The Virtue of a Small Home

The Virtue of a Small Home

A reflection on how wealth can isolate, and the warmth and connection found in smaller living spaces.


Recently, I stayed at the house of one of the wealthiest people in the world. My friends and I approached it via 2 miles of well-kept road that wound through a lush Redwood forest in the Palo Alto hills. The road opened into a clearing with a fountain and a grand staircase that gave way to the house and its imposing facade. Think Gatsby.

The first thing that struck me was the expanse of it. I later found out it is 16,000 square feet – roughly seven times the median house in the U.S., or between three and four basketball courts. In fact, it was not a house. It was a villa — and a villa on a thousand-acre property. 

The best feature of the house was its relationship with nature. There were several carefully kept gardens underneath the redwoods that towered above them. We woke up to thick Bay fog. From the rear lawn, where there was a pool, we could see the whole of Silicon Valley.

Now, the owner does not live in the house. They host dinners there with important people – with many names you might recognize and some you would not. It must make for an impressive dinner. The 12-seat table looks over the rear lawn (and the pool and the view). Ornate paintings hung on the wall that I imagined told the dinner guests their conversation was important.

There were aspects of the house that seemed normal and relatable. My friend was pleasantly surprised that some of this person’s fabulously wealthy life was not so dissimilar from his own. He grabbed the tea kettle and exclaimed, “I think I have this tea kettle!” Most of the rooms were like rooms in my own home: a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, and bedrooms.

There were other aspects of the house that were not at all relatable. It was labyrinthine. For the first hours, I kept getting lost in it. There were three staircases. The main living room was large enough to have three separate sitting areas. There were chandeliers in all four bedrooms.

A House But Not a Home

Though it was a house, it did not feel like a home. When my friends and I arrived in the main living room, we didn’t know where to sit. We stood awkwardly then finally settled on one of the seating areas that was not cozy or made for conversation. The following day, I sat on the floor to work because I couldn’t find a comfortable work setup.

It was not made for living in. I spent a lot of time looking for light switches and outlets. The showers had been elaborately renovated yet had nearly no water pressure. The house was old. 

There were pictures of the owners’ family, yet I know that the family is broken. Indeed, the house had a history of broken families. The original owners had one daughter. She fell in love with a gas station attendant. The parents, upset at the idea of their child “marrying down,” pressured her to divorce. She committed suicide on the property.

While we were there, the staff kept coming and going. I couldn’t shake the thought that for most of this house’s life, more people worked at the house than lived in the house. 

In many ways, this was an impressive house. Yet it was a poor home. And this makes sense because making a home is hard

Making It Work

When I was in my late twenties, I lived in a former horse barn in San Francisco. Some called it a Carriage House. It was a small building behind the main house. It may never have become a house if space in San Francisco had not been in such short supply and high demand.

The house was 500 square feet divided between 2 floors. The bottom floor held the kitchen, which was also the living space and bathroom. When I bought the house, I had to duck to enter the second story bedroom, and I could only fully stand in half of the room.

I find small spaces inviting. I feel “contained” and secure in them. Small, well-defined spaces feel familiar. Most of all, they have less to manage. 

My friends, who would stay there when I was traveling and sometimes sleep on the kitchen floor, would often comment on how rejuvenated they felt when they left. The home was “cozy,” “tucked away,” and had a “lived-in” magic to it. Some joked about it being a kind of hobbit home. 

I lived a happy life there. The house somehow expanded to fit my girlfriend, now wife; we stored some of our belongings in an outside closet. Our love blossomed there. We hosted parties of 30-50 people. We hosted annual Friendsgivings. We danced around one another in the kitchen.

We made it work. 

In his The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes hell as a constantly expanding suburb. When people have an argument, they simply move out and into their own homes. So, everyone eventually has their own lonely pod with their grievances. It’s an evocative image and reminds me of the wealthy person’s many houses and of those many houses having many rooms. 

Wealth is isolating, and it can isolate you even from the people you love. Morgan Housel points out there are ten divorces among the seven wealthiest people in the world. And wealth and space are correlated. More wealth enables more space. 

I have a hunch that if wealthy people had to stay in small spaces with their families, they might be happier. In a vast house, we're like distant planets in a sprawling solar system. In a smaller home, we're drawn into closer orbits, fostering stronger and more frequent connections.

When you stop having to make it work, it often doesn’t work. 

Choosing Our Homes and So Ourselves

I chuckled seeing a squirrel on a rail and wondering what he thought of this villa. Would the squirrel know this was an “important” or “wealthy” house? No. He would know it was empty. 

If I could see so many homes from a hundred thousand feet, which homes would I want to live in? The shape of a loving home is one where a person or group of people are constantly there – living there – and more people come on occasion. Sometimes, the constant group goes away. 

Perhaps a useful distinction is between visible and invisible wealth. Large homes are symbols of visible wealth. A small home may seem modest, yet be rich in invisible wealth of warmth, love, and community. Given the choice, I know which wealth I would choose.

In the confines of a small home, we are naturally drawn closer together, both physically and emotionally. The proximity fosters communication, understanding, and a shared life. In an intimate space, reconciliation is not just a moral choice but a necessity to coexist. 

The house I was in was less a house and more of a venue. It did some things well, namely as a backdrop for dinners and parties. Yet a well-functioning home must do many things well – all of the activities of a home – and the virtue of the small space is its constraint. The home dwellers have to make it all work. 

The average size of a new home in the U.S. is getting smaller as space is becoming more expensive. I know many in my millennial generation who feel frustrated that they do not have the same access to homes – and large homes – as our parents did. My home often feels cramped. Yet maybe there is a silver lining.

The more space we have, the more options for filling it, which can lead to an unexpected tyranny of choices. In a smaller home, each choice of what to keep and what to discard becomes more meaningful, reflecting the essence of what truly matters in our lives.


Geoff Abraham

Co-founder & President of Spoken

Geoff is the co-founder and President of Spoken. He is a Dad. He holds a BA from UT Austin (Plan II) and an MBA from Stanford. Geoff has built several successful businesses, including a bicycle taxi business in San Francisco which he ran for 10 years with his wife, Mimosa. He is an executive coach, and he actively invests in seed-stage startups via The Explorer Fund.

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