Faced with limited storage and the need to carve out distinct spaces in an open floor plan with less than 700 square feet, Paul Svendsen converted a castoff department store fixture into a clever piece of multipurpose furniture. The wood-top cart, once used to display Armani clothing, provides counter space while the drawers house a pantry on one side and books on the other. Does the sales associate for Barneys wish he had more space? “It always feels like I could use a bit more,” says Svendsen, who moved in 19 months ago. But the intrinsic character of his home in the recently restored Higgins Building that was built in 1910 is more important to him than a few more square feet.
(Béatrice de Géa / LAT)
Special to The Times

More than the final frontier, it’s the eternal frontier. In snug bungalows and expansive contemporaries, the question of how much space is enough is the question that launched a thousand add-ons. Is the answer a bigger home? Or more creative use of what you have? A look at the shifting footprint of today’s home -- and why our ability to be happy within those walls is more than the sum of our square feet.

How big a house do you want? How big a house do you need? Americans have been trying to reconcile the answers to these two questions for as long as banks have been extending mortgages. Complicating the responses are family size and level of affluence, personal taste, fashion and the ever-changing ways in which we live.

Through the years, while garages and bathrooms have multiplied and kitchens have grown in size and stature, living and dining rooms have all but disappeared. Outdoor space has been colonized, media centers have infiltrated and the home office has nearly supplanted the practically quaint idea of an extra room for guests.

For more than 50 years, people have been lured to ever-distant, sparkly new subdivisions, while others who may see themselves as urban pioneers moved back to the inner city to restore aging housing stock. In Los Angeles and other big cities, the questions of house size and utilization of space are perhaps more critical than ever as population density and the ever-rising cost of land force home- owners to rethink how many square feet they can afford and how to make the most of every square inch.

The home-buying public almost seems to have hardened into two camps. In one are the people who, often taking advantage of low-interest loans, are still upgrading to bigger-is-better “McMansions” or “starter castles,” as these suburban behemoths are derisively called. In the other camp are members of the so-called “smart growth” movement who eschew opulence and are trying to make the case that less can be more — when architects put their minds to it.

Everywhere, mere co-existence is not as simple as it was a generation ago. While the decibel levels of home entertainment centers approach the force of THX, more adults are also working at home, raising privacy conflicts. In addition, the social phenomenon of blended families, with children of divorce moving back and forth between homes, has created a need for more bedrooms and personal spaces. And as people live longer, more aging parents are moving back in with their offspring.

In the master-planned communities designed by Irvine architect Art Danielian, homeowners are rediscovering the modes of a century ago when the family, including grandparents, lived above the store. His 2,500-square-foot Spanish-style homes in the new Pasadera development in Palm Springs include a 240-square-foot detached casita, or little house, designed as a space for work or hobbies, “or a place for the mother-in-law,” says the architect.

This design shift is directly influenced by the changing demographic of home buyers. Twenty-five years ago, traditional families represented 67% of the residential market, says Danielian, compared with today’s new households in which 75% “are childless families — either empty-nesters, divorcees, late bloomers or singles.”

Yet as the median family has shrunk from 3.11 people in 1974 to 2.59 in 2004, the median size of the single-family home in the U.S., as measured by new construction, has bulked up from 1,560 square feet to 2,340 during the same period, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders.

“That’s enough space for a family of four if you do it right,” says Kurt Beckmeyer, an architect in South Pasadena. “But I have a lot of clients who really want big. I’m working on an 11,000-square-foot house right now.”

When a house gets bigger than 2,500 square feet, “the distance between spaces can become inconvenient,” he says. “Personally, I don’t want to have to walk 100 feet to get a cup of coffee.” But Beckmeyer does not speak for the majority.

“Everybody still wants a bigger house even though family size has declined,” says Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president for research for the home builders association. “People see it as an investment.”

Is big such a bad thing? asks Witold Rybczynski, author of the 1986 book “Home: a Short History of an Idea.”

“Consumers are adamant that they want space rather than quality. But if someone wants a big house what’s wrong with that? Maybe someone has worked hard to earn it. When you say ‘McMansion,’ it just means you don’t like it,” says Rybczynski, a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Architects who design custom homes are quick to note that the average suburban castle is not individually designed by an architect but springs from generic blueprints favored by developers.

“Some people want houses that are about status and resale value, as opposed to how they’re really going to live in them,” says Eric Kahn, who teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and designs homes that average 1,500 to 2,200 square feet.

“Our clients tend to be interested in the soul of the house. They want openness, light and informality — kitchens that open into living rooms and bedrooms that are compressed because they’re not going to be spending a lot of time there. They don’t live the way their parents lived.”

The design and construction costs for a house like this in Southern California can be about $500,000 to $600,000. Add the cost of the land, and the purchase price tops $1 million.

“We’re coming back slowly I hope from the excesses of the last 20 years in overscaled homes,” says Duo Dickinson, a Connecticut architect and a leader of a downsizing movement to persuade Americans to think smaller in the face of such realities as available sites, swelling building codes and rising construction costs. “People have valued cubic footage over community, and extreme mediocrity has been rewarded with gigantic price tags.”

Sarah Susanka, another flag-bearer of the smaller-is-better movement and the best-selling author of “The Not So Big House,” exhorts readers and clients to maximize the comfort of their homes by creating spaces that are beautifully cozy and multipurpose rather than expansive, rambling and redundant.

The houses she describes and recommends are generally less than 3,000 square feet and do not contain home gyms or theaters.

The single biggest trend in home design in the last 20 years, the informal integration of the kitchen and den into the “great room,” or family room, continues to dominate floor plans in 2005, but its popularity has been affected by the rising noise of electronic gadgets and the critical mass of children who tend to congregate there.

“People are reassessing the great room,” says Kathleen Rozelle, an interior designer in Dallas. “It’s the privacy thing. When kids have a lot of friends over, Mom and Dad need some place else to go.”

In response to the rising cacophony of computer games, head-banging music, television and other modern-day noise, a new room has emerged in the lexicon of home design — the “away room,” which might be the size of a small bedroom and has French doors that can be closed to provide a private acoustical space for reading, writing, studying or even watching (a different) television.

Even 100 years ago, the need for privacy was a consideration, and many early 20th century homes were designed with thick pocket doors that could seal off one large space from another.

“The notion of public versus private space has long been with us,” says Robert Timme, dean of the school of architecture at USC. “And it has changed as a result of things happening in social customs.

“Once, the kitchen was seen only by the cook or the woman of the house. But when people no longer had domestic help, breakfast rooms were added. And when cooking became part of the conversation, the great room was wrought. The den and the living room got married and became one room,” he says.

In the tract homes that spread across the nation after WWII to provide housing for returning GIs and their baby-boom offspring, the den was also opened to outdoor light and the formal dining room was sometimes sacrificed to the new open floor plans, borrowed from Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernists.

Today, the term “living room” can refer to a different space than the one at the front of the house once used mainly to greet and entertain guests. And the formal dining room continues to be questioned by architects and designers focused on matching the use of a house’s space to how people really live in an era when two parents often work, family members eat at different times, and — especially in Southern California — a house’s living area extends beyond the back door.

“Our lifestyles have totally changed in 100 years,” says Sue Bacon, a designer specializing in Arts and Crafts period houses and the owner of Historic Lighting in Monrovia. “These homes are treasures but they are treasures to be lived in.”

Which means they often have to be remodeled, she says, to accommodate the same consumer demands — entertainment centers, family rooms, home offices and bigger closets — shaping the floor plans of new houses. In addition to an adherence to formality, older houses were once broken up into more distinct rooms because it was easier to keep some of them warm before the advent of efficient central heating.

“Gradually the walls have come down and the visual and physical spaces have been connected,” says Dickinson, whose latest book is “The House You Build: Making Real-World Choices to Get the Home You Want.” “The culture was liberated by technology. Human beings like to be connected.”

Sometimes they do, but sometimes one person wants to read while another wants to practice the trumpet. They could probably co-exist happily in the “New American Home” model that was on display in January at the home builder association’s annual show in Florida. That house on steroids was 9,036 square feet and included a master suite, four additional bedrooms, a library, a game room, a kitchen large enough for a double island and a three-car garage.

Such a luxury compound exists purely in the realm of fantasy for most home buyers. What if you can only afford a house with two or three bedrooms and no library?

Besides the “away room,” private spaces can be created by varying ceiling heights and angles of vision within the open floor plans of postwar modern homes, says Susanka, who particularly favors alcoves. “The alcove,” she writes, “is the adult equivalent of the child’s cardboard box.”

The alcove, properly executed, can be an area of escape and personal comfort. The landing at the bottom of a staircase can become a “brain space,” meaning a place to read or write or just think. A neglected nook under the eaves can become a home office. Here, technology actually enriches small space because plasma TVs and slimmer computers and other electronic devices are easier to fit in.

The concept of “living big in a little space” could be catching on, says Charles Miller, special issues editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine. “People want their houses to have a more intimate feel…. It’s a reaction I think to some of these huge homes where you can rattle around in the rooms like a ping-pong ball, where every room is pounding its chest.”

Rybczynski, who lives in a 2,500-square-foot house that includes a room in which he can play the drums, is not convinced. “Space is a luxury,” he says, “I’m afraid this idea of combining small and high quality is a new snobbism.”

In this country, the notion of living more efficiently in a smaller space goes back more than 150 years to the American writer Catharine Beecher, a pioneer in the field of home economics who favored utility over decor and put forth the significant idea that a small house, because it was easier to take care of, could be a more comfortable house — understandable from a woman’s point of view since women were expected to clean and maintain it.

It might be hard to make the same argument today with so many women having joined the workforce and employed homeowners of both genders often hiring maids and cleaning crews to keep their houses clean. Just imagining the staff required to dust and wax 12,000 square feet weekly could be a factor in wondering if bigger is always better.

In Los Angeles, influential architect Lorcan O’Herlihy — who lives with his wife in 2,300 square feet in Venice — is addressing the restrictions of land and cost by designing multifamily projects in West Hollywood and Echo Park, some of them live-work lofts. The individual units are around 1,500 square feet.

“You just have to be creative about it,” he says about providing the necessary space. “Density isn’t a bad thing.”

Kahn’s firm, the Central Office of Architecture, has also created speculative live-work designs for the urban core of L.A. Acknowledging that the suburban model of the American dream has been “increasingly available to only a few,” his firm has designed semi-detached live-work spaces with private and semi-private courtyards in response to “a sense or urgency for affordable housing within a city whose needs have become desperate.”

But such innovative space-saving designs are only a fraction of what’s on the market, even as the price of homes in Southern California keeps rising annually at a rate of more than 20%. Custom-designed houses in the U.S. remain less than 5% of the total while developers continue to dominate new home sales, marketing “the American Dream” by the square foot and generic floor plan.

“Architect-designed homes are a sideshow,” says Walt Lockley, an architecture and design consultant in Phoenix who points out that not all cities have reached their available land limits.

“Here in Phoenix, I’d say the opposite is happening: Spaces are getting larger, so large they’re out of human scale,” he says.

The author of an online text titled “The Psychology of Residential Space,” Lockley believes that “places sculpt behavior” and that many homeowners are unaware of the extent to which their environments may not be suited to the way they live.

“There are certain physiological things we know. If you look at the color red, your blood pressure and heart rate go up,” he says. “Lower ceiling heights signify intimate spaces. Sleeping in a bedroom that has 15-foot ceilings makes the bedroom into a public arena,” even though the inhabitants might be unconscious of why they don’t feel more comfortable in such a setting.

“Design is powerful and people deserve to take control of their spaces, but I don’t see that happening on a big scale,” Lockley says. Instead, he has noticed that clients are preoccupied with resale value, which often inhibits them from tailoring a house to their personal needs and style.

“A lot of clients are almost frightened by the next buyer,” he says. “People tend to look at their houses as financial instruments rather than as homes.”

Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to The Times. He can be reached at