Big Houses Are Not Green: America's McMansion Problem


In Los Gatos, Calif., controversy has raged this summer over the city planning commission’s approval of a proposed hillside home that will occupy a whopping 3,600 square feet – and that's just the basement.  Atop that walkout basement will be 5,500 more square feet worth of house.  

The prospective owner says he’ll build to "green" standards, but at the Aug. 8 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, under-occupied houses bulked up on low-interest steroids.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) estimates that 42 percent of newly built houses now have more than 2,400 square feet of floorspace, compared with only 10 percent in 1970.  In 1970 there were so few three-bathroom houses that they didn't even to show up in NAHB statistics.  By 2005, one out of every four new houses had at least three bathrooms.

Smaller families are living in bigger houses.  In the America of 1950, single-family dwellings were being 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. 

Not surprisingly, monster houses are especially popular in Texas; in Austin, regarded as the state’s progressive haven, 235 new houses of at least 5,000 square feet each were built in a single recent year; 41 of them had between 8,000 and 29,000 square feet. 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 United States and Canada (not counting spaces like bathrooms, hallways, porches, etc.)

The U.N. defines a room as "an area large enough to hold a bed for an adult" -- at least 6 feet by 7 feet.  That's not an uncommon size in many countries, but it’s not exactly the kind of room that an American real-estate agent would be eager to walk through with a prospective homebuyer.  (A dozen such rooms would fit into a single bedroom in href=",1249,695193773,00.html">this surgeon’s house.)  

To go along with those big primary homes, Americans now own 5.7 million non-rental vacation houses with a median size of 1,300 square feet; together, those second homes represent enough surplus living space to accommodate the nation’s homeless population ten 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 (as when CBS’s 60 Minutes paid a visit to the suburbs of "Vulgaria" last March), but a far more serious issue is the lasting environmental damage these incredible hulks can do. 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.  For example, the manufacture and transportation of concrete to build a typical 2,500-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.  In this business, there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned wood. Laid end-to-end, the pieces of lumber required to build a typical 3,000-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, framing some 2.07 million housing starts recorded for the year. Lumber used in repair and remodeling surpassed 20 billion board feet for the first time in history."  Consumption broke records again in 2005 for the fourth straight year, only to fall with the housing slump that began in 2006. 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.  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 percent 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.

The current bust has already curbed lumber consumption, although WWPA expects demand to "rebound" in 2009.  Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council reports that  production the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fell sharply in 2006. Environmentalists have long sought to stem the highly toxic production of PVC, 80 percent of which is used in construction.    

But, as environmentally significant as construction materials are, it’s estimated that only about one-tenth of a house’s total energy consumption occurs while it's being built; the other 90 percent 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 (pdf) in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concluded,

[Block quote] 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 percent 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.

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. It’s partly simple math and partly not-so-simple psychology -- and it's all about money.

At the interest rates prevailing in 2003, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Clements, you could buy a 40-percent bigger house and owe $273 less per month on your mortgage than if you were buying the smaller house at 1983-level interest rates.

Of course, noted Clements, you could show some restraint, buy a smaller house at the 2003 interest rate, and save another $281 per month.  But the real-estate industry isn’t all that interested in helping you downsize and stow the savings in your bank account or 401(k) plan.  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.

The steep inflation in house prices that hit some cities during the bubble spurred big-home sales all across the country.  At the height of the boom, the Wall Street Journal cited the example of a San Jose, Calif., couple who bought a 1,250-square-foot house in 2000 for $415,000, sold it in 2004 for $593,000, and bought a house in Bozeman, Mont., for $425,000 – a house nearly three times as large as the one they sold, giving them plenty of cash left over to fill it with furniture and appliances.

Ollie Bohnert, a real-estate agent in St. Louis -- where the housing boom-and-bust has been milder than in many other big cities -- says that she sees houses of all sizes selling well.  From her experience with house shoppers, she told me, "Buying a big house is not a question of need but a question of 'want'."  I asked her if, for a realtor, a big house has a bigger commission payoff per hour of time invested.  She said, "Large houses typically take a little more time, because there are a limited number of buyers.  But it depends.  I've had small houses sell  quick, and I've had large houses sell very quick."

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.

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."

Last year, Les Christie of 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, Mass., 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.  The trend drew renewed energy from the early-2000s boom, when, says Grant, "Property values rose 65 percent in just five years."

A long-time opponent of teardowns, Grant sees the future as unpredictable: "It remains to be seen whether the jumbo loans that support these houses can continue" in light of the current turmoil in the mortgage industry.   But, he laments, "There seems to be a certain inevitability about it.  The trend started in older, more densely populated parts of the country [like Lexington], but it has spread to most markets.  People object to the first teardowns that happen in their neighborhood, but eventually, they seem to get used to it – especially when they see studies showing that teardowns tend to raise all property values in the neighborhood."   

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, Colo.  To do so, it turns out, would actually be illegal, because Massachusetts state law forbids local governments to restrict the amount of indoor floor space that a house can have.  "It’s considered a property-rights intrusion," Grant says.  Can the law be overturned?  "I don't know.  The real-estate lobby is pretty strong in this state."

When questions of property rights and house size come up, things seems to move in only one direction, and that's up.  Many neighborhood homeowner associations across the country mandate a minimum size -- often 2,500 to 3,000 square feet – for new houses.  Under their rules, property rights are sacrificed for the sake of perceived property values.

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 multistory 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, Ga., 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 1,600-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 nonresidential green buildings across the country, their construction costs were found to average only about two percent more than what they would have cost had they been standard buildings (pdf).  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?"

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