America is a place defined by bigness. It is infamous, both within its borders and abroad, for the size of its cars, its portions, its defense budget—and its houses.
Rightly so: U.S. houses are among the biggest—if not the biggest—in the world. According to the real-estate firms Zillow and Redfin, the median size of an American single-family home is in the neighborhood of 1,600 or 1,650 square feet. About five years ago, Sonia A. Hirt, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at the University of Georgia, was working on a book about land-use patterns in the U.S., and when she tracked down the average size of dwellings for about two dozen countries, the U.S. came out on top. Her comparisons were rough because she’d cobbled together her data from various sources, but she found that American living spaces had a good 600 to 800 square feet on most of the competition.
Looking just at the average size of newly built houses—as opposed to an average for all houses in a country, which is a smaller number—Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are on par with the U.S.; the averages for new houses in these countries approach or exceed 2,000 square feet. These same four countries have the most rooms per household occupant of 40 mostly wealthy countries studied by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
These data on house sizes come with a number of caveats: Different countries lump houses into different categories—Denmark, for instance, tracks the sizes of “cottages” in addition to those of other residential structures, and Redfin’s and Zillow’s figures vary based on whether they account for townhouses, condos, and the like. Some countries include only people’s primary residences in their analyses. And comparisons get further muddled by the fact that different countries have different levels of urbanization and density.
But that variance in density, in a way, is the point: Even in the absence of a uniform, universal system of measurement, America is in the top tier, globally, when it comes to the size of its citizens’ living spaces. The country attained this status in the past half century or so as a result of its peculiar history, culture, and economics.
It’s not that the U.S. has large houses because it has more land than other countries do. “People intuitively often think that this is the explanation … because America is such a big country,” Hirt told me. “Well, this is true, but Russia is a big country. Kazakhstan is a big country. Space itself doesn’t really make people do one thing or another.”
Government policies, however, do. As Hirt explains in her book Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation, the dictates of government have for the past century effectively steered Americans toward living in detached single-family homes—the formal term for a prototypical stand-alone house with a yard.
“[A] nation of homeowners, of people who own a real share in their own land, is unconquerable,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1942. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a nation of homeowners must own big houses, but a slew of policies—from the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 to the zoning mandates of individual towns and cities—fueled the growth of suburbs, and in turn the growth of the houses of which they were composed…[ ]