On the 100th Birthday of Our House: The Past and Future of Housing in the U.S.

This year marks our home’s 100th birthday. Throughout the year I plan on writing a few posts on what it’s like to live in an intact and, mostly, unaltered 980 square foot 1920s era bungalow. Let’s start with the differences between a house in 1920 and now.

In 1920 the average house size in the U.S. was just over 1,000 square feet. Square footage peaked a few years ago at around 2,600 square feet and has declined slightly since. The often forgotten part of these statistics is the fact that the number of people in the average house has declined from around four people in the 1920s to 2.5 today. My late mom told the story of sleeping in the breakfast nook when she was a child in the 20s and, at various times, the family took care of older relatives.

In most other parts of the world people do with a lot less space. In Russia today folks have about the same square feet per person as an American in 1920. By contrast folks in the U.S. today have over four times more space per person. In countries like Russia and Hong Kong, or the U.S. a hundred years ago, you’re likely living in close quarters with extended family. This has implications for child and elder care and tends to make these cultures far less individualistic.

While square footage per person has gone up in the U.S., new houses have become a lot more energy efficient between 1920 and now. We know this from experience. Our old L.A. bungalow is drafty in the winter and sweltering in the summer. New houses use half as much energy per person and are more likely to burn cleaner sources of energy. But, as Bonnie Maas Morrison points out in a paper, “Ninety Years of U.S. Household Energy History,” household energy savings have been more than offset by increases in consumption elsewhere in our lives.

Think of the conveniences required for today’s dual-earner, single-parent/multi-job holding households. Think of the eating-out phenomenon, think of the pre-packaged, pre-prepared meals (from freezer, to micro-wave, to table, to garbage can, all in one container). Think of the transportation to and from places of work, shopping and leisure demanded by these households. Think of the energy demanded in these places of work, leisure, and retail. Think of the energy demanded to process the waste products of this “convenience.”

Even though this paper was written in the 1990s, Morrison goes on to make a point that has become even more true in an always connected internet and smart phone age.

Time itself has become a commodity and convenience has become the oil that lubricates the wheel of time, allowing more activities, to take place either at one time in the same place (i.e. using the cellular car phones while driving), or in a particular time period but in a different place (i.e. doing grocery shopping, while dishes or clothes are machine washed).

In the book, The Overworked American, 1991, Juliet Schor suggests that “U.S. employees currently work 320 more hours–the equivalent of over 2 months–than their counter-parts in West Germany or France.” This American lifestyle demands convenience, and that demand is exercised both inside and outside the household.

So the differences between our 1920s bungalow and the average U.S. house today are much more than just an increase in square footage and more consumer electronics. These differences lead to a difficult discussion about what a more energy efficient future might look like. Our future might be less about energy efficient tiny houses and more about sharing an apartment with relatives. Or getting your not-in-my-backyard neighbors to agree to a bus-only lane on an already congested boulevard. Or democratizing the workplace to ask for fewer hours for more pay to allow more time for cooking and child care. Or revisiting the bungalow court, granny flat or, gasp, looking to multi-generational communal living. These are tough ideas to contemplate from the luxury of our quiet and comfortable but also overpriced and drafty L.A. bungalow.

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10 Comments

  1. Excellent article and insights.
    Where are we headed? And is it where we really want to go? And how self involved are we? How can we help others when we don’t have a bundle of cash? Hopefully we can still look to history to find some answers.
    Looking forward to reading more in 2020.

  2. ooh, I like this train of thought.
    it’s interesting to think about energy efficiency in old houses (for heating/cooling rooms, not appliances). Is it better for the house to “breathe” in terms of indoor air quality? Are we demanding too much artificial cooling/heating, sealing ourselves off from nature? Why not insulate a house as tech. improves to do so, or adapt/refit a house and surrounding landscaping to have more passive climate/weather-adapation features?

    Does your house have a window in every room? Windows are one big difference between my house (94 years old) and the ones I grew up in (built in 70s/80s). Old houses have windows in the bathrooms–so much nicer than a fan for ventilation (of humidity, not just temporary toilet smells).

    • They went widow crazy in the 1920s. We have windows every few inches. The closet has windows. The windows have windows. In the winter the windows rattle when the wind blows. The sun blazes in during the summer. The cats and dog make the best use of the windows to keep an eye on the constant squirrel menace going on outside.

  3. Our house turns 20 next year, but has far less character than yours has. I look forward to benefitting from your year of inspiration.

  4. Thank you for the reminders of living in a late ’20’s home. We’ve had as many as 6 people in our 1100 square foot home and as few as 1, the other was working out of town temporarily. One generation or three we’ve all made the opportunity wok.

    Our dilemma has always been how much do we upgrade material and technology wise without degrading the aesthetics of the house. Repairs also keep us busy. Look forward to you ongoing thoughts.

  5. Another consideration is the placement of the house in relation to the sun and the position of windows.
    I lived for awhile in a 1913 single walled, balloon constructed cottage on the Central Coast of CA. The position of the home, the layout of the rooms, and the windows, made it the most energy efficient, and comfortable home I have ever lived in. Hopefully new home builders will start looking to the past for inspiration in energy efficiency.

    • Amen. Someday we’ll regain this knowledge of our ancestors and start reorienting our structures to face the sun, rivers etc. rather than build on arbitrary grids.

  6. Over the last year, I have gone from living alone to sharing 750 square feet (plus three car garage, thankfully) with my sweetheart and often his six year old son. There are definitely pros and cons to living this close together. On the plus side, it does seem to force more togetherness. There just is not enough space to equally divide into solo activities, so it has forced more together time than I have been used to. The upside of this is the return of a lot of activities that had left my life, like spending evenings watching the woodstove and working puzzles and reading books together. This forced togetherness has definitely had positive results.

    The downside, of course, is the lack of privacy or the ability to move around the house without waking people up. I’m trying to do some journaling this morning and people want my attention and there is nowhere to escape to. And my morning activities are limited until it is time to wake the kiddo up. At this point, I really want a bigger house. I will never own a huge house, but I absolutely understand why we spread out a bit.

  7. Great post! My house was built in 1896, and at that time would’ve had only two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs, and a lean-to kitchen. The kitchen was added in the 30s and then another addition in the 70s, but it’s still a tight fit! My brother lives with my husband, myself, and two kids in 1500 sf, so we each get 300 sf (that’s not how it actually works, of course!).

    Another thing about families a long time ago: They didn’t use closets. They certainly had less clothes than we do and spent a greater percentage of their incomes on the few clothes that they owned. Still, what I would do for a decent clothes closet … sigh.

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