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Small Is Big

By Amanda Schoenberg
Journal Staff Writer
          When Jami Porter Lara and Kathy Brown's neighbors saw their new straw bale construction, passive-solar home from the outside, they asked whether it had three bedrooms.
        Not even close — their home is a one-bedroom with 550 square feet of interior space. But the neighbors might never know to look at it. With 15-foot ceilings, big windows and plenty of storage, the couple has joined a growing number of people who say bigger isn't always better when it comes to a new home.
        A trend that's growing
        In Albuquerque, builders say the smaller-home trend is gathering steam due to changing demographics, a faltering economy and more interest in a reduced environmental footprint.
        As any resident of a 1920s bungalow knows, going small is a return to an older model. According to the National Association of Home Builders, an average new home was 1,000 square feet in 1950. By 1973, homes had expanded to 1,660 square feet. Average new homes reached 2,534 square feet in 2008.
        But according to a recent National Association of Home Builders survey, 59 percent of respondents planned to or were building smaller homes. By the first quarter of 2009, the average new home had dropped to 2,419 square feet, according to census data.
        The trend toward smaller homes is in full swing in Albuquerque, says Jim Folkman, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico. He noticed more interest in smaller homes five to six years ago from baby boomers who wanted to downsize. Then the troubled economy accelerated interest in less expensive homes, which tend to be smaller, he says.
        Interest grew this year as first-time buyers used tax credits for smaller and more affordable homes.
        Folkman says he expects homes in Albuquerque to shrink further until the market rebounds.
        Rex Paul Wilson, a developer and partner in Paul Allen Green Built Homes, often sees people who are moving out of large homes in search of more efficient spaces.
        Paul Allen homes range from 1,031 to 2,100 square feet. Many people favor smaller homes because of eco-friendly features that add up to big savings, he says. The company's largest homes cost about $70 a month in utilities — much less than a 4,000-square-foot home, he says.
        From small to tiny
        While local builders may be thinking smaller, they aren't thinking tiny. Not as tiny as Jay Shafer, founder and co-owner of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. in California. Until recently, Shafer lived in an 89-square-foot home (on wheels). He recently married, and bought a 500-square-foot home, moving his original home next door.
        "The environmental impact of a larger house seems inordinate for simple needs like mine," he says. "I didn't want to be working for the mortgage, doing all the work on a larger space when I didn't have to be. The other thing was, I couldn't afford a nice house so I built a nice small house."
        Shafer now sells homes that range from 65 to 837 square feet. Much of his business comes from sales of his book, "The Small House Book," and a growing community of people dreaming of simplifying their lives.
        "People are starting to think differently," he says. "I think we're primed for a new wave."
        Tiny homes are also picking up speed as modular cottages and rustic cabins. One Montana builder, Sherpa Cabins, has trucked several small custom cabins to New Mexico.
        Dr. R. Alan Maurer is one tiny-house fan. After moving from Salt Lake City to a 27-acre property northwest of Abiquiú, Maurer and his wife, Gloria, lived in a 360-square-foot Sherpa cabin for a year while their 1,250-square-foot home was being built. The cabin's main room fits a queen-size bed, two chairs, a desk and a built-in bookcase. Above the kitchen is a loft with another queen-size bed.
        "It's very comfortable," Maurer says. "We debated in the year we lived here whether we really needed anything else."
        Making small work
        When Porter Lara and Brown bought their North Valley property, they planned to live in a 400-square-foot adobe on the site. But they soon realized it was in such poor shape that they would have to start over. In November they poured the concrete for their new home and finished in June, building it themselves and reusing some adobe bricks and wood from the old home. The final product was featured in the New Mexico Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council's Greenbuilt tour this year.
        But why so small? "First of all, affordability," Brown says. They like the low costs — with the passive-solar design and solar panels on the roof they get money back on electric bills — and wanted to limit the amount of energy-intensive construction materials they used.
        Going small also felt like a natural move after they spent 14 months camping, kayaking and biking in the United States, Mexico and Canada. "You realize you don't need all this stuff," Porter Lara says.
        For people moving to smaller homes, Jana Lee Aspin, a Realtor and home stager, says the most important thing is to weigh what is most important. People who want a queen-size bed may have to sacrifice other pieces. Eliminating large or overstuffed furniture can make spaces feel less cramped.
        Porter Lara and Brown say they compromised on some things — they saved space for a comfortable couch but put the refrigerator off the kitchen in a small hallway. Cutting back on "redundant" furniture and space helps them concentrate on a few pieces they love.
        Making intimate spaces within a small home is key, Aspin says.
        Porter Lara and Brown elongated their living space with windows that let visitors see from one end of the house to the other. Keeping deep windows low to the ground also added additional seating.
        Eliminating wasted space is crucial. Shafer removes dining rooms and transitional areas like hallways and stairs. He utilizes vertical space, adds built-in storage and gives everything multiple uses.
        For bathrooms and kitchens, Aspin recommends reducing unnecessary appliances and clutter.
        "Ask yourself, do I need a blender or a food processor?" Aspin says. "It's about paring it down. It's going to feel even smaller if you've cluttered it up."

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