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The Green Life: Houses: How Big Is Too Big?

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July 16, 2012

Houses: How Big Is Too Big?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

I’ve been arguing with my friend who thinks he needs a McMansion-size house. Since he claims to be an environmentalist, and since home size must have an impact on the environment, I’d like to nail him on this point. So what do you have to say about the impact of home size on the environment? —Jason, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

The staggering increase in home size has indeed had a huge impact on the environment. It’s another symptom of giantism in a culture of SUVs rolling down widened freeways in search of giant burgers and extreme pizzas washed down with Big Gulps. There are a number of causes for your buddy’s yen for a huge house, and he probably doesn’t have a clue about most of them. Here are some facts to hit him with:

In 1950 the average new house had an average floor space of 983 square feet. By 1980 it had expanded to 1740 square feet, and it peaked, or so we can hope, in 2008 at 2644 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, since 1950 residential energy use has gone up 75 percent, despite vast improvements in heating and cooling efficiency, insulation, etc. Much of this increase can be attributed to air conditioning, and because size matters, it takes almost twice as much energy to cool a 2500-square-foot house as a 1000-foot one. The result is that residential energy consumption increased 75 percent per capita since 1950, or the energy equivalent of over 250 gallons of gasoline and more than a ton of coal per person. Your friend surely knows enough about the environmental damage done by extracting and burning fossil fuels that this alone should persuade him to downsize. Plus, since big new homes are planted on lots a half acre in size, they demand more trees cut, more cropland bulldozed, and, speaking of homes, more wildlife with no place to call home.

The battiest part of all this is that families are smaller than 60 years ago, so less room should be needed. Yet the amount of space in new housing today is almost triple that of 1950, having grown from about 290 to 850 square feet per person. Why do we need that much more space to cook, eat, pee, confess on Facebook, watch TV, play video games, read a novel on Kindle, and surf the Web for porn and bargain shopping? Families and TVs are smaller; books, magazines, and board games have dematerialized into electrical impulses, and an unbounded galaxy of information is at our command, so why all the extra space? You’d think we’d all be more like Hamlet, bounded in a nutshell and counting himself a king of infinite space

A good bit of our giantism was encouraged by generous tax breaks, real estate and construction interests, and local governments setting the table for property tax revenue. If giantism hadn’t prevailed, and Americans had taken out much smaller mortgages on smaller houses, who knows, maybe the mortgage meltdown that precipitated the financial crises would have been less brutal. Economics and environment may be more closely related than we think.

Also, there was the growing trend to regard homes less as dwellings than as “investment,” “equity,” and “leverage.” The home got incorporated into our finance portfolios as we rose—or thought we did—from working class to investor class, and more and more people thought and acted like Wall Street speculators. This first struck me when Merrill Lynch’s bull came crashing into the football commercials.

Or maybe it’s simpler than all this. Maybe back in the day people didn’t feel so much need for space because it was enough to psychologically inhabit the wide open plains, valleys, and mountains in western movies, while singing songs like “Don’t Fence Me In.” The relatively small, yet popular “ranch house” of the earlier period actualized the western fantasy. The Wild West was pervasive, like in my Roy Rogers clock, its entire large, square face a Wild West scene of desert, cactus, mountains, and big sky, a diorama with a silhouette of Roy galloping along on his horse Trigger, who was cleverly attached to the clock’s hidden balance wheel that rocked them back and forth with each tick and tock. They were going nowhere, yet eternally galloping. A glance at this scene in the early morning took me a thousand miles away from my brother’s snoring in the bed we shared in our 700-square foot house. Maybe as the open space of the Wild West faded from our world, we cast about for new space, and found inside the expanded house. 

Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!


--illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking

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