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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Small living is fine, till guests arrive

In honor of my niece’s wedding next week, several family members have traveled up from my husband’s Florida homeland, including a couple of parents, a brother and two nieces.

Overflowing with brotherly love, my husband invited the brother and nieces to stay with us. Which is lovely since we rarely get to see them, but problematic because our house is small, overloaded with stuff and has neither a spare room nor a couch.

“Uh, hon?” I believe this is what I said to my husband, although I might have used other words. “Where are we going to put them?”

The big brother and loving uncle of our potential guests was sanguine. “We’ll fit them in somewhere,” he said. “It will be no problem.” He might have started to hum a jolly, avuncular tune as he headed out to the garden with his hoe on his shoulder. Or maybe I just imagined that part. I was getting out boxes and garbage bags to start clearing some space.

Our house is small by modern American standards, about 1,200 square feet for four humans, two dogs, a bunny and around a million Lego bricks. Add in the miniature racing cars, books, train tracks, cardboard boxes full of Potentially Useful Stuff, musical instruments, more books and the mountain of papers that are too important to throw out but not important enough to read — you end up with a house that seems more like 600 square feet.

Sometimes I issue threats that include the word Dumpster when I want some help cleaning up.

“I wish my house was bigger,” I told my friend Aleli a few years back, and she started telling me about the small-home movement, a trend toward simpler living that arose as a backlash to the McMansion Era. “But what do you think ‘small home’ means,” I asked, and Aleli said she thought about 1,800 square feet. “Then I wish my house was small,” I told her.

With 1,800 square feet, I’d have about a third-again as much house as I have now, and even if we gave the Legos their own room we’d still have space for the nieces. They are not very big, and their father is pretty compact too.

Home size peaked in 2007, at an average of 2,521 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Last year the average new home size had dropped to 2,380 square feet, the association said, and it’s expected to be around 2,100 by 2013. Unless it starts creeping back up again, as some recent news reports have suggested.

For used homes, the National Association of Realtors says the average purchase last year was an 18-year-old 1,900-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house. That sounds fairly modest — probably no guest room.

I know our house is configured poorly. It was once a much smaller house and the sort of haphazard addition created a lot of unusable areas. And I know it would be a lot bigger if we got rid of a lot of stuff — even just the stuff we don’t need.

But the majority of people in my house are convinced that two days after you get rid of something you will have a desperate need for it, like the time I threw out an old and thinning white sheet two days before my son announced he would be a ghost for Halloween.

That son has the smallest room in the house, and he lets us know frequently what a problem that is. He has enough room for a bed, a dresser and a book case, and uses what he refers to as “underbed storage” for some of his stuff. He keeps a desk and toys, books and art supplies in an equally small room that we walk through to get to our room, which would be a big room if it weren’t for more of the boy’s stuff, including a computer desk, another bookcase, boxes of books, toys, building materials and a cot that he sleeps on when we put guests in his room. But we can only put one guest in his room, and only when we can locate his floor under all the rest of his important stuff.

I know in other countries many more people live together in much smaller places, and that we Americans have just too much stuff. Especially American boys, in my experience.

After spending several hours clearing out another one of my son’s areas — this one in what would have been our living room if we weren’t sort of turning it into a kitchen — I can see that decluttering would go a long way toward giving us the extra space we think we need.

I’ve been reading a lot about the tiny home movement, adorable little houses that average around 400 square feet. I look at all the pictures to see what people can fit into those spaces, and what they are doing without. The photos show little stoves, the kind made for boats, and loft beds over dining areas, composting toilets and outdoor showers.

What’s missing is the Legos and books. And the children.

And I have a nagging suspicion that the beautiful photos in the architectural magazines aren’t telling the whole story, that the people who live in these houses are paying for a storage unit somewhere, or living tiny as a timed experiment that will expire in one year.

Still, it’s a good lesson, because even if our family couldn’t live in 400 square feet, we certainly should be able to live comfortably in 1,200.

The year our son was born, his grandparents and great-grandmother stayed with us for a couple of months. Of course, the boy’s room was unoccupied then and available for grandparents, and there was a futon couch in those days for the great-grandmother. A few years later, when the grandparents came again for an extended stay, my husband and I camped in a tent in the yard so they could stay in our room.

For this visit, we will probably move the dining table into that foyer-type area that’s another wasted walk-through, and out of the livingroom/kitchen/dining room. With the addition of an air mattress and the boy’s cot, we could make a serviceable temporary room for the uncle and nieces, with lots of books and Legos within easy reach.

And if that doesn’t work, the tent is in the yard. All we need is that outdoor shower.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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