How much living space do you need?

After watching the YouTube video of Gary Chang’s 344-square-foot apartment, writing about Japan’s hotel “capsule” housing and reading WSJ.com’s blog post “The Optimal Amount of Living Space,” I’ve been wondering: “How much dwelling space do humans require to be happy and safe?”

Since safety and happiness are major concerns in U.S. prisons (“happiness” in the sense of keeping rioting, violence, and suicide rates at a minimum), I expected minimum square footage per inmate mandates to exist. Turns out, the federal government does not define how many square feet a prisoner is required to have for conditions to be considered something better than “cruel or unusual.” As a result, inmates are given anywhere between 35 square feet (common when two prisoners share a 70 square foot cell) to 100 square feet (quite uncommon, but more likely to be found in solitary-confinement situations where prisoners never leave their cells). And, research about the penal system shows that rates of riots, violence, and suicide don’t appear to be directly correlated to cell size (much like job satisfaction isn’t based on office size).

The amount of space humans need to be happy and safe, therefore, is quite minimal (based on how it’s configured, it could be difficult for most people to even lie down in 35 square feet). So the question isn’t really one of need, but one of want.

Many factors go into answering the question: “How much space do I want to be happy and safe?” Location of property, floor plan, cultural norms, rent/mortgage, amenities, storage, air quality, and aesthetics are all considerations that weigh into an individual’s want response.

Have you ever stopped to consider how much space you want? What factors are guiding your answer? Are you letting your stuff dictate your response? I’m eager to read your thoughts on this issue in the comments.

59 Comments for “How much living space do you need?”

  1. posted by J in the UK on

    Toddlers can’t wait either. Having a toddler in the family doesn’t mean that we NEED two bathrooms.

  2. posted by Mid America Mom on

    HI Erin. Sorry I did not catch this earlier but I wait until the weekends usually. This is a great question!

    Recently I have been thinking seriously about what size home we need. We have lived in 5 places in 5 years – first as a family of 3 in a 2900 sq ft. suburban single family home and now a family of 4 in a downtown 650 sq ft. 2 bedroom apartment with a cat (amazingly we make it work and not feeling on top of one another). And in a few months we will be moving once again probably to a another apartment with a limited budget. What concerns me is that this new place needs to be functional, efficient, and affordable. As I take my search online and look at floorplans that goal is hard to achieve. This site helps me understand clutter, ways to deal with it, real solutions, and I found that the slow home movement is doing that for home design and joined their site as well as an active supporter. Speaking of which I will be posting a question about ideal size of bedroom closets here in our forum…

    As for stuff. Pairing down furniture over the years did not bother me. What I found most difficult is learning to live with less storage space. With growing children we store hand-me-downs, purge all the time, but need a place for toys which I rotate – with those in storage! We do have an offsite storage space with personal memorabilia and other household items but that is just delaying the inevitable as I am determined to pair down and get rid of the space with the next move. I will probably be posting HELP! in the forum when that comes ;)

    Mid America Mom

  3. posted by MrsOI on

    I’ve enjoyed reading this post as well as all of the comments. I live in a 1200 sf house with 4 bedrooms. Keep in mind, though, that the 4th bedroom would be considered a walk-in closet in the USA — it’s only 7ft x 7ft. Our household is comprised of 5 adults plus one teenager who is here every other weekend. We have one bathroom, plus a toilet in a shed outside (quite common in the UK).

    The four bedrooms and the bathroom are upstairs. Downstairs we have a hallway, living room, and kitchen/dining room. The kitchen/dining room takes up more than half of the downstairs, but it’s a well used room with plenty of counter tops and in the dining side, a table for 6 (we’ve 10 squeezed around it before).

    Before I got married and moved to the UK from Texas, I lived in a 1200sf, 2 bedroom house (with large utility room) all alone. It was a lovely house, and I quite enjoyed it, but I realize now that I would have been just as happy in a much smaller house/apartment as long as it had lots of windows.

  4. posted by Mikhaela on

    My husband and I live in a 850-square-foot 2-bedroom apartment. It has always been plenty big enough for us, but we are about to have a baby and my mother will be living with us to take care of her (and my father will also be there much of the time). And we have two cats. We are both artists who do a lot of freelance work at home, so… I think our ideal space would be maybe 1,000-1,200 square feet.

  5. posted by jane on

    I have always been fascinated by small homes, but as a single entity. As a married woman with a handicapped adult child to take care of, I think it matters more who you are sharing the space with. I need time to myself, my husband needs quiet time and I like noise and we both need to get away from our daughter at times. So now we have a fairly large house and I cherish every inch. But I am a dreamer who likes every inch pretty, clean and organized, with various vistas to enjoy.

  6. posted by WilliamB on

    I would not be able to answer this question with a number. It depends more on layout and organization than one square footage.

    I lived, alone, in an 850 sqft 1 BR apt that seemed snug: it had two long hallways, huge LR, a DR that could not be converted to BR[1] and a small kitchen. The kitchen was pretty but ancient (I’d never seen a gas-powered fridge before) and the overall arrangement meant there was no wall space to hang gear on, making the space even smaller. The bathroom had a separate shower, wasting more space. Yet half the LR went unused because it was too big but too awkward to repurpose.

    OTOH I lived in a 550 sqft 2 BR that seemed spacious. I used the smaller BR, the larger for guest bed and desk. The kitchen was the same square footage as the one above but well laid out. Management did the closets to my spec: two clothing rods/shelves at suit lengths and two shelves above, yielding even more space.

    [1] I managed something by buying the world’s smallest sofabed and two screens to block the two open doorways. But it was a hack.

  7. posted by Lindsay on

    Well right now I live in a 700 sq foot home 2 bedroom, 1 bath on 1/2 an acre with my husband, 6 small dogs (total weight all together 120 pounds) and 2 cats. We almost bought a 3000 sq foot “dream home” 2 years ago. The house was perfect with 4 bedrooms, a den, formal dinning room, huge kitchen…but after thinking about the time to clean, extra money needed (mortgage/utilities/upkeep) we chose to stay in our cute little home. We are in the process of updating our home to make it what we want: new kitchen, add a back patio and fence the whole yard. We would like a 2nd bathroom but after being here 8 years we can do without, we may turn a front closet into a bathroom. Funny thing is we travel alot and our hotel rooms are frequently larger than our home.

  8. posted by STL Mom on

    I admire all the people living in small spaces. We looked at downsizing when we moved two years ago. Our previous house was over 4,000 square feet and way too big. I’m not sure of our current house’s square footage, but I’d guess around 3,000, for a family of four people and three pets.
    I looked at a lot of smaller homes, but the layout was always wrong for the way we live. This house has a great layout, and the only rooms that aren’t used almost daily are the finished attic and the guest room and bath. But because we frequently have relatives and friends visit from out of town, the guest room is used a lot. I had 7 adult houseguests for a week and I loved having enough room to keep everyone comfortable. My family is spread all over the place, and I’m in a central location and the only one with enough space for everyone to stay together.
    I don’t NEED a house this big, but it makes me happy, except for when I’m dusting and vacuuming.

  9. posted by Emma on

    I’m curious how much this varies from country to country. You know, how much space does an American feel happy in, compared to a German or Romanian or Columbian or Somalian or Chinese or… you get the point.

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