Is this a familiar tale in your area?
Every spring and fall, crowds of people (complete with strollers and screaming toddlers) jam into their cars and drive to suburban subdivisions — usually located on former farmland — a good 30-minute drive from a grocery store or gas station to gawk at 4,000+ square foot homes costing more than what most visitors will make in their lifetime. The builders of these homes have carefully designed them to appeal to the average Joe's proclivity to "dream big," to convince them that more space will make their lives easier, and that what they really need in order to impress their friends and families is a four-car garage and a two-story wall of windows facing west.
In my corner of the world, it's called a "Homes Tour" and it's one big sales pitch for an excessive and unsustainable way of life that, hopefully, is falling out of fashion given the current economic realities and a growing sensitivity to reducing energy use.
In its place is a novel way of looking at home design called the "slow home" movement
(termed after the slow food philosophy). A slow home is smaller, more energy-efficient, and better designed to work with
its inhabitants lives, instead of requiring the inhabitants to shape how they live around the layout and structure of the house. It's similar in theory to the Not-So-Big-House principle
that came around a decade or so ago, which gives every room a purpose and utilizes cleverly designed built-in units, seating and task-oriented areas to reduce the square footage of a home.
Where the slow home differs from not-so-big house, though, is in its emphasis on site selection and location. Slow home founders John Brown and Matthew North of Canadian architecture firm Housebrand believe in revitalizing urban areas to reduce suburban sprawl that, they believe, has negatively affected everyone's way of life, not to mention the environment, with its dependence on single-occupant commuting by cars. They maintain that locating a home within a walkable community and within an easy distance from business, retail and entertainment improves quality of life.
"People walk around saying they don't have enough time in their days and they think it has to do with external stresses. They don't realize the choice that they made to live an hour away from where they work means that they spend two hours every day commuting," Brown says.
In a nutshell, there are 12 tests or principles you can apply to design a slow home or determine if an existing home is "slow" or not.
Location: Walkable neighborhood, close to work and shopping, minimizes car use
Size: Fits the needs of its owners and reduces unnecessary energy use
Orientation: Is oriented to the sun and wind to take advantage of natural heating and cooling
Stewardship: Conserves land and water and contributes to the community
Entry: Entries are separate transition spaces and have storage
Living: All living spaces have good daylight and no wasted space
Dining: Can easily fit a table and is located close to the kitchen
Kitchen: Located outside of natural traffic patterns, has an efficient work triangle, and good storage
Bedrooms: Daylight, storage, good circulation patterns and a logical place for a bed
Bathrooms: Private, modestly-sized and have sufficient storage
Utility: Spaces like garages, laundry rooms, mechanical areas and storage are functional and unobtrusive
Organization: The house is organized with similarly-purposed rooms grouped together and has good traffic flow
According to Brown, only 11 percent of all homes in North America meet these 12 principles enough to be called "slow." However, he stresses that most homes can be remodeled and retro-fitted to make them slower and more efficient. And, it's worth it to do so — after all, the greenest home is the one that's already been built. The slowest home is one that is built well, built to last and built to live.