Home & Garden

About the House: On Thinking Small

By Matt Cantor
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 10:29:00 AM

It’s funny how a word can suddenly start popping up wherever you go. I was in a spinning class the other day (No, I’ve not taken up knitting. Well, actually I have, but that’s another story). This was one of those classes where a bunch of people who should otherwise be too embarrassed, actually manage to show up in spandex and pedal feverishly to absolutely nowhere for an hour, accomplishing nothing except to have become more conversant in the latest techno-pop noise. All in all, it’s quite fun but, as usual, I digress. During the class, our fearless leader, Marjorie, uttered the work parsimonious. I have a feeling Marjorie has been thinking about things parsimonious and it sort of fell out of the bag. 

My friend, the Poly Sci professor Ron Hassner (We Berkeleyites lost him to Stanford recently but I hope very much to see his wily self back here soon) likes this word too. It keeps falling out of his bag of words as well. This is a word looking for places to manifest and tell its story. 

Parsimony is the root word but just over 400 years ago, the word Parsimonious appeared expanding our ability to apply this Latin (parsimonia) notion of sparseness, economy or frugality. 

I was in Japan earlier this year and notices parsimony in so many ways that I’d like to share but since my apparent mandate is the condition of the built-environment, I’ll try to stick to that. The Japanese are not a poor people. They have a pretty healthy GDP as world economies go so there is no reason that they could not live in houses as large or larger than ours; but they don’t. 

In fact, they live, for the most part, in houses that we wouldn’t put our college freshman in without actually calling them dorms. Their houses seemed to me to be on average, about half the size of the typical state-side home. If American’s live in 2,000-square-foot houses (and this is quite common in much of the U.S.), the Japanese seem to live in closer to 1,000-square-foot homes. 

Now it’s certainly true that Japan is quite small compared to the U.S. with 146,000 square miles to our 3.8 million square miles, a difference of roughly 20 to 1 and our population is only a little over twice theirs (300 million to 127 million), so adjusting for population, we have about 10 times as much space as the Japanese do. On the other hand, most of the U.S. is empty space and Japan has an enormous amount of shoreline, the place most people want to be. This may also account for the fact that they eat roughly six times the amount of fish as we do (per capita). 

Coming round the bend back toward my point, that last fact may account, in part for the fact that very few Japanese are obese. It was stunning to walk among thousands of people and rarely see an overweight person (this was particularly visible at the bathhouses or “Sento” where everything is revealed). I realize that Sumo wrestling creates the illusion that there are overweight people but they (the obese, not Sumo wrestlers) are actually quite few in number.  

This may be part of why their houses are so much smaller but I think it’s more integral than that. The Japanese eat less, walk more and economize as a part of daily life.  

Waste is considered poor behavior and close quarters are taken as a part of life. Americans seem to model themselves on the plains pioneers with as much interstitial space as possible and a cabinet full of guns to defend their turf. Perhaps closeness makes us uncomfortable and perhaps small houses make us feel poor. What is certain is that large houses are making us poor. 

Building a large house costs a great deal more in lumber, labor, shipping and a wide range of costs that reflect upon their subordinate energy or environmental sources. 

To name just a few affected areas, in building a larger houses we will cut down more trees, mine more of the earth for metals and use more oil for a hundred activities including shipping, driving workers, manufacturing plastic and running machinery. 

Heating and furnishing a large house (not to mention cleaning) takes more energy, time and money. I would also argue that our large houses cost us in one more very relevant way. They give more and more of our lives over to the contents of these houses. I, for one have too much stuff and I know that rather than owning these belongings, that I belong to them. I can’t tell you how much time I daily spend moving my stuff around, servicing my stuff and maintaining and thinking about my stuff. 

There are a number of popular movements afoot these days with edicts proscribing a life in which no new thing is bought, no foreign food is eaten and no extra energy is consumed. I would like to add my own movement to these. Let’s try the Japanese way and do everything smaller.  

I had no sense in Japan that people were feeling deprived. They wore lovely clothing and had beautiful things. In fact, Japanese possessions were generally more beautiful and carefully made than most of what we see here and I have no doubt that there is a relationship between these things (volume and quality). When you don’t buy your life goods by the ton, you can probably make some nicer choices. This is certainly true of houses today. Most of the really large houses I’ve inspected in the last 20 years have been unimpressive and uninspiring. Sad really. They often lack a center or an orientation (fundamental architecture) and I actually got lost in one some years ago as proof of this absence of a “sense of place”. (nice excuse, eh?) 

This seems emblematic of our lifestyle. Lacking a center and short on meaning but available in an extra large box. 

In 1973, The economist, E. F. “Fritz” Schumacher, published a book entitled “Small is Beautiful; Economics as if People Mattered. It’s still pretty good reading. 

I’ll leave you with a quote from Fritz and hope that your next remodeling job, your next new home and perhaps your next trip to the store will be influenced by his gentle wisdom: 

“[A modern economist] is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ that a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption ... The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.”