Opinion | The New ‘Dream Home’ Should Be a Condo

By Allison Arieff

Every year, the National Association of Home Builders presents its vision for the New American Home, showcasing trends in home design and construction.

The association describes this effort as “America’s residential construction laboratory” and boasts that concepts first used in the New American Home project “often go on to become industry – and consumer – favorites.”

The idea of a residential construction laboratory is, in theory, great: Why not build a house that tests out the latest building and energy technologies, explores the functionality of different floor plans, and experiments with new materials and trends?

But in practice, it’s a failed experiment badly in need of a new hypothesis.

The first New American Home that N.A.H.B. built, in Houston in 1984, was 1,500 square feet and cost $80,000. By 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble, the N.A.H.B. home – a lakeside McMansion in Florida with a tri-level kitchen island and a waterfall off the master suite – was over 10,000 square feet and listed for $5.3 million in what is today one of the nation’s foreclosure capitals, Orlando.

That 1984 project was the smallest; square footage hasn’t dipped below 2,200 since 1985. The 2018 version, also in Florida, is “Tuscan”-inspired and is close to 11,000 square feet, with eight bathrooms and both an elevator and a car elevator in the garage. The 2019 version, to be unveiled soon, is 8,000 square feet and has an “inner sanctum lounge” and a view of the Vegas strip.

New American Home Square Footage

New American Home Square Footage

Source: The New American Home

The N.A.H.B. house may be meant to highlight trends, but they’re not necessarily the trends homeowners want (and certainly not what most people need). Instead, they’re what builders, kitchen and bath manufacturers and real estate agents would like to sell them: Think cathedral ceilings, granite countertops, gift-wrapping rooms and, more recently, “smart” appliances like a refrigerator that can text you when you’re low on milk and eggs.

Many builders will tell you that though these houses are large, they are more efficient – even that they have a small carbon footprint. But this is like bragging about the good gas mileage of an S.U.V. While a 10,000-square-foot house built today uses less energy than a 10,000-square-foot house built a decade ago, a home of this size requires a phenomenal amount of energy to run. (And most likely has an S.U.V. or two in the garage.)

Does anyone need 10,000 square feet to live in?

Average Square Feet for

New Single-Family Homes

Average Household Size

(in people)

Average Sq. Ft.

for New Single-

Family Homes

Average

Household

Size (in people)

Families are getting smaller, not larger. The average American household shrank by 30 percent from 1948 and 2012, to 2.55 people from 3.67. Yet houses have ballooned as family sizes have contracted.

The average new home today is 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973. The square footage of living space per person has increased to 971, from 507 – a 92 percent increase.

What if the next New American Home was a condo? And what if there was a new American dream, not of auto-dependent suburbia, but walkable urbanism?

The New American Home for 2018 (above) and Cloverdale749 street rendering. Jeff A. Davis (the New American Home); Lawrence Anderson (condo)

In the Cloverdale749 building designed by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects in Los Angeles, six families are housed – luxuriously – in a 10,500-square-foot building that has little else in common with the N.A.H.B. home.

No space is wasted here – it may not have multiple walk-in closets or “air-conditioned storerooms,” but it has high ceilings and roof decks.

Larger homes use more resources, typically require longer commutes, come with more expensive utility bills, and often contribute to more sedentary lifestyles (which in turn results in increased rates of conditions like obesity and heart disease).

Outdoor areas Unit 4 1,513 SF Unit 1 1,605 SF Unit 5 1,808 SF Unit 3 1,645 SF Unit 6 1,766 SF Unit 2 1,688 SF Expanded View of Cloverdale749 Outdoor areas Unit 4 1,513 SF Unit 1 1,605 SF Unit 5 1,808 SF Unit 3 1,645 SF Unit 6 1,766 SF Unit 2 1,688 SF Expanded View of Cloverdale749

The way the Cloverdale building is designed effectively reduces the need for (and costs of) heating and cooling, and increases natural light and circulation.

Thanks to its central location (and Los Angeles’s serious commitment to expanding public transit), it reduces the need for driving, too. Building this way has the highest potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in cities. The N.A.H.B. home, in contrast, is entirely self-contained, with no regard for neighbors or neighborhood. It might as well have a moat.

Modes of public transit within

10,000 foot radius

Site of 2018

New America Home

Modes of public transit within

10,000 foot radius

Site of 2018

New America Home

Source: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Metro Developer and Google Maps

This approach to housing is not only socially isolating, it’s no longer sustainable.

Our way of building homes and neighborhoods lost the plot a long time ago.

Homes like those the N.A.H.B. is promoting ignore the changing nature of families and the imminent crisis in housing for the elderly – not to mention climate change, which we have no hope of combatting without a true reimagining of the American dream. Enter the Green New Deal: If it recognized the link between building more infill housing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it would be even greener. Taking a strong stand against the primacy of the single family home (and the zoning that encourages it), especially the 10,000-square-foot ones, would represent a bold move toward combating climate change.

Allison Arieff is a contributing opinion writer focusing on design and architecture.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.