A writer becomes a homeowner, in a small way
January 13, 1983
As an investment, the house my partner and I built in 1983 proved to be folly, but it was a pleasant place to live. The several references to then-current trends in house design were a transparent attempt to give the piece relevance. The jokes, good or bad, were not an attempt to make a dull piece entertaining, as one might expect. They come naturally. It’s the way I think, when I think at all.
The original concluded with an extended riff on parties which was clever but not amusing, so I cut it.
I have noted previously in this space how high costs for land and money along with changes in the size of the typical American household have led, like bombs lead to deficits, to the trend toward "downsized" houses
A survey by the National Association of Home Builders published last fall revealed that three out of every five builders responding were building houses ranging in size from 850 to 1,400 square feet; by comparison, the median size of the typical new single family detached house was 1,655 square feet as recently as four years ago, and new houses as large as 2,500 were (and are) far from rare.
Economics may dictate that one's house be small, but that doesn't mean it has to feel small. Peter Keer, writing in the New York Times, noted that architects have several tricks they can use to give small houses the illusion of spaciousness. Cathedral-type sloped ceilings add volume, for example, and rooms which used to be separated by walls in more traditional houses are being opened up to each other to form a single "great room"—most often the kitchen and living and dining rooms combined. Sightlines are lengthened, usually by adding glass doors or windows at strategic points to expand the view outside the house.
Mr. Keer's article made me a happy man. As many a President will confirm, it always is a pleasure to have one's policies endorsed by the Times. You see, I bought a downsized house myself last year, a house which boasts—you guessed it—cathedral ceilings, a great room, and a view of the garden so intimate that I was able to diagnose a case of powdery mildew on my mock orange bush from the comfort of my dining room chair. The house has only 1,210 square feet of living space, not counting the crawl space, where I kennel my sled dogs).
The '63 Cadillacs offered more leg room, but it was for us more of an "upsized" living space than downsized. We had lived for twelve years in a Twenties-era apartment which offered only about 800 square feet, and we had been forced to sublet 100 of that to the cockroaches. As is the case with most traditional floor plans, these 800 feet were chopped up into so many separate rooms and hallways that, navigating the twisting route from the kitchen to the living room, one half-expected to find a piece of cheese waiting there as a reward for one's ingenuity.
Some people's fantasies of doom take the form of a mushroom cloud. I had nightmares about the day when our apartment roof would be lifted away and a gigantic arm clad in a white lab smock would reach down and pluck me away to a cage where I would have a serial number tattooed onto my belly.
You can understand then how pleasant life would be in even a downsized house after so many years in such a maze. Still, there is no disputing the fact that the house is small. The company which designed it calls our model house the "Sunburst," although I took to calling it the "Alan Ladd," meaning that they had had to resort to optical illusions to make it look bigger than it really is. Our House of the '80s took some getting used to. Long sightlines are all right, but what happens if you're in the shower and the phone rings and you have to cross three windows and a sliding glass door to answer it? Well, you have to lower your profile. Poor L. had carpet burns on her knees for weeks after we moved in.
That cathedral ceiling makes life interesting sometimes too. It rises majestically to a peak roughly 14 feet above the floor of the great room. In the warmer months mosquitoes and moths tend to congregate near the peak of the ceiling, out of reach of flyswatters, even brooms. The plastic dart pistols I had used with such devastating effect against the cockroaches at my apartment lacked the range for this kind of combat; besides, the darts, when spent, fell and landed with a plop in the dip. Fortunately B. and R., returning from California (where the incidence of cathedral ceilings apparently is such that it has created a market for such appliances) made us a gift of a cunningly-designed spring-loaded flying insect zapper with a tethered projectile and thus rescued our social season.
That sloped ceiling rather complicates the geometry of one's attic, too. When we first moved in, I tried storing our Christmas decorations on its steeply angled rafters, but our wreaths kept sliding down and clogging our soffit vents. (You say you don't know what a "soffit" is? You say you thought it was a British working class expletive? As in, "Go and soffit, you beggar"? Well, it isn't. It's that part of a house which doesn't work when it is clogged by Christmas wreaths.) I tried nailing the stuff in place but that didn't do the tree ornaments any good. L. suggested someplace I could stick them, but that solution posed even more awkward problems of geometry than does the attic. For the moment I plan to leave them up all year. If anyone asks about them next July, I'll just tell them that I celebrate the Christmas spirit twelve months of the year.
Then there is the "great room." (I admit that I make things up sometimes. But not long after we'd moved in, a friend of ours, come to visit for the first time, looked at the room and exclaimed, "This is great.") Boundaries are suggested rather than defined. One detects that one is passing from the living "area" into the dining "area" by subtle changes in the flora and fauna, much as one measures the transition from desert to scrub country; in our place, bits of stuffing from sofa pillows and philodendron leaves on the carpet gradually give way to cheese crumbs as one heads south.
This open floor plan has had only happy effects on our daily routine. The fact that there is only a half-wall separating the kitchen from the living area means that I can now watch "Dynasty" while I am preparing Kraft instant macaroni and cheese dinner for my evening meal—as close to a perfect life as I ever expect to experience, short of being named a university president. Saves housework too. Rather than dirty dishes unnecessarily at parties, we just toss hors d'oeuvres to our guests from the kitchen into the living room, rather the way one might toss bits of fish to trained seals. This is great fun, except that the clapping noise sometimes interferes with conversation. . . . ●