Big Houses, Broad Lawns: Some Observations From Suburbia

September 10, 2019 Updated: September 10, 2019

The average size of a new American home these days is 2,600 square feet, double the size of houses built 40 years ago.

My neighborhood in Front Royal, Virginia, vividly depicts this statistic. 

When you first enter the neighborhood, you drive past a long block of houses built in the 1980s and 1990s. These houses are close together, with spacious back yards and driveways crammed with various vehicles. 

When you turn onto the street where I currently live—I am resident caretaker for the property, my daughter and her family having recently moved to Pennsylvania—you’ll discover many of the houses are much larger. Built about 15 years ago, most are two-story homes with attached garages, and the lawns are two and three times broader than those of the older houses. 

Drive another block or so west, and you arrive at the latest additions to the neighborhood, veritable mansions set back from the road and framed with immense lawns. Here are gazebos and ponds, long driveways, and various outbuildings.

Unlike my immediate neighbors, I spend a lot of time on my front porch, and these houses, lawns, and the neighborhood, in general, have occasionally brought some long thoughts.

First up is an observation on the link between architecture and social life.

Houses set closer together can make for more interaction with neighbors. (Shutterstock)

The residents of the older homes spend a good deal of time outdoors in good weather, perhaps to escape the confines of their smaller homes. Because their houses are set more closely together and because they may have lived in the neighborhood longer than the rest of us, these people seem to know one another. Frequently, when I pass, I see some of them standing in their yards, visiting and laughing together. One girl enjoys riding up and down the block on her miniature ATV, and seems a favorite of those she passes.

Turn onto the street where I live, and that scenario is utterly changed. The broad lawns act as buffers, setting the neighbors apart. Every day, I do see some familiar faces—the man who walks his beautiful Siberian husky, the woman who drives her children in a golf cart in good weather to meet the school bus, and the elderly woman who takes her two small dogs to pick up the mail from the line of boxes. We wave to each other, but I know none of them by name. 

One advantage to the larger lots is that there are fewer residents, which, in turn, make the neighborhood safer for children in terms of traffic. When my daughter, her husband, and their seven children lived in this house, the flat terrain and careful drivers made this place an Eden for skating, riding bikes and scooters, and long walks. 

But they’ve moved, and so did the large family catty-cornered to their home, and the street nowadays is quiet and nearly always deserted.

For those who love privacy—and I do—this aspect of the neighborhood is ideal. As I say, the lawns create a sense of isolation. To give you an idea of the size of these plots, it takes me three hours using a self-propelled mower to cut the grass, and ours is a much smaller property than the ones farther down the block. 

For those who like to engage with neighbors—and I sometimes do—this circumstance is less than ideal. I suppose I could make the effort to meet those who live around me, and they could do the same, but the spread-out properties discourage those attempts. The walls are invisible, but they’re there.

Next, I have wondered about the design of these properties.  

First, why plant so many acres of grass? Was it simply easier for the builders to cut down the trees, grade the bare landscape, and sow fescue? The large, green lawns do lend a sort of grandeur to the houses and the neighborhood, but that grandeur is lost on me by the time I return the mower to the garage, wiping the sweat from my brow and knowing I’ll be doing the same thing in a week. 

The abundance of grass does attract quite a few deer. Just this morning, a doe, her right front leg crippled, and her fawn ambled across the back yard, stopping to nibble here and there and behaving as if they owned the place. If you like watching deer, as I do, you would enjoy these pasturelands we call lawns.

And the houses—why make them so large? In some cases, gargantuan. Homes this size require more heat and air conditioning, and more upkeep. The American family isn’t growing in numbers, so that can’t be the reason for this trend. Many of us, I suspect, live indoors more than previous generations, so maybe that explains this penchant for larger living quarters. We also own far more possessions than our ancestors, so perhaps we need room for all those children’s toys, electronic gadgets, gardening tools, and clothes. 

This inclination to supersize our houses remains a mystery, at least to me.

As you might detect, my own interest in buying a home of any kind, even a “tiny house,” is nil. In 2006, after more than two decades spent maintaining a 22-room bed-and-breakfast—my wife and I did the great bulk of that work ourselves—I sold the property and was delighted to move into a two-bedroom apartment. Twenty years of painting, fussing with old plumbing, thawing frozen pipes in January, and repairing leaky roofs had evaporated any zeal for home ownership. 

Were I a younger man, my attitude would be different. Buying a house at age 30 is an investment. You’re staking out a claim to your future. At my age, however, with no need to make “a house a home,” and given my aversion to the headaches of home ownership, a mortgage would be not a joy, but a ball and chain.  

At any rate, I’ll go on enjoying my idyll here while it lasts, the front porch and the deer, the quiet and the peace, the beauty of the mountain beyond the woods. My duties are light, a few hours a week, puttering around the yard and mowing the grass. 

I just wish that lawn was smaller. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.