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Downsized Dwellings Are Making a Comeback
Architecture Class Shifts Focus from Mega-Mansions to Small-Scale Bungalows, Cottages

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Posted February 16, 2000

Move over, mega-mansion and trophy home.

An associate professor of architecture is turning his attention to the bungalows, cottages and other shelters inhabited by people on a budget.

"We love writing and reading about the houses and the kitchens of the rich and famous," says Paul Groth, also an architectural historian. "There's no House and Garden (magazine) for the working class people."

But while the small house lacks the "great room" of the contemporary home, said Groth, that doesn't mean it isn't commendable. He thinks "minimal homes" of the 20th century are making a comeback.

So, he's teaching a new course this spring devoted to the history and present status of small homes -- perhaps even the arty little condo in a high-style city neighborhood -- for the working class. And, next year he plans to research the history of workers' cottages of West Oakland, sampling the approximately 250-block neighborhood to the south of MacArthur Boulevard and Interstate 580.

Groth poked around the area two years ago with colleague Marta Gutman, interpreting houses and home life artifacts. They worked for an archeological team hired by CalTrans to document 20-plus blocks on the edges of West Oakland, a neighborhood that gave way to the new Cypress Freeway.

"I'm interested in the small house because I think we (as an American society) need to downsize," Groth said, adding that he thinks it's already happening.

As indicators of resurging minimalist lifestyles, he cited reports of increased communal living among Bay Area college students and adults because of skyrocketing housing and premium land costs. Nearby Silicon Valley boasts the most expensive housing market in the country.

"We're finding out there are a lot of different ways for people to live," Groth said. "If we appreciate (the small home) and learn to live with it, it may be an educational process to teach Americans that bigger isn't necessarily better."

Many of Groth's students are living in small homes by choice, circumstance or necessity.

One student moved from a four-bedroom home on two acres into an in-law cottage behind her parents' home in order to care for the couple. Another student lives in a crowded dorm built in the 1930s, in a room about 140 square feet in size. Yet another rents a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. A student who grew up in India said a single-family home there "is like a dream." Today, she lives in a house with 1,600 square feet and four bedrooms and said she's starting to think it's too small.

Groth teaches in the architecture department and once practiced architecture for a brief time. He earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley in human geography in 1983, studying with James Vance, a specialist in the history and form of European and North American cities. He also studied at the College of Environmental Design with John Brinckerhoff Jackson, whom Groth described as a "maverick scholar and environmental philosopher" who also had a strong interest in all types of American homes.

Groth said his fascination with the small home may have begun to take form while he worked on his doctoral dissertation, which resulted in a book about residential hotels in the United States. The days he spent living in one room of an 1840 New York row house, with a loft over the kitchen table, also may have been a factor.

At the start of the 19th century, many middle class and wealthy Americans lived in hotels, Groth said. The apartment, as we know it today, didn't exist. But industrialization changed that, as people -- first in Europe, then the United States -- flocked from the countryside to the city. Residential hotel owners began frowning on guests cooking in their rooms, and developers realized the profit potential of multiple-unit dwellings or smaller homes squeezed into tighter spaces.

Add a natural disaster or two, like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and the changes picked up the pace. After the '06 quake, the Murphy Bed Co. and its folding bed capitalized on the housing shortage.

Examples of the small home now dot the Bay Area, with workers' cottages in Berkeley and Oakland, bungalow subdivisions and post- World War II subdivisions.

Before 1930, one-half of all Americans had, at some point, rented a room from a family, or rented out a room in their own homes. "And high rents and the lack of affordable units has caused us to go back to that," Groth said. "People with ordinary incomes are starting to reinvent things that were common in the '20s and '30s."

Not only do smaller homes consume fewer natural resources than the sprawling ranch home in suburbia or the Silicon Valley mansion, but residents of smaller homes generally tend toward greater use of mass transit.

The small homes in Groth's studies primarily include:

  • Workers' cottages. These wooden houses first had two to four rooms, measuring a total of 400 to 600 square feet. Residents considered them a big step up economically and socially from shanties and shacks built of scrounged materials and often on land the residents didn't own. "Proper" middle and upper class people lived in larger, seemingly more permanent homes, Groth said.

  • Expanded workers' cottages. Skilled workers with steady employment often owned these homes and built on, adding rooms at the back.

  • Bungalows. They began as one-story, open-lot homes built for English residents in India. In this country, the bungalow usually means a one-story house with five or more rooms that runs from 800 to 1,500 square feet.

  • Studio or efficiency apartments. These dwellings are one-room apartments with a fold-down bed or couch. The history of the apartment is "still very spotty," Groth said, and only has started to be compiled in the last 10 years or so.


February 16 - 22, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 22)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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