When Kathryn Anthony showed relatives in Greece photographs of her 1,400-square-foot Dutch Colonial, their first question was: "How many families live in it?" Americans love their space, says the architecture professor who studies the issue at the University of Illinois. She'd even go so far as to call many U.S. homeowners spoiled.
"Space is the new luxury," says John Finton, a custom homebuilder who is working overtime erecting Southern California mansions that are almost as large as the White House's 55,000 square feet. Two decades ago, the ultra abodes he built were 6,000 to 8,000 square feet. Now his clients want that size for guesthouses.
But how much living space do you need to be happy?
Experts say that depends on the stage of your life, size of your family, entertaining styles, financial restrictions and, most of all, lifestyle. The space you want, says psychiatrist Peter Whybrow, can be traced to a primitive urge to be dazzled.
"We're reward-driven creatures who love novelty and trinkets. Our curiosity is good — it's enabled us to thrive," says Whybrow, the director of UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and author of the new book, "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough."
"But we can become victims of what once was a great survival mechanism if it is not reined in by a more intellectual part of the brain." With all the opportunities and choices we have, he says, we tend to be seduced into acquiring objects that we love but don't really need.
"If you can afford a 70,000-square-foot house, that's dandy," he says. "But if you have a stable income that affords you a 1,000-square-foot house and you buy a 3,000-square-foot one, and you're working two jobs and you never see your family, that happiness you were seeking goes out the same window that you thought had such a good view."
Sasha Tarnopolsky and John Jennings bought a fixer-upper in Mar Vista and lived in a studio they built in the back while they expanded and remodeled the main house. The couple now live — comfortably, they insist — in the remodeled and expanded 1,100-square-foot bungalow with a toddler and two dogs.
They definitely believe less can be more.
"You can fit the things essential to life and your children's well-being and education in that much space," says Jennings, an architectural designer. "Any larger, and you have a house with rooms that you don't go into for weeks."
"Sometimes," adds Tarnopolsky, a landscape architect, "it's more liberating to live with constraints than too many options."
The ground floor of the studio they called home for two years is about 500 square feet and it contains a suspended sleeping loft just large enough for a queen-size mattress.
"We never slept better because there was only room to sleep," says Jennings, who with his wife owns DRY Design, a Los Angeles-based architecture and landscape architecture firm fueled by sustainable, space-efficient principles.
Their light-filled studio — which was built to be multifunctional, "knowing our needs would change over the years," says Jennings — has a polished concrete floor and the seating, eating and cooking zones are defined by furniture, not walls. The computer table can be rolled outside and used for dining. Built-in Douglas fir cabinets and shelves provide attractive storage.
"It's easy to live in smaller spaces that are designed well and beautifully," says Tarnopolsky, who is expecting their second child.
"Living in the studio was a great experiment when we shed ourselves of material baggage," says Jennings, whose clever design has been featured in books, including "Mini House" by Alejandro Bahamón. "We pared down to what was important to us and were happy."
Those who need — or want — more expansive digs have the attitude of "you only go through life once," say real estate and construction experts. These owners of the oversized feel they have earned the right to spread out by working hard and playing their finances right.
Something else also may be at the root of this urge to splurge on space: pride. "Compared to many other countries, our public environments in the U.S. are lacking compared to our private environments," says Anthony, who lives in the relatively humble home in Urbana, Ill., that her overseas relatives consider lavish. "Hence, we place greater emphasis on our private spaces in our homes."
Producer Aaron Spelling made headlines when he built a football field-size residence in Holmby Hills during his "Dynasty" years in the late '80s. At 56,000-square-feet, his French chateau dwarfs the nearby Playboy Mansion, which broke Los Angeles' $1-million barrier in 1971, and bests the White House by 1,000 square feet.
Spelling said his manor — with 16 bathrooms — was a reward for growing up in a one-bath house with "wall-to-wall people" and, since he doesn't fly, it's where he and his family spend most of their time.
"People I know are having more children and need space for live-in help, their personal luxuries and entertaining," says John McMonigle, a Newport Beach real estate agent who built a 10,700-square-foot Tuscan estate overlooking Shady Canyon Golf Club in Irvine for his family of five. His clients, who have bought more than half a billion dollars' worth of real estate in coastal Orange County in the last three years, expect their houses to serve as personal utopias.
Author Dean Koontz, who says he grew up poor and rarely takes a vacation, calls his new 25,000-square-feet Newport Beach estate "outrageously indulgent." It was scaled back by half from it original plans, took more than a decade to build and has a full-time staff of 11.
"I've had clients move into a big home and they lasted a year and then sold it," says builder Finton, who adds that operating expenses for mega properties can run $30,000 a month or more. "It's not for everyone."
Regardless of overall house size, formal living and dining rooms are becoming less important, says Sally Sirkin Lewis, an interior designer and owner of J. Robert Scott, a Los Angeles textile and interior furnishings company. Many people would rather have an L-shaped sofa to curl up on in the family room near the kitchen.
"All of my clients want comfort and tasteful things that function for their lifestyle," she says. A large room, even in a home that doesn't have too many rooms, she says, "grants a sense of well-being, serenity. It takes you out of the ordinary."
Lewis, who is single, spends most of her evenings in her "comfort zone" — her high-ceiled bedroom suite and, on the weekends, her landscaped terrace.
"Most of the people I talk to live the same way. No matter how large their house is, they live in one or two rooms."