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Synthesis/Regeneration 46   (Summer 2008)

Not Just a Better Light Bulb

Big Houses
Indigestible Leftovers of the Housing Bubble

by Stan Cox

In Los Gatos, California, controversy has raged over the city planning commission's approval of a proposed hillside home that will occupy a whopping 3600 square feet - and that's just the basement. Atop that walkout basement will be 5500 more square feet worth of house.

The prospective owner says he'll build to "green" standards, but at the August 8, 2007 meeting where the permit was approved, the city's lone dissenting planning commissioner stated the obvious when he told the owner, "You have a 9,000-square-foot house with a three-car garage and a pool. I don't see that as green."

The just-popped housing bubble has left behind a couple of million families in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. It has also spawned a new generation of big, deluxe, underoccupied houses bulked up on low-interest steroids.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) estimates that 42% of newly built houses now have more than 2400 square feet of floorspace, compared with only 10% in 1970. In 1970 there were so few three-bathroom houses that they didn't even show up in NAHB statistics. By 2005, 1 out of every 4 new houses had at least 3 bathrooms.

By 2005, 1 out of every 4 new houses had at least 3 bathrooms.

Smaller families are living in bigger houses. In the America of 1950, single-family dwellings were built with an average of 290 square feet of living space per resident; in 2003, a family moving into a typical new house had almost 900 square feet per person in which to ramble around.

In the size of our dwellings, North Americans are world champions. The United Nations says houses and apartments in Pakistan or Nicaragua typically provide one-third of a room per person; it's half a room per person in Syria and Azerbaijan, about one room in Eastern Europe, an average of a room and a half in Western Europe, and two whole rooms per person in the US and Canada (not counting spaces like bathrooms, hallways, porches, etc.).

The UN defines a room as "an area large enough to hold a bed for an adult" - at least 6 by 7 feet. To go along with those big primary homes, Americans now own 5.7 million non-rental vacation houses with a median size of 1300 square feet; together, those second homes represent enough surplus living space to accommodate the nation's homeless population 10 times over.

Challenges to the oversized-house trend are being mounted across the country, most often on aesthetic grounds. Monumental bad taste can be morbidly fascinating, but a far more serious issue is the lasting environmental damage these incredible hulks can do.

...those second homes represent enough surplus living space to accommodate the nation's homeless population 10 times over.

Since 1940, the average number of people living in an American home has dropped from 3.7 to 2.6, but the average size of new houses has doubled. That extra space has gone partly to free children from having to share a bedroom, partly to accommodate Americans' ever-growing bulk of material possessions, and partly to make room for more lavish entertaining.

But if there seems to be no limit to the size of the material- and energy-hogging houses built in recent years, it's thanks most of all to that good old law of supply and demand run amok.

A little brown house beats a big green one

The current slump notwithstanding, homebuilding continues to account for a big slice of the nation's resource consumption. The manufacture and transportation of concrete to build a typical 2500-square-foot house generates the equivalent of 36 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Construction and remodeling of residences accounts for three-fourths of all the lumber consumed each year in the US. Laid end to end, the pieces of lumber required to build a typical 3000-square-foot house would stretch for more than four miles.

In its review of the year 2004, the Western Wood Products Association (WWPA) crowed that "an all-time high of 27.6 billion board feet of lumber was used in residential construction."

Wood, unlike concrete, gets some credit for being a "renewable" resource. Spokespeople for the lumber and construction industries emphasize that they are taking greenhouse carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it away in wood-frame houses. That's correct, as far as it goes; about half of the mass in a stick of lumber is carbon.

But putting that wood into a house is a one-time capture, whereas the house itself will spend decades cranking out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Over a 50-year lifetime, greenhouse emissions caused by the standard American house account for 30 to 40 times the weight of the carbon that's socked away in its wood frame.[1] The bigger the house, the bigger the emissions.

Furthermore, with the currently popular focus on the sheer quantity of greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological impact of uprooting complex forest ecosystems in favor of industrialized wood plantations doesn't figure very prominently. And a "green"-built house can require almost 50% more wood than a standard house of the same size.

...a "green"-built house can require almost 50% more wood than a standard house of the same size.

Hard times in the housing market will provide forests and the atmosphere at least a little bit of much needed rest. It's estimated that only about one tenth of a house's total energy consumption occurs while it's being built; the other 90% happens while it's being lived in. That can be reduced by "green" construction, but making green houses too big can cancel out all of those gains. A 2005 article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concluded,

A 1,500-square-foot house with mediocre energy-performance standards will use far less energy for heating and cooling than a 3,000-square-foot house of comparable geometry with much better energy detailing. Downsizing a conventionally framed house by 25% should save significantly more wood than substituting the most wood-efficient advanced framing techniques for that house. And it is easier to reduce the embodied energy of a house by making the house smaller than by searching for low embodied-energy materials.[2]

Note the important word "geometry." To make outsized suburban manors more interesting, builders tend to avoid boxy forms, loading up their product with multiple rooflines and gables, dormers, bay windows, and other protuberances. Such houses have more surface area than does a squared-off house of the same size, thus requiring more fossil-fuel to cool and heat them. Additional energy is wasted by the longer heating/cooling ducts and hot-water pipes in a big house.

And for a given house design - "green" or standard, monolithic or pseudo-Victorian - the bigger its square footage, the bigger its environmental footprint.

A question of "want"

Although American houses have been growing since World War II, the low mortgage rates and hot housing market of the past decade are widely credited with pushing square footage to record levels. The question that the industry urges homebuyers to ask themselves is not, "How much do I want to save on my monthly house payment and utility bills?" but rather, "How much house can I afford?"

The heavy-breathing house market of the past few years added to the pressure by shifting many buyers' emphasis away from acquiring shelter and toward making an investment. Within a given neighborhood, houses are sold more or less by the square foot. So in boom times, the bigger and more expensive the house you buy, the bigger the profit you can make by selling it a few years later.

When you can't afford not to tear it down

Square-footage fever emerges in a doubly wasteful form in cities where normal-sized, sound, comfortable houses are being demolished to make way for bigger, more luxurious ones.

... normal-sized, sound, comfortable houses are being demolished to make way for bigger, more luxurious ones.

In North Carolina's thriving Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle, demolition permits for single-family homes are currently being issued at the blistering rate of 42 per month. Speaking to the Raleigh News and Observer in June, the city's planning director described homeowners' motivation this way: "They have homes that are built in the 50s and 60s that are somewhat outdated for the lifestyle."

In 2006, Les Christie of CNNMoney.com attempted to provide homeowners with an answer to the question, "Is your house a teardown candidate?" He advised that "even beautiful homes in excellent shape can be torn down" if they have come to be surrounded by larger ones. But taking a wrecking ball to your home sweet home makes the most sense when real estate prices are running wild.

Christie used the example of "a little bungalow" in suburban Dallas valued at $500,000. The demolition cost would be comparatively trivial, and it would cost a builder about $600,000 to replace it with a "new, upscale house" of 3,000 square feet. In that situation, "if nearby new homes are valued at $1.2 million or more," economic logic dictates that the owner of a perfectly good house should tear it down and replace it - or sell it at a big profit to a mansion-building company that will demolish the house to get the lot.

Edmund C. Grant, an attorney in Lexington, Massachusetts who works in land use and real estate law, told me that Lexington got an early start on the "mansionization" trend when 1950s- and 60s-era ranch and Cape Cod style houses began being demolished in the 1990s to make way for houses two-and-a-half to three times their size.

A long-time opponent of teardowns, Grant sees the future as unpredictable. I asked Grant - who was on his city's planning commission in the 90s and currently serves on its board of assessors - if there have been attempts to put legal limits on square footage of houses in Lexington, as has been done in some other liberal cities like Boulder, Colorado. To do so, it turns out, would actually be illegal, because Massachusetts state law forbids local governments from restricting the amount of indoor floor space that a house can have.

An SUV that runs for 100 years?

The long-term impact of titanic houses parallels that of gas-gulping SUVs and pickup trucks. Sales of the big vehicles may be ebbing, but the buying binge of the past decade means they'll still be out there by the millions, belching pollutants, for years to come. In the same way, even if the mania for big houses fades, Americans will be stuck with heating, cooling, and powering the millions of them already littering the landscape - not for years like SUVs, but for decades.

To tackle the problems created by these multi-story SUVs without wheels in a resource-limited world, Don Fitz, editor of the Green journal Synthesis/Regeneration, has suggested a mathematically obvious but too often overlooked solution: to have more people living in each house. For example, he says, extended families could regroup, or all-too-common municipal laws against unrelated people living under the same roof could be eliminated.

In the current climate, though, political pressures are pushing in precisely the opposite direction. In July, the commissioners of Cobb County, Georgia, passed an ordinance requiring all houses in the county to have at least 390 square feet of living space per adult. The new law, widely seen as a weapon to be used against immigrant residents, would prohibit more than four people over 18 from living in a 1600-square-foot house.

Very few houses now being built are as energy-efficient as they could be, and there is no good excuse for that. In one recent survey of 33 non-residential green buildings across the country, their construction costs were found to average only about 2% more than what they would have cost had they been standard buildings. Built according to specifications of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, the green buildings are predicted to provide energy and environmental savings averaging about 75 cents per square foot per year over 20 years.

Yet such prospective savings, if they can also apply to single-family homes, might simply serve the industry as yet another inducement that sells even more square footage - as in, "Hey, with this bigger LEED house, you'll get a couple more rooms and it'll be like you're heating and cooling them for free!"

Clearly, the issue of mansionization will have to be yanked out of the tangle of other housing issues and dealt with as a serious problem in its own right. The individual question, "How much house can I afford?" will have to give way to the public policy question, "How much house can we afford?"

Stan Cox (t.stan@cox.net) is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. His book Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine will be published by Pluto Press in Spring, 2008.


1. G.A. Keoleian, S. Blanchard, & P. Reppe, Journal of Industrial Ecology 4:135-156 (2000), http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/108819800569726

2. A. Wilson and J. Boehland, Journal of Industrial Ecology 9:277287 (2005), http://mitpress.mit.edu/ journals/JIEC/v9n1_2/jiec_9_1-2_277_0.pdf

[13 may 08]

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