Saturday, January 3, 2015

The problem of too much space

Over our Christmas vacation, we discovered a new show on HGTV called "Tiny House Hunters." In a refreshing change of pace from the original "House Hunters" series (and its two existing spin-offs, "House Hunters International" and "Island Hunters"), the prospective homeowners on this show are seeking less space, not more. They have various reasons for wanting to downsize: some are trying to live debt-free in a house they can buy for cash, some live a gypsy lifestyle and want a home they can take with them, and some are just trying to tread more lightly on the earth. Whatever the reason, they're bucking the long-term American trend against seeking more, more, more, by scaling back their belongings until they can fit into a home that, in many cases, is smaller than the kitchen at their old house.

As it turns out, this isn't the only show about the Tiny House movement. While trying to find out the schedule for "Tiny House Hunters," I Googled "tiny house show" and discovered two others: "Tiny House Builders," also on HGTV, which is all about the construction of these space-saving dwellings, and "Tiny House Nation," on FYI, which is like a combination of the other two: each hour-long episode shows both the process of constructing a tiny house to meet a family's needs and the process the family goes through to adjust to living there. Apparently, Tiny Houses are a pretty hot topic right now, and everybody wants a piece of it—which is an encouraging sign for a society in which the average new house is a whopping 2,600 square feet. (According to the environmental site Shrink that Footprint, Americans have more than twice as much space per person in their homes as the Brits and Japanese, and more than 3 times as much as Russians.)

Brian and I have now watched two episodes of "Tiny House Hunters" and two episodes of "Tiny House Nation" (which has full-length episodes available on its website and on Hulu). And after viewing two of them in a row last night, we've made an astonishing discovery: our house is HUGE.

Now, we've always known that our roughly 1,400-square-foot home (936 square feet upstairs and roughly half as much finished area downstairs) was a lot more house than we needed for just the two of us. We certainly could have made do with significantly less, if there had been any smaller houses on the market in the areas we wanted. But still, we've always been accustomed to think of our house as fairly modest in size. After all, it's only about half the size of the average new American home; it's smaller than most of the houses in our town, and even in our neighborhood; and there are a lot of rooms it doesn't have, such as a separate dining room or a formal living room. Yet after watching two episodes in a row of "Tiny House Nation" last night, Brian and I found ourselves wandering around the house saying, "Look at all this wasted space!" The designers on this show put Karl Champley of "Wasted Spaces" to shame, using every single square inch of space—walls, floor, and ceiling—and often putting the same space to multiple uses. In just two episodes, we saw a kitchen with individual induction burners that can be stored in a drawer and pulled out when needed, an entire office that folds up into a movable wall, and a Murphy-style bed that folds up into the wall—and then has a fold-out seating bench on the back.

This raises another question: if our house has so much room, why do we always seem to have so much trouble each year figuring out where to put all our Christmas presents? This year, for instance, Brian got a new air compressor—a small one, but it's still bigger than a breadbox, and it needs to find a new home in the shop, which is already piled so deep in stuff that it's hard to move around or find an empty surface to put anything down (or, once you've put it down, find it to pick it up again when you need it). Even if our house is small by modern standards, it's still got around 700 square feet of space for each of us; why can't we seem to find two square feet to store Brian's new toy?

At first, it's a puzzling question. But the answer actually became obvious to me while I was looking for a place to put one of my presents, a set of fluffy new bath towels. I opened up the cabinet in the downstairs bathroom and thought, "Gee, we have so many towels in here already, how are the new ones going to fit?" So I started pulling out the old towels, most of which hadn't actually been used in years, and that was when it hit me: We can't find room for anything because we have TOO MUCH space.

Yes, this sounds completely counterintuitive. But just think about it for a minute: when you live in a small space, you can't afford to hold on to things you don't need. You need to make the most of every available square inch, so anything that isn't being used has to go to free up space for more important stuff. But when you have extra space, it's easy to let things pile up. I didn't need all those extra towels; they aren't being used, and chances are they never will be used again. But on the other hand, there was no particular reason to get rid of them either, because we had the space. As long as that cabinet was sitting there, there was no reason not to hold on to all our old towels and whatever other miscellaneous linens we could find. There were curtains in there that hadn't been hung since we moved into this house; there were curtains that we'd never hung in any home and couldn't even remember where they came from; there were old shower curtain liners that were stained and had been retired in favor of new ones. But we hadn't dumped any of this stuff, because there was no need to—and consequently, when some nice, new towels that we might actually use came into our life, there was no room for them.

I don't mean to imply by this that I think Brian and I would actually be happier if we traded in our roomy, paid-off house for one less than half its size. After all, a house with more space has certain advantages, such as...well, more space. Sure, this house has more room than we actually need or use on a day-to-day basis, but if the plumbing unexpectedly goes out at my parents' house over Thanksgiving weekend, we can just pack up four guests and settle them in at our place with no difficulties. And when the Folk Project calls around seeking volunteers to host its monthly Home-Made Music Party, which can have anywhere from half a dozen people to over fifty, we can say without hesitation that we have plenty of room to put a big circle of musicians downstairs, fit in a smaller one (or two) upstairs, and still have room for folks to chat over snacks in the kitchen without disrupting the music. No Tiny House is going to be able to pull that off.

So I don't actually want to reduce the amount of space in our house; what I would like to do, instead, is stop using all of it. Because even if we do, technically, have room to store piles of linens that we never use, or repair records for a car that was totaled four years ago, or three old pairs of tap shoes that my sister and I used in high school, having these things in our home doesn't actually make our lives better in any way. They're just filling up space—which then isn't available for stuff that we could actually use.

So the first of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to go through every room in this house—every single room—and remove everything that is just taking up space. Stuff that could still be useful for someone else can be Freecycled; stuff that's worn or damaged, or that no one else wants, can go to the textile recycling bins. And stuff that's absolutely no use to anyone can just be thrown out—because while I normally like to avoid waste as much as possible, keeping garbage cluttering up my house instead of cluttering up a landfill isn't a solution. It's still garbage, it's just in the wrong place.

I'll keep you posted throughout the year on our decluttering efforts. I'm thinking of keeping a list of all the items I get rid of and how, updating it throughout the year to track our progress. By the end of 2015, I'll have concrete evidence of how much useless stuff I've sent on to a better life—and I'll also know just where I have available space for next year's holiday gifts.
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