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Downsizing and Decluttering are Changing the Way Housing is Designed and Developed

It was Brenda and my 17th move in the 32 years we’ve been married. We were moving from our 1,500 square foot downtown apartment to our 1,100 square foot URBANEER bungalow. It should have been a simple move...but it wasn’t.

Why? Stuff. So much stuff!

Our last move, from a 4,600 square foot home, was only a few year ago. Even though we purged a ton of stuff, even though we were “experts” because I cofounded URBANEER, it was amazing to survey how much we still had.

There were enough linens to cover a barrack’s worth of beds, old electronics, broken items that would never be fixed, clothes that were never worn, a pharmacy’s worth of hair and skin products, clothes and toys saved for unborn grandchildren, and so much more! And forget about giving it to our sons. As the New York Times recently reported, children have little or no interest in their parent’s stuff.

There were a few good reasons we were subjecting ourselves to this painful purge:

Practical: Our new house, with its cleaner design and functional interior, simply didn’t have the room for a bunch of unused stuff.
Psychological: Brenda and I were tired of being the stewards of our stuff. There was so much to deal with, it distracted us from our lives--from one another, our children, friends, professions, hobbies, and so on.
Financial: We spent our hard earned money on stuff we’d been told would be useful, but on balance wasn’t. To add insult to injury, we spent even more money storing and moving that stuff. We thought our money could be spent better elsewhere. 

Like Brenda and I, many are experiencing what IKEA Chief Sustainability Officer called “peak stuff.” Our stuff is filling our closets, basements, and garages. When our homes prove inadequate, it fills the 50,000 self-storage facilities across the U.S. Eventually, it fills landfills. It empties wallets and stresses us out. After seventy or so years of rapidly increasing consumerism, many of us have had enough.

Our homes need to be seen as more than places to store our stuff.

Young and old alike are focusing more on experiences, not stuff, as the chief metric for a life well lived. According to a Harris poll, “Nearly three in five boomers (59%) and more than three quarters (76%) of millennials prefer to spend money on experiences instead of material things.”

Housing Stuff

A major inspiration for starting URBANEER was Graham Hill’s 2011 TED talk and the LifeEdited project that sprung from it. In the talk, Hill sits on a cardboard box and asks “What’s in the box?” A knowing chuckle can be heard across the audience. It’s a box most of carry--its contents represent the unused, unwanted flotsam and jetsam of our lives. It’s the stuff Brenda and I purged in our last move.

Hill draws the connection between that box and our homes. Our home sizes have grown lockstep with our consumption habits: more stuff has lead to bigger homes (or maybe it's the other way around?).

He then asks what would our lives look like if they were pared down to the essential, used, and loved stuff? He asks how technology might replace many of the items, like books, that used to take up so much space in homes? He asks how design can make spaces go further?

These are questions we regularly ask at URBANEER, and ones we draw similar answers to Hill.

We both believe people don’t need nearly as much stuff as consumer culture would have them believe. We both believe that homes can be smaller, more flexible, and multipurpose through better design in general, and transforming furniture in particular. And we believe that lives free from unnecessary elements affords more mental space for the truly important stuff, which, ironically, isn’t stuff at all.

The Post Stuff Home

A renewed interest in urban housing is driving the need for smarter, smaller homes. One study found that 56% of millennials and 46% of boomers prefer walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. But skyrocketing land and labor costs--which are particularly acute in the urban settings where these walkable homes are found--have made it impossible for conventionally designed homes to pencil out financially.

Smaller-sized units, offered on a higher per square foot basis, is one way to accommodate market preferences while presenting a strong business case. But the way to make the units attractive, not just marketable, requires a design reorientation.

Our homes need to be seen as more than places to store our stuff. They need to factor in how technology enables people to do away with many of the items that used to fill drawers and cabinets. Homes, and the stuff that fill them, need to be designed to support the lives of their owners, not the other way around.

This is the perspective and the kind of homes URBANEER is designing. To find out more, visit our website or drop us a line.


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