David Bouchier: Personal Space

Apr 10, 2017

For a long time I have been intrigued by the steadily increasing size of suburban houses. During the last four decades the average family size has decreased by ten per-cent, but the average home size has increased by sixty per-cent. A few years ago I visited a model home in one of the developments that have sprung up in the potato fields of eastern Long Island, because I was curious to see how such a quantity of domestic space could be put to use.

I chose to view one of the more modest houses in the development - only about 5,000 square feet. I didn’t have the energy to walk around the largest, which was 8,000 square feet or about the size of a supermarket.

The interior was like a set waiting for the camera crew and the actors to arrive. This is called “staging” – the art of presenting a house so that it looks as if nobody has ever lived in it, and nobody ever could. The sales brochure emphasized the extravagant use of space: “oversized” bedrooms, “huge” kitchen, “gigantic” deck, and “monster” living room. This house lived up to its language. The sales manager assured me that, yes, these houses were purchased by normal sized American families and not by boatloads of refugees, religious cults or ambitious hotel chains.

The pièce de résistance was the oversized master bedroom featuring a Roman Emperor sized bed, next to a truly enormous bathroom with a whirlpool. In fact bathrooms seemed to be everywhere in this house. The bill for soap alone must be larger than most people’s mortgages. The predictably huge kitchen was equipped like a restaurant with a huge freezer, a professional stove and a double oven. Expensive olive oils and other gastronomic treats were carefully arranged on the immaculate surfaces. The formal dining room featured a table glitteringly set for six. Everything gave the impression that the buyer could step straight into a gourmet paradise. In case of culinary emergencies, the nearest MacDonald’s was only two miles away.

This house and others like it seemed pretty impressive to me a dozen years ago, but now they have been reduced to the status of huts or garden sheds. Today’s mega-wealthy buyers are looking for something more on the lines of a renaissance palace. I read about one new construction in LA that weighs in at 38,000 square feet and comes complete with a cinema and a bowling alley. In the Hamptons, where only too much is enough, you can still find a cozy little cottage of around 25,000 square feet, but that’s not going to impress anybody.

This all sounds rather extravagant, but in historical terms it is quite modest. Highclere Castle in England, the scene of the fictional Downton Abbey, has interior space of a hundred and twenty thousand square feet, with eighty bedrooms, and some other great houses are twice as big as that. When it came to bloated self-importance, nobody could beat the Victorian aristocracy. So although we are clearly moving backwards into the Victorian age of housing extremes, we still have a way to go. Far from being greedy for too much personal space, today’s plutocrats are, if anything, rather cramped.

Copyright: David Bouchier