Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Residential Behavioral Architecture 101

The above image was taken from an article in a Wall Street Journal article about the book “Life at Home in the 21st Century.” The UCLA group responsible for the book followed 32 middle class Los Angeles families around their homes, tracking their every move to see how people actually live nowadays. This image shows “the location of each parent and child on the first floor of the house of ‘Family 11’ every 10 minutes over two weekday afternoons and evenings.” In other words, primetime for their waking hours at home.

The activity on this floor, which measures around roughly 1000 sq ft, is concentrated almost exclusively in three rooms: The dining, kitchen and family rooms; the latter room’s activity focused around the TV and computer. We estimate that around 400 or so square feet of those 1000 are actually used with any regularity.

Family 11’s house is very typical in size, if a bit smaller than the average new home, which was 2,662 in 2013. For comparison’s sake, in 1950 that same number was 983 sq ft and there were, on average, about one extra occupants in each of those smaller homes as well.

While we don’t want to assert that there exists a correct house size for everyone, if this case study is indicative of how many/most American households use there homes, it begs a couple questions: Why are American homes so big? And what would homes look like if designed around how most people behave? It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that this Family 11 could easily live in half the space they currently occupy.

An article in the NY Times from a couple years ago called “The Big Shrink” illustrates how our homes might look if based on behavior, not convention. The Kelly’s, a family with two adolescent children who were profiled in the story, traded in their 3200 for a 1200 sq ft home (Pictured above. Built in 1954 incidentally). Like Family 11’s home, the formal living and dining rooms were barely used, less one family member, as Greg Kelly explains: “We had a dining room and a formal living room—that was where the dog lay on the couch, that was his room.”

We’ve often argued that micro-apartments make complete sense based on the way the majority of single people live. Our question to readers is, “How would you design a home if based on your behavior, not architectural convention…for singles, couples, families, etc.?” Let us know what you think in our comments section.

[Note: this post was originally published on December 14, 2012. A few updates have been made.]

Kelly home image credit: Ryann Ford for The New York Times

  • DianaBGKY

    I have said for a while that I pretty much live in the back half of my ranch-style house. That is about 750 square feet and is where the nice-size kitchen, family room, and master bedroom, plus two baths, are. The other half has a living room, which is where my books are. I keep thinking I will work in there, but I do not. So it is storage. There is also an entrance area with two closets and two bedrooms (more closets). One bedroom is used for a guest room. The other is a staging area for things I am selling or giving away. My goal in about 1.5 years is to be able to downsize to a space that is 2/3 the size of my current house.

  • I’ve made this comment else where on this blog before…

    a) Redesign the ‘washroom’
    – Have all water related devices in one corner of home, making the amount of plumbing reduced and more efficient
    – Only 1 double sink or maybe 3 sinks (a basin sink and 2 shallow sinks) that is open to the kitchen where its not only used for kitchen purposes but for conventional washroom/bathroom uses i.e. brushing teeth, washing hands after using toilet etc.
    – The washing machine and dish washer would be located by the sinks
    – The shower/bath would be in a ‘wet closet’ adjacent to the sinks
    – The composting toilet(s) would be in the ‘earth closet(s)’ located nearby the sinks one toilet each in their own closet, solving the problem of someone using the shower while another needs the toilet. With more than one earth closet, the problem of waiting for the toilet to be available diminishes (especially useful in a home with large family).

    b) Make the bedroom as small as can functionally be with only enough room to sleep, dress, and store clothes (drawers under bed and hangers on wall instead of space wasting closets and dressers). Or murphy beds that can be easily closed off for privacy with pocket handle drawers under bed for efficient clothing storage.

    c) Have open concept for kitchen and social room (aka living room) that maximizes the equatorial light (facing south if in northern hemisphere), and all on one level.
    – this makes the elderly and people in wheelchairs or in crutches more able to be mobile in their home and host guests with these limitations more easily.
    – Provides ample light and passive heating for the entirety of the day
    – The private rooms (bedrooms, wet and earth closet) would fall to the polar end of the building where the least amount of activity would happen which lessens the amount of heating and lighting needed in the home.

  • James Anthony

    There’s a typo in the article. It should say family room, not living room, when you talk about the three rooms they use the most.

    If I were designing my home, I’d design it in a U shape, centered around an outdoor porch. The ‘bottom’ of the U would be a room for entertaining guests, with the kitchen on one of the ‘legs’ of the U, both of which would open to a central Arizona room, or covered patio for when I had more guests over than the space would comfortably hold. The rest of the time I’d only need to cool the part of the house I actually live in

    • not seeing the typo james. david

    • logical

      Your suggestion is similar to a concept I came up with using 3 containers in the shape of a large U (a U with 90 degree angles |_| ). The interior walls of the U would be floor to ceiling sliding glass panels, and the space in the middle of the U would be an open air deck/patio with a retractable sheer sun screen for protection on sunny days, a fire pit for clear nights, small potted herbs to use for cooking, and a bougainvillea for color. I had a number of possible ideas for how to use the roof of the containers, as well as possibilities to create a garage.

  • Marrena

    That “Big Shrink” home is really beautiful. I’m filled with envy

  • Nate

    They are not middle class. They rich.

    • the kelly’s in ny times article are not from ucla study. their $300k renovation is definitely steep. that said, they didn’t do anything dramatic with the space other than aesthetically. a similar downsize could be done by anyone i think. david

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  • Ani

    In my case the major areas of use would be the kitchen, the dining room where the computer is and I work at home at it and the table. The kitchen could just be an eat-in kitchen with the table though. The bathroom can be small- just a shower and not a tub. And the bedroom can be tiny- just space for a bed, closet and dresser (or built in dresser). I use the living room too but it’s way too big. And the extra bedroom is rarely used. It’s just over 1000 sq ft now, but I’d be happy with a well designed 500 sq ft or so. This is for one person.

  • clarkbennett

    One reason homes are so big is minimum FAR requirements which dictate the minimum sq-ft of a home based on its residential zoning. Another reason is larger homes often have a lower cost per sq-ft than smaller homes. Kitchens and bathrooms are the most expensive rooms to build, so if you’re building a small home with a luxury kitchen and a spa type bathroom, you’re not going to have enough simple box rooms to spread out that cost. In all reality it doesn’t matter, but on paper it looks bad. Another reason, Architect get paid a percentage of the construction cost and real estate brokers a portion of the sale. Then there is the homeowner who needs that formal dining room for Christmas dinner that they host on a rotation, a guest room for the once a year visitors, a walk in closet for every piece of clothing they’ve purchased in their adult life, and enough storage to never have to throw anything away.

  • Bonnie L

    Open floor plan, so even if people are doing different things, they can interact with each other. For my husband and me, privacy/alone time is not an issue, so we don’t need close able doors (except on the bathroom–we’re not *that* crazy about each other). Storage that keeps clutter at bay. Multifunctional spaces (e.g., work table that doubles as dining table; bed that’s recessed into a wall so it’s halfway out and is a sofa in the daytime, then all the way out at bedtime. A loft for guests (or for us to sleep in if guests can’t climb stairs).

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  • Maggie

    Looking at that floor plan and usage, I can bet most families would believe they “need” all that space.

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  • Gavra Kruis

    What about mud rooms? A big part of how we use our indoor space is to remove & hang coats, shoes or snowy, muddy boots, hats etc. right where we enter our house after parking car. Also, we do the same thing after entering from working/playing in backyard. And then the front entrance needs an area too for guests to hang & place boots/shoes.
    I’m married with 2 young kids in Michigan & NEED a house to be layed out the way we actually function. I cannot maintain our 1500 square-foot home with front room, unusable dining room (due to its location) family room, basement, breakfast room, etc., nor do I want to. I want to be able to successfully keep and maintain a smaller functional space with very limited time & effort, in order to keep my priorities in order: God, marriage, children, community… living space is far down the list, but simple order & cleanliness is a basic need.

  • N

    I like a lot of the lifeedited’s philosophy, but the ideas they use to showcase their philosophy often feel misguided. If you read the original story linked to in the article you discover that this family spent $545,000 on a 1,200 square foot home. Come on. Buy a ranch-style home, and don’t remodel it. A $300,000 renovation is not part of an edited life, it is part of an affluent one. How about editing our lives so that if we have $300,000 to spare, we edit the world to be a better place.

  • Alexander Scott

    How would this tracking differ if the eat-in kitchen wasn’t there? Would there be just as many dots around the dining table as the eat-in table? I think so. In the same light, the living room and front porch would both be utilized more often because they’d be visible during dinner. Does the modern family crave their eat-ins and family rooms? Or has the availability of multiple eating/lounging spaces eroded our perceived value of non-electronic conversation? I believe this is a question worth asking. (Although I acknowledge I am currently conversing electronically… Isn’t it ironic? Don’tchya think?)

  • Caterina B

    It will take time and demand but I hope that rules and regulations for
    house design will begin to be more logical instead of a large minimum
    number of square feet to satisfy the social climbers in any subdivision. I used to have to live in a subdivision and could not wait to get the heck, out of it. The house had 5 bedrooms and three bathrooms. Such a waste although, at that time, we had three children and a grandpa living in it with us. Grandpa wanted a private master suite and
    an additional small room next door for his recliner, drink table, and
    TV. Later on we moved to an 850 square foot cabin with only our
    daughter, who has now flown the coop. We LOVE it.
    Now we have made it way more efficient with a wood stove, shored up old root cellar for cold storage of our home grown fruits and vege, a hand pump for when the
    electric for the well goes off, etc. We are still pondering how to easily do rooftop
    solar hot water. And, we have ONE bathroom and are not suffering at all.
    I just hope I can impress upon my kids the futility of buying large houses with big mortgages. They will have to work for 30-40 years to pay for it. It isn’t worth it.
    Want less, buy less, work less, and have your beautiful life doing less, just having fun together. Relationships are more fulfilling than possessions and who cares about impressing someone else? It’s silly.