The yellow brick house where Carol Grass and her nine siblings grew up in the 1950s was, by today's standards, short on amenities: there was no exercise room, no home office and no home theater, no family room or walk-in closets or vaulted ceilings. All 12 family members shared one small bathroom, which did not have a jetted tub and separate walk-in shower. The whole east bench house, including the basement, was about 1,600 square feet.

Eventually a family room and an extra bedroom were added on, and the house passed into other hands several times. Most recently a family with four children moved out, explaining that the house wasn't big enough for their needs.

Mirroring a trend nationwide that has continued for the past five decades, Utahns continually want more and more elbow room, and more and more rooms per elbow. It's a trend that has fueled Salt Lake City's "monster homes" controversy in recent months, as existing homes are torn down or remodeled to create houses sometimes three or four times bigger than the Tudors and bungalows next door.

In subdivisions from West Valley City to Draper, the square footage of new homes has also steadily increased.

"People used to buy a home to meet shelter needs," says Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders. "Now they're buying for lifestyle, also."

By lifestyle, Ahluwalia means pantries big enough for those supersize packages of paper towels from Costco, "theater rooms" big enough for overstuffed sofas and big- screen TVs, garages that can accommodate three cars and some jet skis.

Pump up the volume

The average size of new houses in the United States has increased 138 percent since 1950, from 983 square feet to 2,330 square feet, according to statistics compiled by the National Association of Home Builders. Even since 1970, the average size of new houses has increased more than 50 percent.

These days, more than a third of new houses built in the United States are 2,400 square feet or bigger; in 1950 fewer than 1 percent were. Ditto for the percent of houses with four bedrooms. The percent with at least 2 1/2 baths has increased even more, from 1 percent to 56 percent. And the numbers don't tell you anything about the size of those bathrooms.

In the Salt Lake metropolitan area, according to U.S. Census Bureau's American Housing Survey, the median square footage of new single-family detached homes (including mobile homes) increased 37 percent between 1984 and 1998, the most recent year numbers were tallied. The median square footage for new houses in 1998 was 2,918 — compared to 2,230 for all owner-occupied units, old and new. The median square footage of rental units was 1,474, underscoring the division between haves and have-nots.

And it's not just square footage, but volume too — a dimension not measured on census statistics — that's increasing in new homes. The new average ceiling height, Ahluwalia says, is 9 feet, and for upscale homes it's 10 or 11 feet. So the houses look even bigger in person than on paper. And because the ceilings are higher, the rooms have to grow in proportion to keep the room from looking like a dungeon, explains luxury home builder Derek Wright of Wright Custom Homes.

"I started in business almost 30 years ago," says Debra Sjoblom, president of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. "I remember looking at homes then that are today very modest and thinking, 'Look at that fancy home.' In 25 years it's just changed dramatically."

In those days in the Salt Lake area, a 6,000-square-foot home was at the high end of large. Now that's the size of a typical new house on Draper's east bench. Luxury homes are often 8,000 to 16,000 square feet, and some have reached 25,000 to 35,000 square feet.

Architect Jory Walker is designing a home for a Bountiful client who originally wanted a 48,000-square-foot house with an indoor shooting range, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, gun vaults, a butchery and a racquet ball court. "They're scaling back now, maybe to 35,000 square feet," Walker says. "Everybody has a budget."

In Park City a building permit is currently pending on a 35,000-square-foot house that would be the town's largest to date, says building officer Ron Ivie. That's about the size of Ron Gunnell's estate in Holladay.

Room for everything

High-end and ultra-high-end buyers want high-tech kitchens with commercial ranges, double and triple ovens, second sinks, built-in warming trays and an adjacent "butler's pantry," say local real estate agents. They also want master suites with sitting rooms, and a bathroom — sometimes also a fireplace — for all bedrooms.

They also want bigger "architectural elements," says builder Wright. They want timber columns and wainscotting that's wider and higher, which pushes up the ceiling height. They want his and hers walk-in closets, and his and hers vanities.

When he was growing up in a nice, middle-class home in Southern California, says Utah homebuilder Dave McArthur, he and his seven siblings lived in three bedrooms. "Now people don't think kids should share a room." In addition, all the rooms were smaller. And the TV was small enough to tuck in a corner.

With interest rates low, people can afford more house now and they spend more on toys to fill it, he says. "You remember lay-aways?" he asks, wistfully. No one is willing to wait for anything anymore, he says. "Everyone finances now, and you have to have room to put all that stuff."

And, too, people are spending more time at home after 9/11, he argues. He tries to make his home comfortable so his teenagers and their friends will want to spend time there. So there's a pool table and foosball and a big-screen TV. "All that takes room."

For some, the extra space is for entertaining even when the teenagers have grown up and moved away. Linda and Phil Rasmussen live in a large house in Holladay; it's just the two of them now, but they wanted a place big enough for the kids and grandkids and greatgrandkids — an immediate family that now numbers 63.

What about 'affordable'?

Many cities now have "minimum dwelling size" standards, to encourage "move-up" housing. West Valley City requires that one-story ramblers be at least 1,350 square feet above ground, two-story houses at least 1,500 square feet. Most of these homes also have an equal amount of footage in the basement. Before the standards were adopted three years ago, most homes were between 1,100 and 1,200 square feet, says city senior planner Steve Lehman. Now the average home being built in West Valley City is between 1,600 and 1,700 square feet above ground. In Riverton, too, most of the new houses are larger than that city's minimum requirement.

The trends worry Chris Gamvroulas, president of Ivory Development. "We have a goal in our company to have a certain proportion (of houses) in the affordable range," he says about Ivory Homes. "But it's getting harder and harder to do that. Cities don't want smaller, affordable homes."

In Park City, 10,000-square-foot homes are "pretty common," says building officer Ivie. He recently issued a demolition permit on a $3 million 10-year-old home in Deer Valley to make way for a bigger house. In Park City, and in the Cottonwood-Walker Lane area of Holladay, the land prices are so high that loan officers typically require "improvements" that result in large houses.

In established subdivisions like Park Meadows in Park City — where there are few lots left and where the average house size is small by Park City standards — residents are concerned that "monster house" tear-downs and re-dos might be the next step, says Park City Realtor Maire Ropol.

In Salt Lake City, the City Council has debated regulations that would limit the size of remodels and new homes in established neighborhoods.

"Our discussion was never about big homes," says council member Eric Jergensen. "If somebody has the property and wants to build a big home, I might disagree, but the government doesn't have the right to tell them they can't build a big home. The issue for me is why do they have to come in and build a home that's so totally out of scale in the neighborhood?"

Reversing the trend?

As older Salt Lake City neighborhoods continue to grapple with the "garage-mahals" sprouting up among them, some people are wondering if bigger is necessarily better, no matter what the location.

"My theory is it's a status symbol. It's definitely not a question of need," says one suburban building official who asked to remain anonymous. "What was a luxury yesterday is a 'need' today. . . . Where does it stop?"

Deer Valley builder Brad Smith says he's noticing a bit of a consciousness shift among his clients in the luxury second-home market. "I sort of see people beginning to understand, 'Why do I need 15,000 square feet?' " he says. "I think they're learning, 'Who needs it?' " He's even seeing some relatively smaller 7,500-square-foot houses in the area.

At the National Association of Home Builders, Gopal Ahluwalia has noticed a similar trend, even among the smaller big-home buyers.

"The rate of increase has slowed," he says of house sizes. "I think home sizes will not increase much more. They will stabilize."

After all, he adds, "If you have four bathrooms, you have to clean the four bathrooms."


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com