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The Impact of Home Size on Sustainability

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Aug 30, 2020

More and more people are beginning to develop ecological awareness and conscious consumer habits. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it is not without difficulty. One of the most significant hurdles of living a more sustainable life is that it can challenge us to change certain aspects of our livelihoods fundamentally. Deep change - changing the way we live, how society is organized, and the underlying values of our culture requires going beyond simplistic solutions. These solutions must follow a scientifically proven path to lessen our impact on the world that sustains us. 

The first steps to sustainability in the housing industry are swapping your incandescent light bulbs for LEDs or investing in a programmable thermostat. However, these changes do not make a home suddenly "green" or "sustainable." While several smaller solutions can add up to a more significant overall impact, it is vital that homeowners, on a large scale, begin to address one of the fundamental aspects of home sustainability: its size.

large home

How Big Is the Average Family Home?

In 1973, the average home size was just over 1,500 square feet. In 2013, only forty years later, the average home size ballooned to 2,679 square feet. Simultaneously, the size of households is falling, meaning that fewer people are inhabiting larger homes. This is evidence that the concept that "bigger is better" has firmly taken root in the American psyche. Since houses are usually the most significant investment that families make and the primary source of their savings, the prevailing logic decrees that the larger the home, the more its value. Imagine a young family looking to purchase their first home presented with two options. The first is a 1,300 square foot home built from solid brick, and the second option is a 2,400 square foot home made from 2x4's and plywood that cost roughly the same amount. In most cases, the family would opt for the larger home believing that it was a better deal, the better home, and the better value for their money.

Regrettably, many construction companies and contractors feel the marketing impetus to build larger homes without pushing the price sky-high. So, they are cutting corners during the construction of homes and are producing lower quality construction to increase the overall square footage at a reasonable price to the buyer. The banks and other mortgage lenders also play a role in this situation. These institutions often coerce home buyers into opting for homes with artificially high value simply due to the square footage.

UK Houses

Compared to other developed countries worldwide, the average house size in the United States is astronomically high. In the UK, another cold climate country with a similar economy to that of the United States, the average house size is just over 800 square feet.


The Impact of Mini-Mansions on Sustainability

Why exactly are large homes less sustainable than homes with smaller square footage? Firstly, the amount of raw materials needed to build a 3,000 square foot home is much higher than a 1,000 or even a 2,000 square foot house. Once the home is built, the volume of space inside the homes encourages consumerism. People feel they need to purchase "things" to fill up all empty rooms and areas. On another level, larger homes require more electricity fixtures to light the house and more energy to heat and cool the home. 

As we mentioned above, many larger homes are not energy-efficient because contractors need to cut corners to keep the house at an acceptable market price. Lack of quality insulation and other issues can lead to heat loss that even further increases the energetic cost of maintaining a home at a sufficient temperature. The most prominent families are often built in suburban areas where neighborhoods are designed without considering taking advantage of people-powered transportation or the sun and the other elements of passive solar design. The energetic cost of living in an area well removed from urban centers where most people work and play is another added energetic cost associated with the home. 

The Root of the House Size Problem

The author, poet, farmer, and agrarian thinker Wendell Berry once wrote:

"The basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity: it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don't know how to use energy or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy."
Dvele Prefab House
Photo Credit: Dvele

For homes to truly be sustainable, we need to discover how to live smaller - with smaller dwellings, less waste, and a smaller impact on the earth. To move in this direction, we need to question the "logic" behind the large homes when shopping for new homes and sustainable housing options. Opting for homes with smaller square footage that are more solidly built, use less raw materials in the construction process, and use much less energy overall will help us all move toward true sustainability at home.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-02T00:58:01+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.