Dan Hall: Save big on energy -- shrink that McMansion
In the 1950s, the average American household consisted of 3.6 people, and the average home was about 980 square feet in size. By 2004, the average household had fallen to 2.6 people, yet the average size of new homes had nearly tripled, to about 2,400 square feet. “McMansions,” those big, cookie-cutter style homes that have been the rage in much of suburbia, often push 3,000 square feet in size.
Now, however, smaller may be looking beautiful again. Nationally, the average size of new homes built over the last couple of years has fallen to about 2,200 square feet, and builders in the Rochester area and all over the country are predicting the average will fall further. McMansions may be passing out of style.
If so, this is a great example of market forces matching good policy on energy and the environment. Contrary to popular belief, gas-guzzling mini-vans and SUVs are not the nation’s only energy problem. Houses use more energy and produce more greenhouse gases than cars do, and big houses use more energy than small ones.
Even if your 3,000-square-foot home meets federal “Energy Star” standards, meaning it uses at least 15 percent less energy than other homes of equal size, it still burns more energy than a standard home of 2,000 square feet.
There is no such thing as a “green” McMansion — it would be the equivalent of putting a hybrid engine into a Hummer.
It would be nice to believe the downsizing of new homes is at least partly the result of Americans finally beginning to pay serious attention to the many ways that our careless habits with energy undermine our future. Probably not, though.
Al Gore’s movie on global warming has succeeded in making “think green” the slogan of the moment, but replacing a few light bulbs with compact fluorescents or using tote bags rather than plastic to bring home groceries is not exactly world-changing stuff.
Moreover, few of us pay much attention at all to other threats, such as the way our reliance on energy imports is decimating our economy while enriching enemies and potential enemies around the globe.
Rick Herman, president of the Rochester Association of Homebuilders, says the real reasons buyers are thinking smaller is simple: Younger couples dislike the formality of big houses, and empty-nesters don’t like the upkeep. Newer home designs satisfy both groups by using space more efficiently. In Monroe and Ontario counties, some of our more enlightened town boards allow builders to put up homes on smaller lots than just a few years ago, often in exchange for builders providing “green space,” parks or recreational facilities for public use. “We continually try to educate town boards that the demand is there,” Herman said.
That is not always easy, though. Almost every time a new housing project is planned, regardless of which town it is in, neighbors will turn out in force to lobby town boards for fewer houses, on bigger lots, than whatever the developer has proposed.
Most of the time, that is shortsighted. We will spend thousands of dollars to visit Europe, where we love the quaint old villages of clustered homes and businesses, surrounded by miles of open farmlands. Yet when anyone tries to create something like that here, the neighbors are all against it. Our sprawled-out lifestyle not only destroys the “green space” we would like to protect, but it requires much more energy and drives up the costs of roads, water lines, electric lines and all the rest.
Perhaps that is finally beginning to sink in. Nationally known architect Sarah Susanka, who has published half-a-dozen best-selling books in her “Not-So-Big House” and “Not-So-Big Life” series, advocates smaller, more intimate homes that help us cut through the clutter of our lives and focus on things that really matter.
Her ideas make sense, but we need more than evolutionary change. If you really think Al Gore is right, or if you really support our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, then you ought to back some really big measures to reduce energy use. Michigan Congressman John Dingell, for example, has proposed an energy tax that would, among other things, phase out the income-tax deduction for mortgage interest on homes larger than 3,000 square feet.
Still, the free market doesn’t always get people moving for the good of the environment and of our country. If it did, energy-gobbling SUVs and McMansions would never have become a problem in the first place. If the trend toward smaller homes is real, that is a good thing and we ought to cheer it on.
Dan Hall is the former editorial page editor for Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.