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Published April 24 2010

More owners, homebuilders opt for less square footage

At a time when most young couples are moving into larger homes to accommodate their growing families, Jade Nielsen and Jamie Heytens did precisely the opposite.

The Fargo family moved from a 3,200-square-foot home in Bluemont Lakes to a 1,770-square-foot home in Evelyn’s Acres.

Their white, farmhouse-inspired home, designed by Chris Hawley of Stahl Architects, stands like a tidy stack of sugar cubes on the south end of the development.

It features an open kitchen/dining/great room area, generous master suite, two spare bedrooms and three baths. There’s also an unfinished garden-level space that serves as a fourth bedroom when family visits.

Nielsen, a local concert promoter, and Heytens believe the space suits them well, although it does feel a bit cozier when family members stay overnight. Still, they wanted a more manageable space, as they have two children under age 2: 18-month-old Cash and 3-month-old Keen. They also have a lake cabin to maintain.

“It’s a lot easier. We have pets, too, so this is a lot easier to keep up,” Heytens says, as she watches Cash zoom around the living room in T-shirt and diaper. “It’s good for small children. We’re all in one room, so I can cook and he can just run.”

It’s all part of a growing trend toward shrinking homes. Motivated by everything from decreased bank-account balances to increased eco-consciousness, certain homeowners are small-sizing.

“The era of the ‘McMansion’ could well be over as home sizes have been trending downward recently, with a significantly higher number of architects reporting demand for smaller homes this year,” says Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects.

Downsized dwellings were reflected in data from the National Association of Home Builders, which reported average home sizes dropped from 2,629 square feet in the second quarter of 2008 down to 2,100 square feet in 2009.

And 88 percent of builders expressed plans to build smaller houses than in the past, according to the NAHB.

“I think everyone is simplifying,” says Paula Simley, who designs and builds Paula Rae homes with her husband, Lute. “People are tired. Everyone talks about how busy they are. A smaller home like this allows you to free up some time for yourself and your family.”

Baby boomers downsize

People will be able to check out some of these simplified spaces today through May 2 during the 50th annual Parade of Homes.

One example: the Simleys’ Craftsman-style cottages, which typically feature about 1,415 square feet of space on the main level. The cottages also include a loft option for extra space, an outdoor patio area, above-garage storage and numerous closets. So far, Lute says, their smaller homes seem most popular among 30-and-older singles and baby boomers.

Nancy and James Stensgard fit the latter group. The couple, both in their 50s, recently bought a Paula Rae home in Moorhead’s Horizon Shores development.

Last year, the Stensgards moved from a Glyndon rambler into an apartment as they debated whether they wanted to move to the Twin Cities to be near Nancy’s mother or to move to another community.

In the end, they gravitated toward a cottage just a few blocks from their apartment.

“One thing that appealed to us was that you still have the home ownership and the privacy,” Nancy says, “and yet the size is so manageable so that if you have medical needs in the future, you’re not having overwhelming time and energy spent on lawn care and shoveling.”

Indeed, baby boomers make up a healthy chunk of the homeowners who want smaller homes. Carol Raney, a senior sales associate with Park Country Realtors, has helped many older clients find condos in downtown Fargo.

“They’re tending to downsize out of the homes where they lived for 25 or 30 years,” Raney says. “Their kids have grown, they go to Arizona in winters or have a lake place, and they want no maintenance so they can just lock the door and leave.”

Other “typical” downsizers include:

Build better, not bigger

In fact, the appeal of smaller spaces has grown to the point that builders and architecture firms are responding to the demand. Internationally known architect Sarah Susanka has promoted her “Not So Big” movement for years. Locally, Stahl Architects & Builders in Fargo has formed a sister company called the Little House Workshop. Their specialty is small, efficiently built spaces like Nielsen and Heytens’ “farmhouse.”

Hawley says there’s still plenty of market for larger homes, but their smaller counterparts have gained in popularity. He believes the small home can actually be more fun to design. The reason: Every inch of the residence needs to be thoughtfully designed so space isn’t wasted. This innovation pays off, as shaving just 100 square feet out of a floor plan can save $13,000 on a home’s cost.

Builders and architects have found numerous ways to maximize limited space. That includes:

In short, careful design and an attention to the way people use their spaces can help homebuilders create a gem of a home, whether its square footage is 7,000 square feet or less than 1,000.

“Small isn’t wrong,” Hawley says. “The trick is to make small feel big.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525