The beauty of small homes (Thoreau was on to something)

The Crestone Eagle, May 2004:

story & photos by P J Smith

Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond was 150 square feet. Granted, he built it in the early 1800’s. And he was a bachelor who ate at his mother’s house. But Thoreau may also have been a trend-setter, because singles in small households are the way many Americans live now.

Less than 30 years ago, Mom, Dad, and the kids were the norm. Today, the nuclear family is only 30 percent of the total American population and is not growing. Singles, single-parent households, seniors, and young marrieds with modest incomes are the fast-growing members of the population—all together, a solid 50 percent. As this part of the population is growing, the number of people per household is declining, from 3.67 in 1940 to 2.60 in 2000, which is also the average in Saguache County.

Many modern home buyers, builders and dwellers are choosing to live small. Some, like Thoreau, seek to simplify their lives and to live in greater harmony with their surroundings. Others cannot afford or do not need an average-size American home of 2,200 square feet.

Many Crestone and Baca residents believe small is beautiful, too. Wooddora Eisenhauer lives in 650 square feet of usable space in an “Earthship” in the Baca. The Earthship’s extremely thick rear and side walls are dug deeply into a hillside. The fourth, south-facing wall is nearly all large floor-to-ceiling windows, adding to a feeling of interior spaciousness by inviting sunlight and outside vistas inside. An open floor plan adds to the airy feeling, while a separate bedroom and bath offer privacy. Every nook and cranny is utilized and exudes character, from hand-crafted built-in seating areas and shelves to a sleeping loft suspended from the ceiling.

The constant stream of sun and a small wood-burning stove heat Wooddora’s well-insulated Earthship. Domestic hot water is supplied with a low-profile, wall-mounted on-demand propane hot water heater, which saves both space and energy. “This past winter,” Wooddora says, “my total utility bill—that’s electric, water/ sewer, propane, and wood—averaged less than $100 a month.”

Marty Shults and Marlaina Mandeville, and their new baby boy, Keegan, live in a 1,200 square feet home in the Baca. It is a good example of how small houses can be packed with attractive architectural effects, like large, open interior door archways. “That’s what sold us on the house—the arches,” says Marlaina. “The minute we walked in, we said ‘This is the house for us.’” Light-colored cabinets, ceilings, doors, and trim contribute its charm and provide a feeling of continuous flow throughout the house.

Marty and Marlaina’s new home, like Wooddora’s, also features a wall of south-facing windows and an on-demand hot water heater. Energy consciousness seems to be built-in to small houses.

Some interesting comparisons can be made between minimum required square footages and average house sizes. For instance, the minimum house size required in the Chalets and Grants is 900 square feet. This is the current average home size in Japan, and 100 feet more than the typical 800-square-foot middle class American home of the 1950’s. Other local minimums are even more minimum: 300 square feet in the town of Crestone and 720 in Casita Park.

When building a small home, cost savings on unneeded square footage can mean more to spend on custom, hand-crafted details, and higher-quality, naturally-healthy energy-saving materials and equipment. In the long and short-term, small houses can benefit not only their inhabitants but also the environment.

Thoreau may have started a trend of living small with his 10 by 15 foot cabin on Walden Pond. But Leonard Da Vinci said it best, “Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.”

Check out the Small House Society at, or look for books on small houses at Taunton Press at