filling the space

I’d like to address an adage whose implication’s are as far-reaching as the implications of the law of gravity.

Historian and Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published an essay in The Economist in 1955 supporting his postulation that,

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” – The Economist

The significance in this idea expands to some ideas available for microscopic scrutiny (and I wouldn’t be me without over-examining these few).

Watching shows like House Hunters or Flip or Flop on home improvement networks, we can see themes emerge in how many people purchase homes. You always hear the criteria for timid couples shopping for their starter home to be, none other than, their budget. They ask “how much can I get with the money I have?” They provide a little wiggle room for renovations and emergencies, but put their life savings into the biggest and best house an over-eager realtor can find for them.

Ignoring the norm that most of the “budgets” shown include the largest bank loan that can be received by these couples (with interest), homeowners have already lost value by forcing themselves to live in spaces too large.

See the average sq. ft. increase in the last 30 years (CNN).

CNN and many more surveys show that in the 30 years before 2013, home sizes have increased by almost 1000 square feet. All this in spite of the fact that family size decreased from 3.37 members in 1950 to 2.5 members in 2016, so that we are living with, on average, one less person in a home and one thousand more square feet of space from person to person. The implications of this fact upon the family is massive and leads to more than just surface level problems.

Constraint: How we fail to appreciate the finite nature of land and energy resources. Jimmy Carter talked about the energy problems facing America, and our growing homes only contribute to this coming crisis. North America has a limited number of space and an increasing number of inhabitants who consume land in economically inefficient ways that will impact the future potential growth of our expanding nation.

The “tiny house” movement, often ridiculed or glorified for only the true minimalists or “new ageists,” it is not too extreme an option for those who are serious about using land and finances responsibly. (I remember a good portion of my growing up years wanting to live in a PODS storage shell. I think I wanted to be closer to the dog.) But more options exist for those willing to support reducing our ecological footprint and improving lifestyles, from designing and building their own conservative homes, to just buying smaller (which coincidentally amounts to cheaper).

Separation: A matter closer to the heart is the disconnectedness of families in homes whose halls echo the shouts of households stranded apart. Here is a huge contributing factor, I believe, to the destruction of family structure, whether you believe a desolation here is occurring or not. Given larger living spaces, even with working-from-home parents, a modern family can go about their day entirely at ease without passing another soul in their house.

Heat map of the “American Monster Home” by 5Kids1Condo.

Adrian Crook, owner of a video game consulting business and author of the blog 5Kids1Condo, examines how little of our home’s social spaces like dining rooms or porch sitting areas Americans choose to use on a weekly basis. The excess space in a home and the declined family size shows us a trend in an opposite direction that upsets family dynamics and cannot be positive for the future of the communities that are the lifeblood of our society.

Stuff: Here we put Parkinson’s Law, tweaked slightly, into use. “Things” accumulate so as to fill the space available to it. Joshua Fields Millburn, a co-writer of Everything that Remains, perfectly captures the social imperatives we believe to be subject to-

“… my first inclination was, of course, to purchase the things I still “needed” for my new place. You know, the basics: food, hygiene products, a shower curtain, towels, a bed, and umm… oh I need a couch and a matching leather chair and a love seat and a lamp and a desk chair and another lamp for over there, and oh yeah don’t forget the sideboard that matches the desk……….” (many things later) “… And a rug for the entryway and bathroom rugs (bath mats?) and what about that one thing, that thing that’s like a rug but longer? Yeah, a runner; I need one of those, and I’m also going to need…”

This is how we accumulate, not skeletons in the closet, but cardboard boxes in closets filled with “things” that we we had a use for at one point.

But wait… I gave up on learning how to cook the perfect Soufflé with this kit. And I guess I don’t use this elliptical now that I have a gym membership. And when did I plan on acquiring the accompanying speaker for this stereo system? (I’m not guilt-free here in the slightest) We think these thoughts and continue living the same cluttered lives in our ever-growing, but empty homes.

***(Update– 17 June 2019: I fail to even mention the emergence of the $3.8 billion self-storage industry over the past 20 years that holds even more of our junk as the amount of “things” we own increases year by year)***

Playing devil’s advocate, one could cite the growing number of telecommuters who work from in-home offices and workspaces like some articles suggest. A brief glance at the history of telecommuters, though, reveals that with only 4.5% of Americans currently telecommuting and using space in homes, an increase of only about 2.5% since the 1980’s when the mode of working emerged.

I hold a deep conviction that the “stuff” we own amasses to the amount of space we let it have and a true belief that it is not “things” that add value to our lives, but purpose, connection and furthering our identity as humans. For this reason I write: not to hurl stones at those who have built walls in their comfortable American Dream homes, but to plead with the few ready for change. Those sick of falling into the societal norms that tell us how to live. The speech of commoners is what drives a movement to become a revolution.

Author: Ben Fridge

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