Size is no measure of American home

At one time, when I was in the market for a house, the real estate agent exclaimed about one place's "curb appeal." The expression was unfamiliar, but I knew what was meant — how a house looks from a distance. Does the home make an imposing impression from afar, or does it shrink into humble insignificance? Castle or cottage?

The notion of curb appeal is a curious one as it does not reflect the orientation of the house's residents, who likely will live indoors. It indicates, instead, the vantage point of a hypothetical observer — friend or stranger, prospective purchaser or cat burglar — who, glimpsing the house at a distance, will be suitably impressed, or not.

This inverted perspective about homes has become common in the last 30 years. The interior of many a contemporary home seems calculated not to serve the needs or pleasures of its inhabitants but to furnish a still life tableau prepared for an exacting home inspector.

Over the last decade or so, suburban houses have swollen in size, occupying ever-larger "foot-prints" — both terrestrial and carbon. Like an invasive species, the stately mansions overwhelm their lots, resulting in felled trees, shrinking gardens, and less lawn for playing and relaxing.

Today's edifice complex produces houses whose charm shrinks with each superfluous square foot. "Atmosphere" — that magical blend of intimacy, proportion, harmony, and authenticity — is sacrificed to the dry calculus of bigness.

In suburban castles, everyone is dispersed, the family unit fractionalized by space and time. Each family member seems to have a private asynchronous orbit, eating in solitude, watching television alone; home computers and cellphones have rendered this exile even bleaker. The house, subdivided against itself, will not stand. Alienation has no place in the home; there's enough of that elsewhere.

Inside the titanic new homes, the only refuge seems to be the kitchen, the de facto modern hearth. The kitchen offers an intimate and creative realm, a forum for sharing affection and catching up. More and more kitchens and living rooms are now joined, creating a fluid, vibrant and open environment, one that is truly alive. It's the true indoor garden.

A few years back, one lucky family won HGTV's "Dream House" Sweepstakes. The winners' euphoria soon gave way to misgiving. Ill at ease in their sprawling 6,500-square-foot Southern mansion, the parents and their two young sons were soon camping on the mezzanine of the second floor landing, itself the size of a small house.

Dwarfed by their behemoth, the family soon put it up for sale and repaired to their former bungalow back in Illinois. Meanwhile, the vacated palace proved a tough sell, miring the family in maintenance fees and taxes. A bad dream house, you might say. HGTV now offers contestants cautionary advice on the responsibilities of winning.

There will always be those who want their trophy home to reflect how far they've come: oversized icons of their affluence and success. In Seattle, an innovative, ecologically sound mega home development was created for a promotion called The Street of Dreams. In 2007, before its new owners laid down the welcome mat, the house was torched by environmental terrorists, practicing their own form of conspicuous consumption.

A bad time, like now, is a good time to home in on what we want from a house. Prices are still tumbling, and credit is tight. House-hunters are increasingly thinking small, reconsidering the charm of residences (including gardens) scaled to humans.

A family of four requires little more than 2,000 square feet. Keeping the family together begins by being together, with physical proximity. The moderate-sized house is an opportunity to reverse the recent trend: a smaller home and a larger garden taking the place of the gargantuan house and little or no garden.

Indeed, to complete the happy scene, all such a house requires is a substantial garden, with well-planned flower borders and productive vegetable and herb plots true to the character of both the local climate and particular qualities of the family, rather than the prissy tyranny of shelter magazines. If the house has curb appeal, that's just something you'll have to live with.

George Ball is chairman of W. Atlee Burpee & Co and past president of The American Horticultural Society.