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Bigger Houses: An Energy Choice We’ll Be Living With for a Long Time

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As a society, we live with the housing we build for a long time -- and with the energy use that comes with it. (Photo: Census Bureau)

Americans still haven’t lost their taste for living large, at least when it comes to housing.

The latest Census Bureau statistics show that the average new American home got a little bigger in 2011 — just by 88 square feet over 2010, but still a surprise given the poor housing market. Housing experts say this may be a little misleading, because the housing market is so bad that only rich people are building houses — and rich people are more likely to build big.

Still, this underscores one of the biggest challenges we face on energy: We’ve spent decades building bigger and bigger houses, and more space means more energy.

Residential use accounts for roughly one-fifth of all the energy used in the U.S., mostly for heat and hot water. The average American single-family home built in the 1970s took up 2,666 square feet. By 2000-2005, before the housing bubble burst, that had increased to 3,680. More space means more heating and cooling costs — not to mention the fact that we’re packing our houses with more gizmos of all kinds.  What’s more, while the typical house was getting larger, the number of people living in it has been declined from about  3.14 people per household in 1970 to 2.63 per household in 2009. Government statistics show how our appliance needs have shifted. In 1980, only 27 percent of homes had central air conditioning. By 2001, that had grown to 55 percent. The number of homes that had no air conditioning at all fell from 43 percent to 27 percent.

This is one reason, paradoxically, why the great gains made in energy efficiency over the last several decades haven’t paid off in overall energy use. Our homes and appliances are more efficient — the Department of Energy says homes built between 2000 and 2005 use 14 percent less energy per square foot than older homes. But since they’ve also gotten bigger, overall residential energy use is still projected to rise. As we mentioned, the Great Recession has cut back on new housing dramatically. There were about 700,000 new housing units built in 2010, a 66 percent drop over 2006. And the houses that are being built are more likely to be for upper-income people, and thus more elaborate.  For example, of new single family homes built in 2011, 39 percent had 4 or more bedrooms, 57 percent had three or more bathrooms, and 19 percent had a garage that could hold three or more cars.

But there’s an added dilemma here — what we’ve built already will be with us for many years to come.  Housing units aren’t disposable. Usually, they’re around for decades. There were more than 111 million housing units in the United States in 2005 — but only 8 percent had been built in the previous five years. Given the reluctance of nearly everyone to build more new housing these days, we’re going to be buying and living in the units we’ve built over the past several decades for the next several decades. Your children may very well live in housing units that exist right now. And that means we’ll be living with those patterns of energy use as well, unless we get very serious about retrofitting older houses and making even greater efficiencies in heating, cooling and other appliances.

You may think bigger is better, or that small is beautiful. But the choices we’ve made in building houses over the past 30 years are going to shape our energy use for a long, long time.