Monday, May 09, 2005

Thinking Smaller

Just like our population and average waist size, our homes have been growing as well. After World War II, the average American home measured only 900 square feet. Today it is over 2,100, despite a decrease in the size of the average American household. Pictures tell part of the story.

The original Levittown model had two bedrooms a kitchen/dining area and a living room. Built with limited frills, the developers raced to construct them at previously unheard of rates. Most units only had what we would consider basic appliances, while the garage was not even in the picture.
Compare that to this picture.

This model, the Kensington is offered for sale a couple of hours away in New Jersey from the original Levittown community. This home, at close to 2000 square feet, is fairly close to the current national average. Most new homes today have at least three bedrooms, two full baths and a whole gamut of new features that homeowners after the war could only dream about.

Take for example, high ceilings. Many homes today have ceiling levels that routinely are built at over nine feet in height and soar more than 15 in the family/great room/common areas. That is a huge volume of air that now needs to be climate-controlled. Contrast that to the original eight-foot ceilings offered in the late 1940’s and you can see how that not only the floor space that has grown, but the enclosed space as well.

Speaking of climate control, original suburban homes did not contain air conditioning. Today (with the exception of certain climate zones) air conditioning is standard. Heating apparatuses also changed over the years from oil and coal fired boilers with distribution by radiators to systems powered by natural gas and electricity with distribution by forced air blowers. Although modern construction is far more energy efficient than original post war structures, the newer larger homes have more cubic feet of space to keep at temperate levels. If all things were equal in terms of insulation, the smaller, older structures would consume less energy to keep at the same level of comfort. When you add all of modern suburbia’s requisite gadgets and domestic appliances, a trend toward higher energy usage could definitely be observed from those larger homes.

More often not, these large homes grow at the expense of the existing yard space. Part of the lost space is due to the garage and driveway, but a significant amount is taken up by the house itself. In pricey real estate markets that translates into a lot of large houses on small properties. This is not particularly useful if you consider that we potentially face a future where lawn space may need to be pressed into garden service to alleviate food shortages.

At some point, this housing size growth will crash head-first into the realities of declining energy availability. How will Mr. and Mrs. Joe Suburbia manage to stay warm in the winter when the limited amount of heat that they can create rises up to the high ceiling reaches of the family room? What use will that three car garage will be good for, when cars are too expensive to operate? Why will the whole house have to be cooled in its entirety, when the inhabitants are only in one room?

The answer to these questions will in fact require the downsizing the American home. We need fewer wasted rooms and passages, smaller master bedrooms and baths. Ceiling heights should decrease in most instances (though a strong case could be made for the use of high ceilings in conjunction with other passive cooling strategies) and the house’s internal appliances need to shrink in some cases or be dispensed with all together.

There is no excuse why every house should not have a solar water heating system with a point of use back up heater, instead of the 40-gallon boiler. Heating systems should revert back to room or zonal heating units such as a wood stove in combination with extremely thick insulation and passive heating strategies that utilize solar heat and thermal mass to keep temperatures warm in the winter. That same thick construction would help lower cooling requirements in the summer. For those residing in drier climates, there is no reason why of modern 2-stage evaporative coolers could not substitute for the use of air conditioners. In more moist climates, the use of smaller AC units to cool a few smaller rooms in combination with the strategic use of fans and acclimatization (getting used to the heat without any mitigation) would be far more energy efficient than current strategies.

The average house size will shrink. Declining energy availability will see to that. With sensible layouts and intelligent use of space, there should be no reason why tomorrow’s smaller home couldn’t be just as comfortable as today’s much larger ones.


Blogger barrie said...

I have read through some of the postings of UNplanner. While I agree that our society cannot go on as it is, we can enjoy a plentiful life without large supplies of fossil fuels.

Suppose for example that a typical urban lot had 3500 square feet, 1500 hours of direct sunshine per year and 25% utilization of this solar energy (most of it for low temperature heat). This is still about 80,000 kWh per year. This is a lot more energy than even the typical modern home consumes (typically about 30,000 kWh). It is a "no-brainer" to cut this energy consumption by an order of magnitude.

The challenge then remains to find some way to utilize and store this plentiful energy supply. We are not doomed to live in tiny hovels freezing in the dark. We just have to stop depending on fossil fuels and get on with utilzing solar energy like most other life-forms on the surface of the earth.

5/24/2005 7:16 PM  

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