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It takes big hype to keep up the legend of the "Not So Big House"

The genius of Susan Susanka's "Not So Big House" franchise isn't the architecture, though that's fine, too. A few years back, the one-time Minneapolis architect created a home-design cult around the concept of scaling back the McMansion. At the same time as the average new American home has swollen to 2,300 square feet--new Hummerlike developer homes are often twice that size--Susanka has acheived minor celebrity by selling more happiness in a smaller package. Fewer bathrooms and fewer formal (and underused) areas, she has argued, create a more enjoyable living space.

The philosophy has an innate appeal to the vaguely countercultural consumer--it's the equivalent of being promised a Prius with 350 horsepower and seating for nine. To wit, as of last year, according to the Washington Post, Susanska had sold 750,000 copies from her four-book series. (Two more titles are currently planned.)

There are surely environmental benefits to less gargantuan living: reduced demands for energy and construction materials; fewer acre-size yards that devour open space. Yet the notion that forgoing 800 square feet represents an act of political consciousness is bunk. Slobbering over beautiful and one-of-a-kind shelving plans and ingenious bench seating below the stairwell is just another form of catalogue capitalism--Lucky magazine on a grander scale. In point of fact, Susanska's houses, with their custom detailing and refined materials, are surely beyond the financial realities of the great majority of homebuyers.

And at 1,600 to 2,400 square feet--the latter is the size of the original Not So Big House--they're not small, either. No, we Midwestern Americans truly have no reckoning of what a small dwelling would look like. Our own unexceptional garage, for instance, is appreciably larger than the average apartment in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company of Iowa City, Iowa sells a finished wood-frame home, with kitchen and bath, that measures 6 feet by 8 feet. It costs $10,900, plus $2 a mile for shipping from Iowa City. (Or you could just throw it in the trunk of your Toyota Sequoia, the rolling behemoth du jour.) Less than 50 square feet? Now that is a small house.

(It's obvious, isn't it, that we haven't escaped the venal sin of real-estate lust. We've just miniaturized it.)

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