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.

    • Before I had children, my partner and I owned a 2.5 story century home that the previous owners had modified. The mainfloor maintained the turn-of-the century character although the kitchen was removed and installed on the second floor where they had knocked out the walls between two bedrooms to create a big open kitchen and living room area. There was one bedroom, a 3 piece washroom, a storage room and several closets… The floorplan was a little less than 700 sq ft but virtually all of our living occurred within that space!

      • Mai Wirri

        I really like the article and also loved the comments by everyone. I realize that this article is years old but nonetheless it has sown a seed in my heart when it comes to home and interior design. We are a family of 4 living in a 1000 Sq ft apartment style town home. For 8 years it was just 2 adults and one child but 18 months ago we added kid number 2 into the mix.

        Having 4 people in such a space is driving us crazy because we thought it was too small and had too little storage. I had so many fantasies of moving to a nice subdivision with tons of closet space and a 2 car garage. Let’s not forget a picket fence.

        What your comments have taught me is that we have waaay too much stuff that we no longer need and that our current space is enough. We need to be smart with the space that we already have.

        I would appreciate any suggestions on living room storage for toys etc as well how to create space for a teen and a toddler in the same room. How can we best take advantage of our bedroom space etc.

  • 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.

    • My only problem with murphy beds is with a family, you want some privacy and would like to see more murphy bed/privacy established designs.

    • Marrena

      That is unsanitary–in a desperate situation it would be okay to only have one sink, extreme poverty, for example, but you don’t want the same sink where people wash their hands after using the bathroom to be the same sink where people wash their hands before preparing food. Too risky.

      • Val

        Being sanitary? Or just obsessive? Think about it this way: using your cell phone or keyboard, or just plain public transportation, or going outside for a walk etc exposes you to much much much more bacterial and viral threats than using a single sink. Especially the first two, it is proven that a cell phone and a keyboard is way more infested than an unsanitized toiled seat, even after being cleaned off with the usual tools (dusters and cleaning wipes).

        It is not a desperate solution, carefully and honestly think about all the stuff that gets in a kitchen sink (without any biased ideas please), most of the time it is way more hazardous to health on the long term then the things in a bathroom sink.

        Then, using detergents and soaps to clean the taps after using a sink, just like we just washed our hands is a good practice and eliminates this threat. Also in public places, where possible, it avoids the situations when after washing hands you touch an infested tap to stop the water, dumb, right? 🙂 So, it is a good practice outside, but best practice in your home.

        Last, but for sure not least, ever thought about that our general accepted urban culture to keep ourselves extremely and obsessively clean and aseptic got most the human race members today to be the most fragile and pathetic species on Earth today? Compare the urban obsessively clean folks with the less caring people living in rural areas, which is more sickish and fragile and lives less? I would say the urban.

        Not saying here that dirt is good, but a little is never bad. Helps build up body strength and, in the end, it counts out to be healthier. Paradox? 😉


        • kris

          To be blunt, sometimes women have periods. Sometimes they use tampons. Sometimes they use tampons without applicators. (No applicators to end up in landfills.) Sometimes those women get their hands, or at least their fingers, bloody. Do we really want them to have to make their way out of the room with the toilet and into the kitchen to wash their bloody hands in the kitchen sink?

          • I would suspect that they would wipe their hands with the wiping paper available before leaving the toilet area to wash their hands. It really is no different than with the sink in the same room really, and is the same thing done in public washrooms I suspect. Either way I recommend a menstrual cup instead – no garbage.

          • Sanfordia113

            not having a small wash sink inside the toilet room is completely uncivilized. Unfortunately, the ADA disallows efficient use of residential space, and makes small bathrooms with small sinks illegal, but if you break code, they are a great option and the most logical.

          • logical

            Seriously, Rua Lupa??? You’re recommending people use a menstrual cup, then rinse the menstrual cup out in a universal sink where everyone is most likely also washing their dishes, vegetable/fruit, hands, and perhaps even their hair? Wow. If ever there was an argument for a separate bathroom sink, you just made it. Or are you suggesting the menstrual cup also be cleaned with the wiping paper? 😉

          • You do a pre-clean with wiping paper, and have a fresh strip to wrap it in for when you step out, by the sink you toss that strip into the vermicomposting bin, and then wash the cup. You do realize that salmonella was also present in the same sink that you later wash your dishes, vegetables/fruit, hands, and perhaps hair as well? All you have to do is keep your sink clean – done.

          • Really?!

            Also… if you are concerned about getting blood or tissues in the kitchen area… you do know what meat is, right?

    • I do agree with minimal bedrooms. All health counselors agree that in this room there should be no distractions to the simple act of sleeping. No TV’s, computers, or working desks.

      For me, the biggest benefit with small bedrooms is to be able to have more family time. All parents want to spend more time with their children, and ample bedrooms tend to function as fortresses. Sometimes kids can spend the biggest part of the day inside their bedrooms (especially during their teenage years), getting out only to use the bathroom and -again- the kitchen.

      The space gained with smaller bedrooms can be reclaimed not only by a bigger family room, but it could be employed to add an (obviously small) guest room, home office, or arts/crafts space for those who need to do those activities regularly. Or my favorite: a home recording studio! 😉

      • Alexander Scott

        I agree full-heartedly.

    • Its been sometime since this post and have since contemplated further designs. The only major difference since then was having multiple utility in a single room via transforming furniture. The primary example being the office and bedroom. Both are spaces meant for quiet and being undisturbed. The problem is that you don’t want distractions while you are sleeping. Solution: having the office desk under the murphy bed, so that when it is time to sleep the distracting screen is put away, and when you are working the same space is used without needing an extra room.

      The same sort of thing is applied to what I call “the social room” where the seating areas double as storage for children’s toys, board games, etc. and/or guest murphy beds (some couches are excellent on their own as beds). The social room table could be adjustable – depending on activity, and/or be storage for the TV screen. Otherwise an unused wall would suffice – If done this way I prefer having a photo/painting cover it when not in use. Which could be chalked up to aesthetic preferences, but I also find it useful to prevent temptation to always watch TV and thus encourage more activity among household members, which is the purpose of the social room. This room would primarily be used for reading, play for all ages and simple crafts i.e. knitting/crocheting/naalbinding, painting, drawing, sewing, embroidering, spinning, weaving etc. All of which harkens back to older social habits before electronic entertainment.

      There is also a design element I’ve been playing with is using gravity to supply water, via roof water catchment into 2nd story tank or tower (possibly basement tank that wind pumps the water into tower) that gravity feeds into the water sector of home: Sinks, Shower/tub/washing basin. <- which is another thing, having the water systems not only in the same place but combine for more efficient function and use of space.

      For the kitchen the whole space is open storage – no cupboards, closets, minimal drawers – if any. This maximizes use of space, makes it easier to find what you are looking for, and makes it easier/forces you to deal with unused items = less stuff cluttering your home. This same principal would be applied to the whole home as well. Our food storage system is also quite an unnecessary energy guzzler when we could simply better design the kitchen and pantry to be passively design to more efficiently store our food. Again, all this harkening back to older home designs when you needed to be pragmatic.

      Over time I've been noticing that modern home design is obsessed with hiding what we own – there are so many closets, most kitchen renovations are to put in really expensive and ultimately unnecessary cupboards, and dressers (along with closets) hog a lot of space in the bedroom when there is no need for it. Just by removing these alone you can downsize your home quite a bit.

      So overall my design encouragement is to go toward efficient open storage to minimize unnecessary, unused stuff, while encouraging maximizing efficiency, utility, durability, repairability and aesthetics of what fewer items you use on a regular basis; Redesign our plumbing for multiuse & efficiency; Cultivate our human by-products with composting toilets – which avoids unnecessary waste of resources and energy to dispose of our human byproducts; Redesign rooms to be multipurpose to maximize use around their root purpose (i.e. socializing, quite privacy); And make it passive, and if not able to make it passive, make it low energy. Homes shouldn't become unusable, or unsafe, if energy is cutoff – such homes are failures in their purpose.

    • Caterina B

      Very good. It sounds like you have been reading “A Pattern Language.” That is not meant to be a negative comment, mind you. That book makes so much sense. I love that it dictates that the house follow the natural arc of the sun through the day, utilizing passive solar gain. ie, sunny eastern kitchen, sunny southeastern eating area, sunny sitting area towards the west later in the day. Late afternoon sunlight in the sitting room is so wonderful in the Winter. Think about taking tea in the sunny southwest sitting/gathering room with your kids when they arrive home from school. Magical! My kids looked forward to that time of day. So did the neighbor kids! Trees shade that area in the Summer so no problem with heat. That’s MY dream house. I like your ideas for the “wet areas and smaller bedrooms. Mine is just big enough for a queen bed, two night tables and an antique dresser.
      Really, the secret is, yes, here it comes, GETTING RID OF STUFF.! And, yes, it’s really hard to do that. It’s such fun to talk about sane house design.
      Sorry I am ranting on and on. I have walked through so many newly built houses that are (in my opinion) laid out very poorly. Case in point, a house with the kitchen on the north shaded by a large two car garage and the master bedroom on the southwest corner guaranteed to roast its occupants in the summer months. OK, I’m getting down off the soapbox.

      • Haven’t read that book – yet. Its on my “to read” list. Most of what I learned was through my Permaculture Designer Course. Since this post I even wrote an in depth overview of design changes to our ‘normal’ home design.

        I’m totally with you on the solar design, nothing like a the warm western sun in the middle of winter, and all you need is deciduous trees to keep it cool for the summer. I’ve a Venn Diagram that I plan to do a proper article with that covers a fully passive design layout, complete with gravity water system and dry composting toilet, and more.

        You are totally right about getting rid of stuff being the secret. My weakness is having so many different hobbies and no place to put them! I think I may just need a Craft outbuilding to contain it all, once we get ourselves a place that is (living in an apartment). In all seriousness I’d like to plan out a layout so that the “social room” has each house member have their own shelving for their hobbies so that we are all forced to keep it under control. I feel like I don’t get to talk sane house design enough – so many people are oblivious to the systemic problems with our current house designs that its hard to begin to wrap your head around any other way of doing it. Goodness I’d hate to live in that house design you’ve described – particularly the master bedroom location!

  • 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.

    • Sanfordia113

      We are spending $200,000 to turn a 500sqft condo into a livable space for our family of 4… cheaper than buying a bigger place in Manhattan/San Francisco/Tokyo/Shanghai/etc.

      • lifeedited

        we’d love to check it out when it’s ready. email me at david at lifeedited dot com.

  • 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.