Honkin’ huge, part I: homes and Hummers


It’s almost too easy to bash SUV’s. Besides guzzling gas, their sheer size and shape gives them a bullying muscularity that, let’s face it, just rankles the sensibilities of tenderfoot liberals. Given two vehicles of equally poor mileage — say a 2006 Nissan Armada and a 1990 Volvo 240 wagon — the Armada is the one that’s going to end up with the activist’s “energy hog” ticket.

Most greens that grok the issue will own up that the Volvo should get a ticket too. But there’s very little brouhaha in the environmental community over that other bulked-up monster lurking around the driveway: the house.

Washington Post photo

Houses use a lot of energy in the US — 21% of all consumption, compared to 28% for transportation. And today’s homes are Hummers.

With little fanfare or hand-wringing, the average size of a new single-family home in the US has more than doubled since 1950, according to the Census Bureau.

The average new home buyer used to get 983 square feet; now they get 2349. A house of more than 3000 square feet used to be off the charts; now they are about 20% of houses built.

Meanwhile, the number of people living in those spaces has inched down; average household size has declined from 3.4 to 2.6 people.

Even the very idea of “small” has changed. The current issue of Dwell magazine trumpets small houses of less than 1700 square feet — a size that would have been bigger than average back in 1970.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to delve into the trend of bloated American housing: the dimensions of it, its possible environmental costs, the confusion of marketing gloss with real conservation, and the foibles of a very tenuous movement towards truly “living small.”

Today: just the facts.

The new housing numbers first caught my eye in a report from the National Association of Home Builders, but that report was based on Census Bureau data. I found the source files at the Census, and supplemented them with some information from the Department of Energy, to make the following graphs.

Since 1950, population has obviously increased:

So it’s no surprise total residential energy consumption increased as well:

Note that the energy consumption numbers here include all energy consumed by the residence, either directly (e.g. heating oil) or indirectly (e.g. natural gas burned to produce electricity).

Now here’s the more interesting part. When you look at residential energy consumption per person…

… the trend bucks down a bit after the energy crises of the early 1970’s, but seems to be heading up again now.

American homes use a LOT of energy now. If today’s American homes used energy at 1950 rates, total residential energy consumption would be halved, even despite the increase in population — and despite the fact that many American homes weren’t even insulated in the 50’s.

Why isn’t residential energy use per person going down as energy saving technologies like insulation are popularized? I’m sure some government analyst has written a whole paper about this, but this has got to be part of the reason: when new places are constructed, they’re big.

.. and fewer people live in them, because households are smaller than ever..

There are a lot of people walking around in a lot of empty rooms. Their sighs fill the deserted halls. What are they getting out of all this space? Have their lives increased in quality with their square footage? How much space do people really need?

Hopefully I’ll get to some of those questions in Part II.

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