A Surefire Way to Cut Building Costs


Stuff … we all have it.  I’m as guilty as the next person of accumulating questionably necessary possessions.  I was reminded of that only this morning when I ventured down to the basement of my apartment building to get my tent out of the storage area.  In a 20 by 20, one bedroom apartment I have three closets liberally stuffed with … stuff.  I don’t use it on a daily or even weekly basis.  My storage unit holds a few genuinely useful things – two boxes of winter clothing, some camping gear, assorted boxes from my last move and my bicycle.  But there is also a broken lamp, two printers I don’t use, a shelving unit I should give away, and a pile I’m unsure about.

The irony in my getting a tent out of a stuff- storage unit this morning is that it wasn’t so long ago that I lived 5 months in a tent just like it with everything I needed for comfort and convenience.  In 2007, I sublet my apartment in Minneapolis and packed my car packed with some work clothes, an air mattress and sleeping bag, my camera, laptop,  a few drafting supplies and not much else.  I drove to Biloxi Mississippi, where I volunteered my labor and design skills to the Gulf Coast reconstruction effort.  Of all the lessons and skills I gained there — the most important was how happy I was living with so little.

stuff 2

My tent home, complete with “stuff” in Biloxi, MS

When I returned to my apartment I had a tough readjustment period.  It was hard to fall asleep with the ceiling and walls so far away.  I actually considered setting the tent up over my bed.  But gradually I re-acclimated.  I hadn’t actually gotten rid of all the stuff in my life – just taken a vacation from it – and it was all there waiting for me.  Since then I’ve moved again and accumulated more.

I’m not alone in this; I know it is an issue that everyone struggles with.  Americans seem particularly prone to accumulating more stuff than we need and then being reluctant to part with it.  To illustrate, there’s a fascinating piece by Jon Mooallem in the NYTimes Magazine this week about the self storage phenomenon in the United States.  .

The United States now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. (The Self Storage Association notes that, with more than seven square feet for every man, woman and child, it’s now “physically possible that every American could stand — all at the same time — under the total canopy of self-storage roofing.”) According to the Self Storage Association, one out of every 10 households in the country rents a unit, making facilities like Statewide among our last national commons — places where nearly every conceivable kind of American still goes.

ustore it

via refractionless on flickr

Mooallem says that the idea for a storage facility dates to the 1960s and was originally meant to be a short term solution for temporary circumstances created by external factors – moving, divorce, the death of a relative etc.  But although the time since then has been fraught with high rates of both of  mobility and divorce — the amazing growth of the storage business indicates that we’ve turned self storage into another thing entirely.  No longer a temporary holding place, we’ve begun to use it as a permanent place to keep our extra “stuff” in stasis.  Its easy to do – when my parents moved to Madison from the Chicago area we rented a storage unit to help with the transfer.  We also used it to house much of our “extra stuff” so that the house on the market would be open and clutter-free and sell more quickly.  We moved  a number of packing boxes into the basement of the  new house , and it took us 15 months to clear out that storage unit.  Some of the contents we gave away, others I took with me when I moved from a single room in a cooperative to my own apartment.  But the question remained – did we really need any of it if it could languish peacefully behind a bright orange sheet metal door for all that time?

A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.

Marla Cilley, in her campy but brilliant book on organizing homes and lives, Sink Reflections, advocates regularly going through your house and getting rid of things you don’t love or need.  Her “27 fling boogie” involves taking a box or bag, setting a 15 minute timer and going through your house seeking clutter and tossing it.  For the faint of heart you can put the box in your car or garage for a week or two and see if you miss anything.  But the point is to purge and cleanse.  I feel like some people could easily “fling” an entire closet , basement or storage unit.

What does all of this have to do with sustainable building?  EVERYTHING.

I regularly tell design clients that the easiest way to cut the cost of their future home is to cut the square-footage.  When we plan to build or to renovate, its so easy to feel that we don’t have enough room and design more.  But I think the better answer is to be happy with less.  Americans could fling entire rooms and wings of our houses.  Small is beautiful and … its easier and more relaxing too.

Categories: Eco activism, Eco architecture

Tagged as: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s