Data-Driven Architecture

Learning how we really use our homes so we can use them better


A few years ago, a group of UCLA anthropologists and archeologists conducted one of the most thorough studies of how people live in the United States. The study took 32 middle-class Los Angeles families and observed them as they went about their days, going beyond superficial notions of how people live and into the real nuts and bolts of daily home life. Out of this study came the book, “Life at Home in the 21st Century,” an unflinching look at the often harried state of the modern American family.

One particularly interesting part of the book tracked the families’ movements every 10 minutes over two weekday afternoons and evenings, observing how they use their homes.

Photo courtesy of UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

The above map shows what one family’s movements looked like—a map that Jeanne Arnold, who oversaw the study, said is very representative of all the families. Almost all activity is centered around the family room and kitchen. “The propensity for the family to aggregate near kitchen with table space is almost universal,” Arnold told me.

The dining and living rooms, which occupy about half the total floor area of the first floor, are virtually untouched (excepting someone’s piano lessons). And even though LA has a temperate climate, no one is hanging out on the large porch, much less the 5–6,000 square feet of outdoor space not shown.

Based on the key, I approximate that of the 1344 square feet on the first floor (1540 including porch), 528 are used regularly.

These findings highlight the frequent discord between use and design. Like the guy who buys the 400 hp, 12 MPG euro-speedster only to use it navigating gridlock most of the time, the American home often sits as a power/money/time-sucking monument to unrealized potential.

What would happen if we approached architecture from a data-centric perspective? What if we started with what we know about how we live, about what matters to us, about what’s responsible to the planet—and designed, built and lived accordingly?

LARGE MATTERS

Despite the popularity of tiny houses and urban micro-apartments, the American home keeps growing. In 2013, the US Census reported the average new single-family home was 2662 square feet—a record high that bests pre-bubble numbers by a couple hundred square feet. Globally, only Australia and Canada come close to our architectural girth.

Compare this to 1950, when the average single-family home was 983 square feet. The 1950 home also had more people, with an average household size of 3.37 people, a number that today stands at 2.54. In other words, the 1950 American used 292 square feet against today’s 1065. While new homes don’t necessarily reflect all homes—i.e., existing housing stock will be smaller—the building trend is, and has been, clear for some time: bigger is better.

Size is not inherently problematic. New York’s Museum of Natural History has 1.6 million square feet of floor space. It’s necessary area for a planetarium, a blue whale, cool dioramas, and 5 million annual visitors (.32 square feet per visitor per year). Sometimes increased space befits use. But the American home seems to grow despite the fact, as the UCLA study suggests, that there has been no increased need for functional value, and despite size-related consequences that put our architecture at cross purposes with our emotional, financial and environmental wellbeing.

A PLACE FOR STUFF WE RARELY USE

A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. —George Carlin

Perhaps by design, perhaps by accident, our big homes are being packed with stuff we don’t need, use or want. The UCLA team found that three out of four garages were too filled with stuff to hold cars. They found mothers with elevated stress hormones attributed to managing their families’ possessions.

In a Wall Street Journal article last year, California Closets chief design officer Ginny Snook Scott claimed that about 20 percent of clothes in the average person’s closet are worn regularly, making a walk-in closet more like a mothball fleet than a fighting brigade.

Then there’s the big picture: Americans use about four planets’ worth of resources to sustain their consumption habits, according to the Global Footprint Network. And 2013 saw the sharpest increase in global greenhouse gas emissions in 30 years; a disproportionate amount of these emissions are attributable to manufacturing in China, where our stuff comes from (source).

What if we started designing our homes to fit the stuff we frequently use? What would our kitchens look like if they were only filled with the utensils we actually cook with? What would our closets look like if they only had the clothes we wear? How much stuff would we buy if we shopped in a manner befitting the precarious state of the environment?

A FAR BIGGER PROBLEM

The size of a home often represents the tip of the architectural iceberg. Typically, when a home is large, the land underneath is large. When there are multiple large homes occupying multiple large pieces of land, it results in sprawl.

A huge issue is that many municipalities require minimum floor area ratios (FAR). FAR is the ratio of a home’s floor area to its lot. Small FARs can result in disproportionately large land usage in relation to home size.

To illustrate, let’s say you have a 4,000-square-foot lot. On an urban lot zoned for a 2 FAR, you could build up to 8,000 square feet of floor area on the lot—either an eight story building with 1,000 square feet per floor, a two story building with 4,000 square feet per floor, etc. On the other hand, on a suburban lot with a .5 FAR, you could not build larger than a 2,000-square-foot home.

The US Census reports that the average lot size for a new single-family home sold in the US in 2013 was 15,456 square feet, which amounts to a .17 FAR in relationship to the 2,662-square-foot home. Combine this with an average household size of 2.54 people and you have an average single-family-home-dwelling American occupying over 6000 square feet of land. What this creates is:

  1. Long commutes. Bigger lots continually push homes into suburban and exurban lands, resulting in longer commutes (the average one-way commute in America is 25 minutes). The Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index reports that “American workers with lengthy commutes are more likely to report a range of adverse physical and emotional conditions.”
  2. Transportation expenses. Transportation often cancels out ostensible savings of a large home in the burbs. For example, sprawling Houston has the eighth most affordable housing of any large city according to the Center for Housing Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology. But residents spend 32 percent of their income on transportation, making it the eighth least affordable large city to live in overall—effectively more expensive than Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco and other “expensive” cities where housing costs are offset by higher incomes and lower transportation costs.
  3. Pollution. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of all greenhouse gas emission in the US. As our homes have grown and been pushed further from city centers, our thirst for petroleum has grown accordingly. The EPA reports that a single-family detached house in a suburban development will create four times the emissions—for both house and associated transportation—of a multifamily residence in a transit-oriented development.
What if we designed our homes to account for their associated impact on transportation? Wouldn’t we willingly give up our yards or that extra, unused bedroom in order to shave 20 minutes off our daily commutes, save several thousand dollars a year or make significant reduction in our carbon footprints?

(DE)SIGN OF THE TIMES

In 1970, 40 percent of the American population were married couples with kids (note that the average house size was about 1500 square feet back then). Today, that number has been halved to 20 percent. Not only are household sizes dropping, but more and more people are choosing to live alone. Across the country, about one-third of homes are single-person households—a number that’s significantly higher in most large cities.

HOUSEHOLD COMPOSITION 1970 vs 2012

But you wouldn’t know our demographics based on the American housing stock. 20 percent of houses have four or more bedrooms. 41 percent have three bedrooms. 26 percent have two bedrooms. 11 percent have one bedroom and 1 percent are studios (source).

HOUSING STOCK, 2013

You also wouldn’t know that we have a growing population of older adults. Many of these people will find it difficult or impossible to pay for and maintain their large homes, as well as drive to and from those large homes, where public transportation is rarely an option.

A recent joint study by Harvard and the AARP looked squarely at the rift between our rapidly growing older adult population and housing stock. Right now, 47 percent of all households under the age of 50 are couples with children under 18 or single parents. Generally speaking, these are the people buying and living in large, 3–4 bedroom, car-dependent suburban homes. As kids leave home, there will be a massive reduction in households for these populations. For instance, only 9% of people in their late fifties live with children under 18.

These empty-nesters will not necessarily downsize to smaller, more accessible homes. The report states, “As people age, they are less likely to relocate. In fact, the residential mobility rate drops sharply after the age of 50. And contrary to the notion that older households move to different homes when they retire, the mobility rate continues to decline among those in their 60s and beyond, with a small uptick around age 85.”

In other words, there will be a growing number of two and single-occupant households living in the same homes they did when they were packed with kids.

These homes will present major economic problems for older adults. In 2012, 1/3 of adults aged 50 and over — nearly 20 million households — found themselves “cost-burdened” by their homes (spending over 30 percent of their income for housing). A percentage that is only expected to increase. And because many of these homes are so car-dependent, they will present major access issues. 61 percent of adults over 50 limited their driving to certain hours of the day, and around 21 percent stated that they frequently or occasionally miss out on activities they like to do because of driving limitations.

Today, one in seven persons is at least age 65; by 2030, that share will be one in five. As the older adult population grows, our big, sprawling homes will become increasingly difficult to manage physically and financially.

What if our architecture started to reflect population trends rather than outdated ideals and developer interests? What would our homes look like then?

DATA-DRIVEN DESIGN

Looking at the data, the situation in America is clear: We have homes that exceed our needs, stuff that exceeds our capabilities to enjoy or use it, commutes that exceed our emotional and environmental resources, and stocks of large homes that are not aligned with demographic trends.

It’s time that we start thinking about architecture from a place of data-driven logic, not romance and real estate developer interests. It’s time we started thinking about making homes that support us and how we live as opposed to homes we live to support.

THE LUXURY OF LESS

During the real estate boom of the early aughts, cheap credit allowed people to acquire their own big, luxurious American dream homes—a room or more for every occupant, a garage for every car, a place for a barbeque and so on. Nothing is wrong with having or wanting these things, but amidst the frenzy, people lost track of how much they cost: the maintenance, big mortgage payments, increased commutes, big carbon footprints, lack of adaptability for later life.

At my firm LifeEdited, we believe it’s possible to have smaller homes that are easier to maintain, that house less — but better — stuff, that cost less, that are close to our workplaces and amenities, that create smaller carbon footprints and that are aligned with demographic shifts to smaller households.

A couple of years ago, we built one of these homes. The 420-square-foot apartment served as a laboratory of sorts, where use and efficiency, not convention, would act as the design compass.

The apartment did not forsake convention, but we weighted all design features according to their use. For example, our design brief called for seated dinners for twelve people and private, comfortable guest accommodations for two. In a best case scenario, these things are used around 10 percent of the year. And though we could have excised them altogether, it was important for us to challenge notions about what was possible in a small space (and we like entertaining). We believed luxury, logic and efficiency could all live in the same space.

We came up with several design solutions that allowed us to have all the function we sought, while having minimal spatial impact. Rather than a dedicated dining room, we used a table that could expand from 18–115 inches and stashed it under a breakfast bar when not in use. For the guest room, we used murphy bunk beds that stashed away behind a moving wall, taking up around seven square feet of floor space.

The dining table fits underneath the breakfast bar when not in use. Photo credit: Matthew Williams

Though there was a commodious 426 cubic feet of storage, we tried to only put in high-quality stuff that was needed for day-to-day life, ‘editing’ out the rest. The Deiter Rams’ maxim “less, but better” was our guiding light.

Perhaps the apartment’s best feature is its lower Manhattan location, which is near numerous public transit options, a Citi Bike sharing station and is rated a perfect 100 by Walkscore.com—all of which makes the apartment greener and more accessible.

Photo credit: Matthew Williams

While our first apartment was designed for a childless couple, our mission is hardly limited to single folks in micro-apartments. I live in a 675-square-foot apartment with my wife, son and another on the way. Like the first apartment, its design is such that every part is used regularly.

Yes, we “gave up” dining and guest rooms, and yes, those things would be nice to have on occasion. But what we got in exchange was a home that works for us functionally and financially and is located in a neighborhood we love near many friends, amenities and transit options. What might not be immediately apparent is that none of this would have been possible had we not undergone a major ‘edit’—getting rid of stuff we didn’t use and evaluating what was most important to us and how we live. What we realized is location is more important than lots of stuff and space.

While I pray that the architectural and real estate powers-that-be hear my pleas and start making era-appropriate housing, know that whatever our family composition, wherever we live, we can all ‘edit’ our lives, and start designing a life that is reflective of data about personal and global behavior.

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