The Benefits of Building Small

By: Evan  Hughes
Sustainable Building Associate

Americans like big stuff.  We have the biggest companies, the biggest cars, and, it turns out, the biggest houses.  According to a study of 18 countries conducted by Shrink That Footprint, an independent carbon-footprint research group, the United States was second only to Australia in average new home size and average floor space per person.  Home ownership, however, has become increasingly difficult in the post-recession economy.  This is especially true for recent college graduates, who may be saddled with debt or can’t afford a down payment.  For a prospective homeowner, or for anyone who wants to build their own home, small houses (under 1,000 square feet) present a number of advantages.


Small houses are cheaper

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Small houses require less material and time to build, and allow more money for higher quality interior finishes.  Small houses also require less energy to heat and cool, making them cheaper to own and occupy.  In extreme cases, money can also be saved when applying for a building permit.  For instance, in Chatham County, North Carolina, if the walls of a structure are no longer than 12’ on any side, a building permit isn’t required at all.

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Small houses are better for the environment

Many of these cost savings directly benefit the environment.  Building a small house uses less lumber and energy-intensive materials like concrete and brick.  Building small often means that more money can be spent on energy-efficient doors, windows, and HVAC equipment.  These features, combined with a smaller footprint, mean that small houses consume substantially less electricity than conventional homes, thereby reducing their contribution to the air and water pollution created by the coal-fired power plants.  Small houses also serve as a good platform for solar photo-voltaic systems, and can often use solar power and solar-hot-water systems for most, if not all, of their power requirements.

Small houses are easier to build

A first-time owner-builder or general contractor can get easily overwhelmed by the complexity of a residential construction project.  While building a house is rarely an easy, painless process, a small house is a much easier project to tackle than a conventional 2,000-4,000 ft.² suburban home.  Small houses don’t typically feature complicated mechanical systems, plumbing arrangements, or electrical wiring, and small house construction does not typically call for large structural beams and columns that require heavy equipment to put in place.
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Houses are a lot like cars.  Both serve basic needs.  Both are often seen as extensions of their owners.  Whether buying a car or a house, many consumers believe bigger is better.  However, just as a smaller car can be an equally fulfilling and eminently more practical choice for most car buyers, a small house (under 1000 ft.²) uses less energy, requires less material to build, and, if a bit of creativity is exercised during the design phase, can be just as practical and beautiful as a house twice its size.  In short, by reducing the size of their house, an owner-builder reduces the complexity, the expense, and the environmental impact of their project.