Am I living in the right place? It’s a question I ask myself all the time and if you are like most Americans, either you or someone you know is wondering the same. This question was on my mind when I started writing my latest book, The Just Right Home: Buying, Renting, Moving – or Just Dreaming – Find Your Perfect Match!
By Marianne Cusato
Inspiration for this book came while attending the 2009 International Builder’s Show at the height of the Great Recession. My original idea was to write a book called The Autopsy of the McMansion, a review of how the American Dream Home evolved from a cottage with a white picket fence to a gable-giddy hummer home and an exploration of what the American Dream Home might look like post-recession.
While my opinion of the McMansion and its partner in crime, suburban sprawl, are jaded to say the least, I nonetheless have to respect that millions of Americans flocked to these places and aspired to live in them. For some reason, the McMansion and suburban sprawl won the hearts and minds of Americans. The question I had was why. And how can we meet these dreams and aspirations in a package that also builds community and is financially sustainable in the long run?
As I moved deeper into writing this book, I realized that while it’s important to look back to understand the how and why, the much more vital piece is to look forward at where we go from here. So, while the original idea lives on, woven in throughout the book, the final result is a more global guide to determining how we want to live our lives.
Perception and Reality
The McMansion was endearing because of what it promised. Complicated roof lines and eclectic combinations of windows promised to differentiate the home from all others on the street. Yet, the more that was added, the more everything started to look the same. The best way to differentiate a home is to calm down the design and offer elements that you can touch and feel. One front porch creates more identity than 50 gables. After all, when was the last time you sat down on your fifth gable to enjoy a glass of wine after work?
Outside the home, a large yard promised a place for the kids to play and crash around. Only a typical child’s overly programmed life means that in most cases the only person spending time in the yard is the one who mows the grass. Trading the large yard for a small garden terrace, seamlessly connected to the home with a product like NanaWall, offers more usable private outdoor space at a fraction of the size. And living in close proximity to a park or ball fields can meet the needs of growing kids.
The McMansion promised that the prefect home would create the perfect family. So with cheap gas and free credit, millions fell into the “drive ’til you qualify” trap. They drove further and further from work to find larger, more affordable homes. Most did not consider the cost of commuting, not just at the pump, but also in the personal price paid. A 2011 study in Sweden found that couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce. In the U.S., roughly one in six workers commute for more than 90 minutes each day, and a Gallup survey found that one in three of them has recurrent neck or back problems.
From the gables on our roofs to our daily commute, the perception of what we thought we were getting turned out to be very different from the reality that we ended up living. The promises were valid and reasonable, yet rarely delivered as advertised. This disconnect has infected all aspects of life and deeply impacts the trade-offs we make when deciding where to live.
Firmness, Commodity and Delight
Moving today is more than changing addresses. It is an opportunity to assess how you want to live, to be honest about priorities and realities, and to live the most balanced life possible. Finding the right place to live requires honing in on what matters most for you, then searching for the place that will provide more than perception, but deliver in reality.
Since many of you reading this article are architects and designers, you will appreciate that Vitruvius inspired one of the core themes in the book – the balancing of firmness, commodity and delight, modernized to be function, cost and delight. The just right home strikes a balancing act between this triad. It’s easy to find one, maybe two, but true balance can only come when you find the sweet spot between all three.
You might find a house you love (delight) at a price you can afford (cost), but if it requires several hours in the car every day to get to and from work, this set up will not function well over time. Perhaps you find the perfect house (delight), in the perfect place (function), but it’s outside of your price range (cost). This might work at first, but living beyond your means will catch up with you and throw your life out of balance. When you find all three, you will know it – it will be the just right home for you.
Marianne Cusato is an author and designer.