to a report published on NPR's program All Things Considered, the average size of a house has more than doubled since the 1950s.

I think the reason houses keep getting bigger and bigger is that their owners need more and more room to replicate the civic amenities that are no longer available in newly built subdivisions.

Instead of parks, people have big lawns. Intead of community swimming pools, people have multiple back yard swimming pools. Instead of local cafes, restaurants, theatres, and movies houses, people have big TVs with digital surround.

My wife and I live with our children in a tall, narrow house built nearly a hundred years ago. It's about 1,200 square feet and has two large bedrooms and one bathroom. We only own one car (!), which we drive a total of about 8,000 km/year, and we don't have central air conditioning.

Our small back yard is shaded by a huge, mature Maple tree and stays quite cool even on extremely hot days. We've just decked it (the great thing about a 16' x 20' yard is that you can afford to deck the entire thing in cedar), which has given us an additional 320 square feet, at least for about seven months a year. We also have a front porch, which opens close to the street.

By the nominal standards of middle class suburbia, we're almost pitiably impoverished. Family members shrug their shoulders and chalk our lifestyle up to "bohemian tendencies" while they struggle to carry their huge mortgages and utility bills, car lease payments, and gasoline purchases for long commutes.

By contrast, we have very little debt, can walk or cycle to work, can raise our children without putting them into child care, have the time to prepare our meals from scratch (we both love to cook so this isn't a burden), and live in a wonderful, mature neighbourhood with several nearby parks, a community centre with a pool, track, and sports fields, a beautiful urban forest with great trails for hiking and cycling, and a nearby lake for canoeing.

Most important, our street is very neighbourly. We throw annual street parties and regularly invite neighbours back and forth to socialize. People who move onto the street are often amazed or taken aback at first, simply because they're not accustomed to the "porch culture", but quickly fall in love with it and wonder how they ever got along before, living in places where they didn't know anyone.

To conclude, I ask in all seriousness: is it better to replicate every civic amenity in private form in a huge house, or is it better to live in a neighbourhood where all those amenities, plus lots of social interaction with neighbours and friends, is beautifully arrayed within walking distance? What is a better quality of life? Which is richer?

Of course, there's no single answer that reflects everyone's values and needs. However, It's instructive that the municipal laws on the books in nearly every North American city actually prohibit the construction of traditional neighbourhoods and require the construction of sprawl development (so much for the free market), and houses in old neighbourhoods keep rising in price.

There's a reason why small Victorian houses in, say, Toronto's famous Annex neighbourhood fetch close to a million dollars on the real estate market: they're a scarce and valuable commodity, since no one's building them any more. I can't help but wonder how popular those huge suburban McMansions would be if buyers looking for a new home also had the choice of buying smaller houses in real communities.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted July 27, 2006 at 16:29:18

I read the attached article and found this paragraph to be quite ironic:

Michael Frisby says having lots of room is a good thing. Look, he says, his wife grew up in the projects of New Haven, and he grew up without much. He always shared a room with his brother.

"I always wanted a house big enough that my kids could be in their room screaming, and my wife could be in a room screaming, and I could be somewhere else and not hear any of them," he says. "And I think I have accomplished this with this house, because this house is so big that everyone has their own space."

Sounds to me like these folks need to get out of the house for a few minutes and go play in a park....

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By ko (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2006 at 17:28:48

I love reading Ryan's articles about how much better he is than everyone else.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 27, 2006 at 18:01:22

Is it saying that he's better or just saying that it's possible to be happy without the collection of material goods that most people appear to associate with happiness these days?

Funny how some people take offense at that, isn't it?

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 27, 2006 at 22:06:00

also funny (well, not really actually) how the U.S. will kill people all over the world and try to take over other governments simply to continue this pursuit of 'things'. Oil guzzling things. Ryan doesn't sound like he's trying to brag, simply stating that happiness can be found in many other ways despite what our corporate media and culture tells you. In fact, today's Spectator had a full story piece on this very topic - why more 'things' and riches aren't equaling personal happiness or satisfaction.

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By Tim Jacobs (registered) | Posted July 29, 2006 at 12:12:12

A terrific article, Ryan. Please keep it up.

I essentially grew up in Hamilton and have a love-hate relationship with it. I currently live in Kelowna, though, which I have come to dislike of late because it's such a car culture (and other reasons).

I used to live on Locke ST back in 2002-2003 and loved that area. If I was to return, I would definitely settle in that area. Can you tell me where a good up and coming area is downtown? Please email off-list, if you have time.

Anyway, thanks for your valuable work. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the Ambitious City. Cheers, Tim

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 29, 2006 at 12:40:05

Hey Tim I'm sure Ryan will respond in more detail to your letter, but I thought I'd throw in my 2 cents regarding our up and coming areas downtown - north end, along James North and the west harbour. markets, shops, cafes, galleries and restaurants in walking distance along with the beautiful west harbour.

Strathcona, where I live, just west of the core is loaded with parks and a quick walk to downtown, Locke South, Hess and overlooks the waterfront.

Corktown, an old Irish-immigrant community has seen new parks replace factories and is walking distance from the shops and ethnic eateries along King East, John South and James Street.

Hamilton is finally seeing a resurgence throughout the downtown area, not just in the southwest neighbourhoods of Durand and Kirkendall (Locke South).

Thanks for reading and enjoy beautiful B.C.!!

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By Tim Jacobs (registered) | Posted July 31, 2006 at 15:36:50

Thanks for these tips regarding Hamilton's rejeuvenation. My wife and I are very excited about what we've been reading on 'Raise the Hammer.'

We will be visiting family in August and plan to check out all the communities you mentioned.

Thanks again and keep up the terrific, valuable work!

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