One of the mantra’s of sustainable development is the idea that smaller is better. A smaller housing unit requires a smaller initial expenditure of resources and consumes a smaller quantity of energy throughout its lifespan. You can’t fit as much “stuff” into a small house, which may reduce the impulse to buy lots of things in the first place. Hong Kong takes smallness to the extreme – although it is driven more by high housing costs than concern for the environment. Most new housing takes the form of high-rise apartment buildings with tiny units. We toured an apartment on Thursday at the Ching Ho Public Housing Estate. The 430 square foot unit (it seemed even smaller!) was designed for a family of six. Ching Ho represents the state of the art in public housing design in Hong Kong, and the 70 square feet per occupant is the most generous allocation yet by the Hong Kong Housing Authority.
By comparison, we Americans are veritable space hogs. The average size of a new home in the U.S. swelled to more than 2500 square feet in 2007, although it has dipped slightly in recent years. I suspect that most of these new homes are occupied by four or fewer individuals. Of course it isn’t entirely fair to compare the size of public housing units in HK to single-family homes in the U.S., but nearly 40% of Hong Kong residents live in some form of public housing, and private housing in HK is also small as evidenced by a marketing brochure for a new luxury housing project that advertises units ranging in size from 267 to 398 square feet. These units sell for over $1,000,000.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a 400 square foot apartment with five other people. My family’s space consumption is already significantly lower than average. I share an 1100 square foot home (not including attic and basement space) with my wife, eleven year-old daughter, and six kilo dog. Our house seems cramped now and I covet more space. We continue to stay in our pint-sized home mostly due to inertia – as we simply can’t face the prospect of another move. The basement is an essential part of our small home living strategy and we’ve literally stuffed it with stuff. It’s become nearly impossible to navigate through the walls of boxes, stacks of surplus furniture, and pile of bicycles. I don’t know how they get by in Hong Kong without basements. There appears to be no shortage of consumption judging from the number of full shopping bags seen on the city’s streets. I wonder where all this stuff ends up.
Our trip has helped me to better appreciate the spaciousness and affordability of the U.S. housing stock, which contributes greatly to our quality of life. While some reduction in home size is both inevitable and desirable, the potential for significant change seems limited. Hong Kong style density is not for everyone and I suspect that most HK residents themselves would be happier with larger units. Urban development policy in the U.S. must be careful to preserve the positive aspects of our system while encouraging a more sustainable future.