Sustainable Homes Are Not McMansions

I live in a post-World War II home constructed in 1948. It is relatively simple and small compared to modern American standards. It is 1,700 square feet and perfect for our family of four.

Sustainable Homes

My mother lives in a 7,000 square ginormous home with six bedrooms, a four car garage, and a waterfall-feature garden; but only she and her husband live in this home and most of the space goes unused. This prompted me to think about conspicuous consumption and the size of American homes. Prior to the 1960s, American homes were modest and had all the space a family would need – all under 2,000 square feet and many with less than 1,000 square feet. Today, this size of home is small and even carries an economic stigma in some places.

In 2007, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) estimates that 42 percent of newly built houses had more than 2,400 square feet of floor space, compared with only 10 percent in 1970. Smaller families are living in bigger houses. In the America of 1950, single-family dwellings 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.

The drive for McMansions is entirely related to conspicuous consumption. Just like the male peacock’s flamboyant and showy tail, the ownership of a McMansion shows economic and social status at the expense of the natural environment. Large homes use more energy, displace biodiversity, contribute to urban heat island, and the construction of new homes (in some instances) demolishes historic architecture or encroaches on the natural environment.

These larger homes have had a negative effect on the environment. 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. But, as environmentally damaging as typical construction materials are it’s estimated that 10% of a house’s total energy consumption occurs while it’s being built; the other 90% of consumption occurs when it’s being lived in.

In 2009, many neighborhoods in the U.S. started passing laws and ordnances to limit the construction of McMansions, especially in historic neighborhoods. By the following year the demand for these houses had dropped so considerably that builders began abandoning plans for further McMansions to focus on smaller, more affordable, and more practical homes. This movement toward right-size housing is partially a reaction to the poor economic conditions but also a response to environmental concerns and the small home movement. -KATHY FAIRCHILD

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