Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes

Large homes and McMansions do not just take up land and resources at construction; according to a new study, they have larger carbon footprints. Here is the abstract:

aerial photography of gray houses

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Using data on 93 million individual households, we estimate these GHGs across the contiguous United States and clarify the respective influence of climate, affluence, energy infrastructure, urban form, and building attributes (age, housing type, heating fuel) in driving these emissions. A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

More from the study linking energy use, wealth, and housing size:

We find that both household energy use and emissions per square meter vary widely across the country, driven primarily by thermal energy demand and the fuel used in electricity production (“grid mix”). ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together. City and neighborhood analyses underscore the environmental benefits of denser settlement patterns and the degree to which carbon-intensive electrical grids counteract these benefits.

Bigger homes require more energy to heat, cool, and light. Wealthier people can afford these expenses. Indeed, being able to shoulder all of these costs with a larger home may be a form of conspicuous consumption: “I have enough resources to live in a larger home and maintain it.” Critics of McMansions argue that such homes are meant to impress those who see them, not necessarily great spaces for residents to inhabit.

The study also connects the findings to possibilities for making single-family homes more green. The models work with two options: (1) retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient and (2) reducing power generated with fossil fuels (“grid decarbonization”). Yet, there are other options to pursue that could help with the situation:

1. Promoting the construction of or the inhabiting of smaller homes. This could range from tiny houses to the “not-so-big home” to smart-sizing or down-sizing. This may require more significant lifestyle changes – cutting on consumption would be difficult – that are too hard for many people.

2. Promoting fewer single-family homes. While they are the basis of suburban life and popular in many other American communities, multi-family housing is more energy efficient. Given the rhetoric surrounding suburbs (such as President Trump claiming Democrats want to abolish suburb), this may not be easy.

3. Promoting less energy use within homes. What if residents used less heat, air conditioning, and lighting? What if they watched less TV and used their phones and computers less? Again, this might require large lifestyle changes that many would find difficult.

4. Constructing newer homes with much stricter energy guidelines, perhaps even net-zero-energy homes or passive houses. Even if these are restricted to wealthier homeowners who can afford the changes, this could help limit the energy use of larger homes. Also, if such homes are viewed by the public as cool or desirable, perhaps these features trickle down.

5. Could wealthier homeowners purchase carbon offsets for their homes? This would allow them to keep their bigger structures while providing funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

The scenarios in the paper as well as the ones I proposed all require working multiple sectors of society to get to a place where homes, particularly large ones, use less energy.

Addressing “green gentrification”

As American cities develop land in ways to combat climate change, researchers have examined who benefits from the new development:

Fighting climate disasters is a good idea for the planet, but can have unintended consequences for neighborhoods. “In order to construct a green, resilient park or shoreline, we get rid of lower-income housing … and behind it or next to it, you’ll have higher-income housing being built,” says Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban geographer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona who co-wrote an article about green gentrification in December’s PNAS. It can get even worse, she says. Hardening one neighborhood so that water can’t flow inland there means the water goes somewhere else. “The flooding and storm events go into the basements of the public housing next door,” she says.

That’s double jeopardy. And it turns into triple jeopardy, thanks to economics. New amenities plus new luxury housing drive up local housing prices, which drive out working-class and poorer residents. “The question is not only what Boston is facing, which is middle-class gentrifiers with a slightly higher income and education. It’s über-rich people who end up taking over cities until they are unable to fulfill their direct functions,” Anguelovski says. The gentrification wave is its own kind of economic apocalypse. If it hits, none of the people who make a city work—teachers, police officers, health care workers, bus drivers—can afford to live there. “Or it becomes so important from an economic standpoint, so desirable and hardened with infrastructure that entire buildings are empty—purchased by real estate funds or individuals from the Middle East or Russia,” Anguelovski says.

The problem that cities face is the difference between physics and real estate. Climate change happens on the scale of decades or centuries; real estate development and politics happen on fiscal and electoral timescales. “I get it. Green space is great, and while it may not be much of an improvement in terms of climate adaptation, it’s good for people’s well-being and quality of life,” says Ken Gould, an environmental sociologist at Brooklyn College and coauthor of Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice. “Does it sequester much carbon? Not really. It’s fine. But you have to manage the real estate markets, because markets left to themselves, when you put in an amenity, are going to generate development.”…

Obviously, cities are facing more and more climate-related hazards. It’d be policy malpractice to not get ready for them. “It’s not too difficult for a city to make green infrastructure investments in neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in, but the housing side needs to kick in,” says Constantine Samaras, an energy and climate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “The people who live in these underinvested neighborhoods deserve a neighborhood with bike lanes and green space. It’s up to city policy to make sure they can stay.” The trick is to build new housing while not uprooting people who live in the old stock—so that everyone benefits from the protection against disaster, not just a wealthy, lucky few.

This sounds like a twenty-first century version of urban renewal programs in American cities. In the name of the good of the whole community – now to protect neighborhoods and cities against environmental risks – lower-income housing is removed and the land eventually ends up in the hands of wealthier residents and property owners.

The sociological literature on urban development would suggest this is not surprising. Through a variety of means, leaders and wealthier people find ways to procure desirable land and profit from them. Redevelopment, whether undertaken to improve properties or make places greener, tends to benefit those who move into the neighborhood, not the ones who have been there a long time.

As is noted in the portion above, what is good for real estate and property values may not be good for the community even though the changes themselves – such as putting up barriers to water or creating more green space – would be welcome. At least now, the American system tends to privilege the real estate side, not the community improvement and well-being side. What could be done to limit the real estate market for the good of the city? Which city leaders will lead the way in arguing that green improvements should not be tied to market forces?

Altering mortgages to account for climate change threats

A new Federal Reserve report considers how the consequences of climate change might affect mortgages:

The housing market doesn’t yet factor in the risk of climate change, which is already affecting many areas of the U.S., including flood-prone coastal communities, agricultural regions and parts of the country vulnerable to wildfires. In California, for instance, 50,000 homeowners can’t get property or casualty insurance because of the increased risk to their homes.

Yet for now, no mortgage lender, portfolio manager or buyer of mortgages takes into account climate-induced floods, except to determine if a house sits in a 100-year floodplain at the time the mortgage is issued, said Michael Berman, a former official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Once lenders and housing investors do start pricing in such risks, “There may be a threat to the availability of the 30-year mortgage in various vulnerable and highly exposed areas,” Berman wrote in a recent San Francisco Fed report. He predicts lenders could “blue-line” entire regions where flood risks are high — a reference to redlining, the practice of refusing mortgages to minorities…

Said Cleetus: “My biggest fear, honestly, is that the markets will get out ahead of our policies, and we see a situation where property values do start to decline, and small communities that rely on a lot of property tax revenue won’t be able to deal with it.”

It will be interesting to see who (1) pursues this as a competitive advantage and (2) how federal policy plays into this. In a quest to get ahead of the rest of the market, could someone come up with a unique mortgage for areas with more climate change risk? Discussions about whether federal money should be used in places prone to natural disasters has been going for decades (see Hurricane Sandy or discussions about resilient cities).

Much of the article focuses on how the lack of mortgages in certain areas would lead to decreased property values and then a downward spirals as communities would not be able to generate as much tax revenue. This could also work the other way: imagine communities where only the really wealthy can live because they do not need traditional mortgages. They could come in and gobble up real estate with lowered values. Either way, the result could be increased inequality in affected areas.

Mapping vehicle emissions in the Chicago metropolitan region

The New York Times maps and discusses vehicle emissions across American metropolitan areas:

ChicagoVehicleEmissionsMap

Even as the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from its electric grid, largely by switching from coal power to less-polluting natural gas, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

The bulk of those emissions, nearly 60 percent, come from the country’s 250 million passenger cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent…

Suburban driving, including commuting, has been a major contributor to the expanding carbon footprint of urban areas, Dr. Gately said.

But, he added, “Even in the densest cities, the vast majority of trips still happen in a motor vehicle.” These trips include work commutes, school drop-offs and millions of other daily errands as well as freight deliveries and other business traffic, each of which contribute to planetary warming.

The United States has organized much of its society around driving. Plus, many Americans like driving or the benefits they believe driving offers. It will be hard to enact quick large-scale changes to this though smaller efforts (such as fleets of electric vehicles or denser suburban areas) could add up to change over time.

The data from the Chicago area is interesting. Like most metro areas, the emissions are centered on major highways with some of the areas with most emissions being the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, I-88 at I-294, and I-88 at I-355 (these are likely areas with high levels of congestion and gridlock). From the maps, it is hard to know how much of the emissions come from freight trucks but I would imagine the proportion could be high in the Chicago area given its central location, highways, and intermodal facilities. Chicago ranks 5th in total emissions – behind New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston – and the per-person emissions ranks on the low end of metropolitan areas. Although the region is the third largest metropolitan region in the United States, it does have more mass transit than a number of other regions.

Will there be more lawn mowing or less lawn mowing with climate change?

If the climate is changing with some places predicted to receive more rain and some to receive less rain, how will this affect lawn mowing in the United States? A few quick thoughts:

1. If droughts (such as a few years back in California) and high temperatures are more common in certain places, more people could seek alternatives to lawns (looking for less water use or greywater use plus painting lawns or replacing them). Less lawn mowing!

2. If rain is more common elsewhere, this could lead to lusher lawns, the dream of many suburban property owners. More lawn mowing!

3. Producers of grass seed, lawn mowers, and others would have to adjust. This is a sizable industry that could pursue a variety of paths. Still sell the perfect lawn concept in wetter parts of the country while also selling lawn alternatives in drier regions? Selling hardier and less water dependent seeds in drier areas? I assume they already have plans. Perhaps more lawn mowing if people still want lawns and the right products are available?

4. This could affect how Americans regard the lawn. While the nicely kept green grass lawn seems fairly widespread, perhaps it will be a strong norm in some regions with significant variation elsewhere. How much this could affect other areas of homeownership and suburban life is hard to foresee. A wash for overall lawn mowing?

5. The doomsday scenario: perhaps other problems become so pressing that few care about lawn mowing. For example, why mow the lawn when food supplies are limited?

This question came to me after several stretches this year where rain and humidity constant for a few weeks. This required more mowing then and we have not experienced the typical July/August browning of the lawn because of the rainy spells.

Limiting cooling and heating emissions from the largest city buildings

New York City has plans to limit emissions from its skyscrapers:

Point is, 70 percent of NYC emissions come from heating and cooling a million buildings—and a third of that carbon comes from just 50,000 buildings of 25,000 square feet or more. Blame the skyscrapers. Trump Tower is apparently a representative of the 2 percent of very, very bad emitters, for what it’s worth. So one of the new bills tells the owners of those big buildings they have to cut their emissions by 40 percent in 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That’s a lot. “We have to pay attention. The water is speaking to us. In the last century New York Harbor is up one foot,” says John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, which helped design the bill. “There’s no question that this bill sets tough, tough carbon limits. It’s not going to be easy. That’s a reflection of the fact that climate change is a tough issue.”

As to how those buildings get there, their owners have a few paths. They can buy green power, which is really more hopeful than realistic at this point; 70 percent of New York City’s power comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. But ideally this option will incentivize a market for wind turbines and hydro power, and in fact another bill in the omnibus aims to pave the way for green rooftops with solar panels. Also the building can work with the city to figure out what kinds of improvements would get emissions down—new boilers, better insulation, new windows, all kinds of new investments that would, not coincidentally, translate to thousands of construction and building-trade jobs in the city. Ey, these boilers ain’t gonna install themselves, knowwutImean?

And in an approach out of Kim Stanley Robinson’s post-climate-flood novel New York 2140 (or maybe the Crimson Permanent Assurance) individual buildings would be able to trade carbon credits. “That’s a real breakthrough policy tool. It’s never been done at this scale at a city level,” Mandyck says. “It’s a flexible tool especially for building owners that own portfolios.” So those folks could trade credits among their own buildings, or form alliances and breakaway archipelagos of skyscraping carbon trade routes.

I would guess that few residents would think about buildings as large sources of carbon. This could be for a variety of reasons: building occupants may rarely notice when the heating or cooling is on (though they may be aware of the temperature); carbon reduction efforts have targeted other sources, such as vehicles; and the percent of carbon emissions in New York in buildings may reflect both the number of large buildings and a region unusually dependent on mass transit.

All that said, it will be interesting to watch how these efforts to alter buildings go. The article says little about how building owners have responded. For many, New York will still be a desirable enough market that leaving over these changes i unlikely. Would it make any property owner or potential owner refocus their attention elsewhere? And buying green power or buying and trading credits could prove popular compared to actually making significant changes to buildings which could be costly and require a lot of time and effort. Finally, could alterations remake or restyle some large buildings and introduce a different aesthetic to one of the most important skylines in the world? Images of future cities tend to show more curvy skyscrapers covered in greenery instead of the glass and steel that dominate New York and other American cities. I’m sure there would be ways to make changes that would not just reduce emissions but also push a new look.

A crowdfunded way to study other researchers in Antarctica

A sociologist is utilizing crowdfunding to go to Antarctica for research:

So far Haeffner has reached about 12 percent of her overall goal. She has raised enough through GoFundMe, a crowdfunding website, to pay the initial deposit of the expedition…

Most of the researchers on the trip will be polar scientists who study ice cores, penguins and climate change. But because Heaffner is a sociologist, she will be studying the other researchers and how they work together.

“I want to collect more data from researchers in different disciplines of what they see are the barriers,” Heaffner said. “Where do they see that social science can play a role in their science and how we can think of other different research questions together to tackle climate change?”

Two quick thoughts:

  1. This sort of research is common within sociology: how do small groups and/or academic disciplines understand their own activities? As we all know from participating in all sorts of social groups, it is easy to simply be within groups and not think much about how they operate. However, bringing in an outsider who can observe and ask good questions could lead to insights that would help the group (particularly task-oriented ones like a team of researchers) move forward.
  2. The main purpose of this article is to point out the use of crowdfunding for research funding. Haeffner is asking for $4,500 and you can read about her goals and donate here. She isn’t asking for a lot of money but she also isn’t promising Kickstarter type returns to those who donate though contributions could be viewed as leading to important research on a current topic. In the long run, I wonder if receiving funding through such sources would be viewed by scientists as more or less freeing.

Miami fights climate change with fees derived from new waterfront condos

Miami can could lose big with the consequences of climate change but in order to fight the consequences, the city needs to approve more oceanfront development:

The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes…

By 2020, Miami Beach plans to complete 80 new storm pumps that will collect and banish up to 14,000 gallons of seawater per minute back into Biscayne Bay. Construction started in February. The goal is to reduce sunny day flooding — which frequently invades streets at high tide whether or not it is raining — and prepare the community for future ocean swell…

The $300 million project is ambitious for a city with a $502 million annual budget. A new stormwater utility fee on homeowners, hotels and stores helped Miami Beach save enough money to borrow the first $100 million.

The project started before planners worked out all the funding. It’s unclear how the city will raise the rest. “We don’t have time for analysis-paralysis,” said Levine. We are going to have to get creative.”

It is hard for cities to turn down development when the luxury market is hot. Not only does an overheated housing market attract new residents, a hip reputation, and the interest of developers, it can also generate money for the city through taxes, fees, and increased spending.

Yet, development isn’t simply a game where more equals better. Whether the consequences are flooding or gentrification or a lack of affordable housing, cities tend to approve such projects that bring in money and growth. But, this ignores the bigger picture and the broader consequences that could affect everyone. The money may be pouring in now but what happens if this leads to flooding and a hampered tourist and investor economy for decades to come? What if avoiding the question of affordable housing contributes to other social problems or causes needed workers and citizens to move to other communities? As urban sociologists have asked for decades, who wins when big development takes place? Usually not the normal citizens. Instead, the growth machines – the powerful businesspeople and politicians – tend to profit.

Of course, funding to combat future problems is not easy to obtain. No state income tax in Florida helps contribute to hot housing markets. Should the federal government help pay to alleviate climate change? Should there be state or federal policies that do not allow building such expensive developments right on properties near the ocean (similar questions are raised about floodplains around major rivers)? Cities and other governments have a long way to go in order to figure out this issue.

Thinking about Weber as climate change may be the latest issue to join the culture wars

Michael Gerson discusses why climate change has become one of the hot-button issues in the culture wars:

What explains the recent, bench-clearing climate brawl? A scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government. Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling — greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.

The result is a contest of questioned motives. In the conservative view, the real liberal goal is to undermine free markets and national sovereignty (through international environmental agreements). In the liberal view, the real conservative goal is to conduct a war on science and defend fossil fuel interests. On the margin of each movement, the critique is accurate, supplying partisans with plenty of ammunition.

No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.

If Gerson is correct, the battle over climate change is simply a proxy battle. In fact, then we could probably assume that other issues will come along that will also become part of the culture wars. The fervor over the climate change issue will lessen at some point and another concern will become a flashpoint.

All of this seems related to what I had one of my classes recently read: Weber’s take on “value-free” or “value-neutral” sociology. This could help explain a few things:

1. Distrust of elites, particularly academics, is part of the issue. One way to fight elites/academics is to simply suggest that they are biased. Weber suggests all scientists have some biases. However, there are ways to do science, such as subjecting your work to others with a scientific mindset, to minimize these biases. As I recently argued, just because one scientist may have committed fraud or because some scientists have clear aims does not mean that all science is suspect.

2. Weber suggests that scientists need to be clear when they are speaking as scientists looking at facts and individuals proposing courses of action. Mixing facts and ideals or policies can lead to issues. In this particular situation, I would guess conservatives think the scientists are not just exploring the scientific facts but are also pushing “an agenda.” Indeed, Gerson ends this piece by suggesting we need to put “some distance between science and ideology.” Of course, plenty of scientists are religious but the (perceived) mixing of facts and goals can be problematic.

3. In writing his piece, Weber was trying to set guidelines for a journal where people of a scientific mindset could debate sociology and facts. It is interesting that Gerson notes that opposition to secular science is now part of the subcultural identity of some religious groups, making it more difficult to have conversations because attacking/defending one’s identity is contentious. If one doesn’t want to debate facts, how can one have a conversation about science?