To use Gauer's analogy, it's as if the Monopoly board was suddenly overturned, and those with the most plastic houses lost the most. This, in Gauer's view, is a lesson worth learning.
"I hope it puts the final stake through the heart of the McMansion and encourages us not just to make do with, but to embrace smaller and better-designed homes," he says.
Just as suddenly, Americans are giving a second look to the small-is-beautiful movement born a generation ago.
"It's a vindication for those who already have embraced it and a revelation for those coming to it fresh," says Marc Vassallo, co-author with architect Sarah Susanka of "Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live."
It's not just that houses became larger as America moved to the suburbs. They began to take on functions that our grandparents could never have imagined.
"You don't have to own everything that you make use of. You don't need one room for exercise equipment, one room for a movie theater," says Vassallo. "Humans are kind of a certain size, and that's going to determine what you need and how you feel in a space. If you have a dining room that is 16 (feet) by 19 feet, that's huge, and it's always going to feel huge."
The "Not So Big" movement advocates downsizing toward cozier, more enjoyable homes that emphasize quality over quantity. It even dreams up architectural fixes for empty nesters who want to age in place.
"A lot of older people are kind of refugees from their own big house," he says. "They feel too small in their too-big house."
Vassallo says the younger generation is already embracing the paradigm, thanks to ever-shrinking technology. "People who appreciate the magic of an iPod smaller than a stick of gum that holds 1,000 songs don't need to be told that small can be really incredible," he says.
The biggest obstacle to "right sizing" America?
"Two things: real estate values and schools," Vassallo says. "In many places, you have a choice between older, smaller homes with less-than-desirable schools or newer, larger suburban homes with desirable schools. You have this conundrum: How do you develop value and desirability in places where the houses are small, and how do you allow for small houses in the places that are presently desirable? If you want to build small, what do you do when everybody else has big? That's an honest challenge."
You can go home againJake Schloegel, president of Schloegel Design Remodel in Kansas City, Mo., is on the front lines of this aesthetic sea change. He says the housing bust has dramatically changed the nature of his business.