One of the most common explanations for teardowns of perfectly sound historic homes is that our modern lifestyle requires different space. Mike Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency acknowledges that today we live in great kitchens and use bigger bathrooms. IHPA will allow such changes to historic homes seeking public subsidy through tax incentives.
The issue of space is a frequent justification for demolishing historic buildings, and like most justifications, it is usually false. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency published an article last decade called “You Can Have That Old House and A Great Room Too” heralding the potential for adding on to historic homes. You can almost always add on to a historic house – you lose yard space, but that is even more true with teardowns.
There are several pathologies in the “how we live now” argument. The first is the typical American tendency to have it both ways. I want a 5,000 square foot house and I want it to be energy-efficient. You can make a 5,000 square foot house energy efficient in relation to other 5,000 square foot houses, but not in relation to a 2,500 square foot house. Either you care about energy or you care about space – you can’t have it both ways. That is like “we can win a war abroad without sacrificing at home.”
Yes, we live in our kitchens and bathrooms more, and recall that back in the 1950s bathrooms had only been inside most houses for less than a generation. But these contemporary lifestyle changes only drive HOW we use our space, not HOW MUCH of it we need, And this expanded space need is driven by our stuff.
Thus the second pathology. I read yesterday in the Tribune about the American addiction to storage, which is a $22 billion dollar industry that didn’t exist 35 years ago. Not only do we occupy three times the interior space we did 50 years ago, but we have so much crap 11 million of us are storing it offsite. Some of those 11 million are just waiting for a bigger house to put all their crap in. They quoted a psychologist who specializes in treating people with pathological hoarding issues. Given the size of houses today, it seems most of the middle class has at least a mild version of the disease.
That is the essence of “how we live now”: we live to buy stuff and we buy houses to fill with stuff. Yes, we have gotten physically larger in the last 50 years as well, but not three times larger. All that extra space is for our stuff, neatly stacked thanks to the Container Store, a store that did not and could not exist 35 years ago.
There is a third explanation for the expansion of interior living space that is never mentioned, and I think it is the most important. The last 35 years have witnessed the demotion and destruction of community space in our landscape, so the interiors have grown to compensate for the exterior spaces we have lost. Prviate spaces must take over in an era of lost public space, which is a social pathology.
Is your house healing you or enabling you?