Cutting Down to Size

The best strategy for sustainability isn’t better renewable energy or a miracle technology. The best strategy for sustainability is to simply curb consumption. The challenge lies in reducing consumption in a way that does not reduce comfort or hinder daily activities: Cutting Down To Size

When it comes to housing, sometimes the best way to live in terms of cash and comfort may very well be in a smaller dwelling that is easier to maintain, more communal, and cheaper to own. And while square footage may no longer be king, that doesn’t mean that a cozier, sturdier abode won’t be able to meet and exceed a homeowner’s needs and expectations. As Americans shed the massively wasteful mcmansions of a bygone, pre-recession era, the idea that smaller is better has gained currency.

Not To Scale

When someone refers to a home as a McMansion, it is certainly not a compliment. In fact, it can often be construed as a flat out insult, effectively equating the home with conspicuous consumption, disingenuity, and the very picture of quantity over quality. Of course, critics of these super-sized homes also have other creative and descriptive terms for these imposing edifices, such as trophy homes, garage-Mahals, and plywood palaces. The implication is, of course, that while impressive by square footage count, the quality and design of such homes are severely lacking.

Besides a general antipathy towards towering McMansions from the general populace, the true death knell of suburban Neuschwansteins may very well have been the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession that followed. In fact, the McMansion is very much a symbol of the U.S. housing bubble and subsequent bust that shook the foundations of the global market system. The whole McMansion era came about thanks to easy access to money. Nearly any individual could, at the time, get a loan with zero down based entirely on the assumption that home prices would continue to rise in perpetuity.

Today, however, size has become a massive liability for a number of reasons, one of the most important of which is the fact that excessively large homes are highly uneconomical. They consume massive amounts of energy, are difficult to maintain, are located far from services and entertainment, and change social family dynamics in a negative way. The first three issues cost homeowners money. The last conundrum is a bit less tangible. Nonetheless, the fact remains that McMansions are completely out of scale with the life of most Americans, who prefer convenience and accessibility over sheer size. That means that as many as 40 million large-lot exurban homes, most built during the boom years, may never be occupied.

A House Is More Than A Down Payment

As any homeowner will tell you today, owning a house is a heavy responsibility – one that should not be taken lightly. Unlike the heady heyday of the housing bubble, when credit was cheap and even subprime borrowers could secure loans, today prospective homeowners are looking for real value, not speculative value. In the same vein, homebuyers are no longer interested purely in size. A recent study by Yahoo! real estate analysts has shown that the American Dream has evolved from a desire to own the biggest, showiest mcmansion, to living in something more refined and environmentally conscious – namely a “green”, energy efficient home that is more conveniently located to work and services.

While building for sustainability will typically add a 2 to 4 percent additional premium to total construction costs, that often translates into higher home value and, of course, substantially reduced energy costs. In fact, studies show that “green” homes add value in ways beyond dollars and cents. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the indoor air of typical homes is 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air, owing to the presence of toxins agents such as mold and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In fact, the EPA ranks poor indoor air quality as a top-five human health risk. Sustainable homes look to limit occupant exposure to known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde, and to VOCs in finishes.

Right-sizing, Not Downsizing

In many ways, the ideal home is like the perfect mens’ suit. It’s all about fit. It’s about finding, or buying the right fit for an individual or family’s needs. By that token, a house should never be too small or too large. Most families become keenly aware of when they need more space – perhaps thanks to the arrival of another child or the need to house elderly relatives. But most people don’t think about how much space is too much.

In fact, common knowledge has traditionally dictated that bigger is better. But this is simply not the case when it comes to homes. Bigger homes are far costlier to buy, own, and maintain. The old adage that “if something can go wrong, it will”, applies as much to complex pieces of machinery, such as cars, as it does to complex McMansions. With excessively large homes, the burden of homeownership can become debilitating. When we take into account larger monthly mortgage payments, increased energy costs, and increased maintenance costs, the large American homes eat up a whopping 34 percent of total household expenditures.

This is a large drag on the finances of most Americans that take away from their ability to invest in the things that matter: education, health, and especially kids. On the subject of children, Americans are simply having less of them, yet average home size has increased by 42 percent within the last thirty years – from 1,700 square feet to 2,400 square feet.

When it comes to addressing the question of fit, sustainable “green” homes look to do more than maximize square footage. Eco-buildings, such as net-zero homes, improve indoor air quality, maximize natural light, reduce energy consumption, and even produce their own electricity. What do Americans want in a home? They want energy-efficiency, quality, reduced environmental impact, and long-term value. That is what building “green” is all about – meeting occupant needs and desires while respecting the natural environment.

Considering that the natural environment works on and interacts heavily with all buildings, it makes quite a bit of sense to design, build, and live in a way that works with nature – not against it. When it comes to homes and dwellings, respecting nature goes a long way towards promoting livability and reducing lifetime costs.

Is Bigger, Better?

Once upon a time Americans were in love with everything big. Big box stores, big meals, big cars, and big homes. However, we have come to realize that too big may in fact be bad for us. Big box stores are often accused of creating a nationwide monoculture absent of choice, locality, and culture. Big meals are often blamed for America’s burgeoning waistlines and plummeting life expectancy. We dumped big cars, such as the infamous Hummer, in favor of more economical, gas-efficient models. When it comes to our homes, will McMansions, too go the way of gas-guzzling SUVs? While the future is far from certain, it is clear that the old adage still holds some truth: moderation in all things, including houses.

Live Well. Think Green. BuildNative.