Summing up the environmental issues McMansions present

Australian architect and artist Mathieu Gallois working with several groups described the negative environmental consequences of McMansions:

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The project organisers made the following conclusions about McMansions: “the brick veneer construction’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for Australia’s hot climatic conditions; the foundations are laid on a large concert slab that possess high levels of embodied energy; the terracotta tiled roof’s thermal performance is poor and inappropriate for the Australian climate; the aluminium window frames have a high level of embodied energy and their thermal performance is poor; the window glazing is of a poor level, as is its thermal performance; the PVC plumbing has a high embodied energy; the steel lintels have a high embodied energy and represent lazy design solutions”.

On this basis they argued that “Australian brick veneer homes are the biggest and most poorly designed built homes in the developed world; too big, not built to be recycled, not responsive to climatic conditions, not built for future adaptability, with poor cross ventilation. Moreover, such houses are designed to face the street rather than being orientated to maximise the site’s positive climatic engagement; their multi-faceted roofs do not optimise or facilitate the provision of PV panels or solar HWS; their roofs do not harvest rainwater; the stairwells are not sealable; and the rooms and living spaces are generic, unresponsive to different seasonal climatic conditions”.

That is a negative assessment, particularly compared to how homes might be constructed in a greener manner.

Just thinking about these negative environmental consequences, I wonder if it is possible to create a greener McMansion that roughly keeps the size, architecture, and price that a decent number of Americans and Australians are willing to buy. Could strategic choices be made to make a significantly greener home without too many alterations? This would provide a different product and help address concerns some might have about McMansions.

What is gained and lost in trading a grass lawn for artificial turf?

Prompted by climate change and other factors, more property owners around the world are switching to artificial turf. What is gained in the trade?

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A couple of decades ago, artificial turf was often a thin carpet atop a hard surface—rough on the knees as well as the eyes. Athletes playing on it complained that it wore their legs out. But as the product improved, so did homeowners’ interest. From the US to the UK, artificial grass retailers have seen sales tick up during pandemic lockdowns, when housebound property owners put their money toward home improvements. Indeed, Google Trends shows a worldwide surge in searches for “artificial grass” during the middle of 2020.

Even the most famous grass enthusiasts like the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club are open to the idea. The organization behind the Wimbledon championship is trialing hybrid court surfaces—real grass weaved with plastic fibers—to promote lawn tennis in climates worldwide and extend the season in the UK.

Still, all of this fake grass sprouting across the planet has sparked backlash. Some of the biggest protests have been in Australia, where synthetic turf installations became more common in home gardens and playing fields during the Millennium Drought—a roughly 12-year dry spell that ended in 2009. Many cities and regions faced extreme water restrictions that included a total ban on lawn watering in some areas…

The most obvious environmental problem with artificial grass is it’s rooted in the biggest climate nemesis of all: fossil fuel. Synthetic turf is made from a stew of petroleum-based components, making it nearly impossible to recycle. At the end of an artificial lawn’s useful life, which is about 15 years, it will likely go to a landfill or be incinerated…

Yet, even if artificial turf becomes easy to recycle, real grass will still in some ways be greener. Grass naturally absorbs carbon dioxide. Its soil supports wildlife from worms to birds. There are varieties for almost any kind of climate. Unless, of course, that climate doesn’t have enough water.

The legacy of the suburban lawn will be long indeed if the manicured green grass is replaced by green artificial turfs for decades. If it is no longer grass, is the desirable part the color or the nostalgia?

As noted elsewhere in the article, the artificial turf is not the only option. In places like Las Vegas, a rockscape or desert setting is more appropriate. Elsewhere, a yard may be filled with native plants or a garden. If the purpose of the lawn is to provide a connection to nature for the residents, these options can fit the bill in a way that artificial lawns cannot.

The real trick would seem to be creating an artificial turf that better mimics a grass lawn in look and feel without negative environmental impact. A soft and lush lawn that does not need watering, does not rely heavily on fossil fuels, and is similar to the image many Americans have of the proper yard of a single-family home? That may be the lawn worth keeping in yards across the country.

A significant majority of Americans “believe it is better for the environment if houses are built further apart”

In April, YouGov reported on a survey with a series of questions on how Americans thought about high-density places. Here is how people responded when asked about the relationship between the environment and building homes:

Three in four Americans say it’s better for the environment if houses are built farther apart, while one in four say it’s better for houses to be built closer together. While Americans who live in cities are somewhat more likely than Americans who don’t to say that high density is more environmental, the vast majority of city-dwellers still believe that it’s more eco-friendly to build out rather than up. While Republicans and Independents are aligned on this issue, Democrats are somewhat more likely to say high-density living is environmental, though again, the majority still say it is worse for the environment than building farther apart.  https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/w0YWs/3/

It would be fascinating to follow up on these survey results with interviews or open-ended questions for the respondents: “Please explain why you answered this way.”

Knowing what I know about American preferences for single-family homes and wanting to be closer to nature in the suburbs, here are some factors that could be at work:

-Americans do not know what is best for the environment.

-Proximity to nature matters for how people assess whether the environment is better off. In higher density places, there is less open space or the natural areas have to be planned and protected. If the houses are further apart leaving more room for grass and local creatures, is this better for the environment?

-People really like homes built away from other homes, even if this might not be optimal for the environment.

-It is interesting that the biggest gap in opinions is between political parties and not where people live. Even then, two-thirds of Democrats agree with this. This might suggest anyone promoting density as a solution to environmental issues will run into some opposition.

McMansions as part of a world ruined by climate change

A new art exhibit includes McMansions in the imagery of a world after the negative effects of climate change:

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When Josh Kline debuted his “Climate Change” series at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the slick sci-fi work looked a little smug. The New York-based artist, who at 43 has pieces in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, is known as a political fantasist with a dyspeptic view of life under capitalism. A recent series of dirty, resin-soaked American flags shaped into televisions, for example, is meant to critique Fox News.

Even so, Kline’s apocalyptic vision of warming seas for the biennial had outdone itself for corporate-chic confidence: a series of 12 greyscale photos of emblems of U.S. power — San Francisco skyscrapers, the front desk of Twitter’s headquarters, a statue of Ronald Reagan — partly submerged in water in plexiglass cases and lit with medicinal ambers and greens. Pumps recirculated the water over the prints, erasing them slowly, like the washer in a darkroom or a hotel water feature or, maybe, liberal tears. The message was propagandistically clear: climate change is real; the water is rising; turn back the tide while you still can.

Now, three of these flooded works appear at LAXART, a nonprofit project space in Los Angeles, as part of Kline’s new exhibition, “Adaptation.” In this setting, they seem less declarative, more hunkered down. The relentless combination of time and trickling water soaks the photographs with an aura of romantic decline. A Silicon Valley McMansion’s peaked roof peers through a curtain of cloudy fluid in “Luxury Home, Los Altos Hills.” A white patch of blight creeps up from the bottom of “Deck, Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, Menlo Park.” In “432 Park Avenue, Manhattan,” which depicts a supertall residential tower that may be more an investment storehouse than an actual home, a little scummy foam jiggles on the water’s surface.

Kline’s earnest warnings about the effects of climate change are still blunt — the immediate greed of energy and tech and lifestyle companies will still doom our civilization, if not the world, to a watery end. (In fact, the artist doubles down: the back room also features “Consumer Fragility Meltdown,” 2019, a soy wax model of two commercial buildings slumping and sweating on a heated steel table.) But as each image breaks apart, Kline’s message also erodes. Ambivalence creeps through the gaps. Then, when the emulsion has been rinsed away, the print is replaced and the cycle begins again.

McMansions are often connected to climate change and concerns about the environment. This can happen in two ways. McMansions themselves are the problem: they take up a lot of land, they require a lot of resources to build and maintain, and they exist in part due to a sprawling, car-dependent social arrangement.

The second way of linking McMansions and climate change is to use the symbol of McMansions as indicating larger concerns about sprawl, pollution, land use, and environmental destruction. McMansions are an easy target for an era in the United States revolving around consumption, the use of resources, and limited action regarding consequences. It is less about the individual dwellings than it is about an ethos or an era without regard for environmental consequences.

Put that McMansion in Silicon Valley and perhaps the symbol is even more potent: in a time of technological and lifestyle changes, people lived in these environmentally destructive homes in one of the wealthiest and most influential parts of the United States.

Home all day, hear the noise of daily work around your residence

With more people at home during the day, they can hear more of what goes on during a typical day. And they may not like it:

Cities, towns and villages in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the country have created bans or sought voluntary cuts in the use of leaf blowers in suburban neighborhoods. Town leaders noted that with everyone sheltering in home, the constant din was an added nuisance…

The municipal actions are a departure in the ongoing saga of leaf blowers, one marked, in many towns, by equal parts irritation and inaction. Everyone hates hearing them down the block, but no one complains about the swift and eye-pleasing work they accomplish on their own lawns. And so a silent majority has carried on, under the whine of the motor.

Some residents have apparently questioned whether the machines could be spreading the coronavirus. The village of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. raised the same worry on Twitter this week…

In Westfield, N.J., Mayor Shelley Brindle, in a statement, asked homeowners and landscapers to keep the blowers locked away until at least noon ever day.

This comes amid broader discussions about banning gas leaf blowers and other gas-powered outdoor equipment. Compared to electric or battery-powered equipment, they produce more noise and exhaust. This could be an interesting time to nudge people toward different equipment – in the name of noise, environmental concerns – though asking them to do so in the midst of a crisis will make it more difficult.

I wonder how much the perception of the noise problem is also due to the time of year. I wrote two years ago about common summer noises that can interrupt tranquility: air conditioners, lawnmowers, construction, etc. Once the weather starts warming up, more people are outside and more people are doing work outside. The person in one house who wants to sit on their deck and enjoy some peace and quiet competes with the person next door who enjoys keeping their yard neat and green. And both of them may dislike the municipal road project that reconstructs the next street over and produces noise for weeks. If the COVID-19 induced lockdown started in November, would people have the same noises to complain about?

At the same time, dealing with noise is tricky among neighbors and within a community. People generally know that certain locations are noisier than others and adjust accordingly. Some people even live right under runway paths. Businesses also have a stake in this; as is noted at the end of the article cited above, not using certain yard equipment is possible but raking and pruning by hand will take more time and cost more money. Keeping everyone happy regarding noise is likely to be difficult.

Limiting teardown McMansions with ordinances requiring demolitions reuse and recycle materials?

Palo Alto, California will soon require the reuse or recycling of the majority of materials for demolished buildings:

[W]orkers will now be required to systematically disassemble structures, with the goal of reusing or recycling the bulk of the material on the site. Based on experiences in Portland, Oregon, which has a similar law in place, staff believes that up to 95% of the construction debris can be salvaged — either reused or recycled — through “deconstruction.”…

Construction and demolition materials represent more than 40% of Palo Alto debris that gets disposed in landfills, according to an estimate from the city’s Public Works Department. As such, it represents a prime opportunity for diversion and recovery, staff told the City Council at the June 10 meeting, shortly before the council voted unanimously to adopt the new ordinance…

The new model calls for buildings to be systematically disassembled, typically in the reverse order in which they were constructed. Based on two recent pilot projects, deconstruction work using this method would take about 10 to 15 days to complete and require a crew of four to eight people, with the cost ranging from $22 to $34 per square foot….

The new deconstruction ordinance is expected to help the city divert 7,930 tons of waste annually (by contrast, the disposable-foodware ordinance that the council adopted at the same meeting would divert 290 tons). The deconstruction ordinance is also expected to reduce the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 22,300 metric tons annually (for the foodware ordinance, the number is 470 tons).

This would be an interesting way for communities to limit teardown McMansions without having to explicitly mention big houses. When there are public discussions about ordinances regarding residential teardowns, it often comes down to a discussion of property rights versus neighborhood or community character. These can get ugly. But, an ordinance like this does not have to explicitly mention residential properties or single-family homes in order to affect them. Going through the reuse/recycle mode would require more time and labor and this might either constrict what is built on the site or stop the teardown process before it begins. Of course, those pursuing teardowns might simply pay more to deal with the new requirements. People who have the money to buy a lot and house (sometimes a perfectly functioning or not very old house) and just tear it down and build a new one might just be able to easily pay these new costs.

With this ordinance in mind, I imagine there are other ways local governments could restrict residential teardowns without necessarily targeting them. Why set up a battle about property rights, aesthetics, and community if it can be avoided by regulations that nudge people certain directions?

Why Americans love suburbs #7: closer to nature

A consistent appeal of suburbia for many Americans is to be closer to nature and green space. While suburbanites appreciate their proximity to urban amenities without having to actually live in the big city, they also often appreciate more open space and closeness to nature. American suburbanites may be out of touch with nature and children may be exposed to less nature these days but the suburbs are viewed as offering access to nature just outside the single-family home.

As cities grew in the nineteenth century, they became dirty places. While this is an ongoing issue in many large cities still (think smog in Paris or air quality in Beijing), these growing cities had particular problems including how to construct sewers (Chicago’s efforts in battling excrement helped it grow), dealing with waste from all the horses, and soot (see pictures of Pittsburgh turned dark in the middle of the day). The suburbs offered some distance from the grime of the city and more proximity to pristine nature.

Exactly what kind of nature suburbanites experience is up for debate. As one critic of suburbia suggests, the suburbs often involve “nature band-aids.” Suburbanites may be interested in farms or “agrihoods” but the average suburban dweller has a small plot of land around their home. I am reminded of one situation I discovered in my research on suburban development where residents of a newer subdivision complained vociferously when the adjacent cornfield turned into a new development. This common process of suburban development – more agricultural or rural land or open space is turned into sprawl – can frustrate many residents.

One consistent experience involves using and caring for the lawns that surround many single-family homes. The green lawn is an important symbol of the owner’s social class as well as a space for outside recreation. Caring for the lawn is vitally important. Neighborhoods and communities exert pressure. Residents make sure their lawns are green in a variety of conditions ranging from watering during droughts, painting their lawns, and searching out the best seeds. They often have plenty of trees, prized by suburbanites for their foliage, functioning as key symbols of nature, and ability to define edges of properties and hide views of others.

Beyond lawns, suburbanites are often interested in parks, forest preserves, and green spaces. Theoretically, these uses limit the possibility that the green space can be turned into other uses. Even somewhat protected green space like a golf course can provoke concerns if it is turned into something else. Additionally, these spaces enhance property values of single-family homes, allow space for children to play, and can become sites of local social activity. Some of these places can offer more authentic nature (less controlled by humans) though many of these sites are carefully kept. Furthermore, even in these preserved spaces, it is difficult to truly escape the suburban noise and evidence of civilization.

Sometimes, nature can be perceived as the enemy of suburbanization. A great example is dealing with water. Flooding is a persistent issue. More housing alongside roadways and parking lots do not allow water to soak into the ground. Think the Houston area after a hurricane. In spaces with less human activity, flooding and waterways changing course do not have the devastating or annoying effects that they can in suburbia. Turning land into suburbia can have the effect of bulldozing over natural ways of dealing with water and instead trying to channel it or eliminate it around homes and other uses. This is not always successful and much money can be spent on the issue. For example, the Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago region is a massive civil engineering project born out of urban and suburban development.

Of course, the opposite can be true as well: suburbanization can be the enemy of nature. Rachel Carson’s influential work emerged by suburban settings. At the same time, nature itself can also adapt to suburbanization. The wildland-urban interface can move as creatures like coyotes, deer, baboons, and birds adapt to human activity.

While critics of suburbs may not understand why suburbanites cannot see the ugliness of sprawl, many Americans believe the suburbs offer a little more natural space in which to move and breathe.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring emerged from suburbia

Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring may have emphasized nature but according to Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in the Twentieth Century, the suburbs played an important role:

As global a vision as one might concoct, Silent Spring nevertheless had its firmest roots in suburban locales. The letter sparking Carsons’s commitment to write the book came from a woman in suburban Boston who had watched a DDT spraying decimate the birds in her own and her neighbors’ yards. Carson also drew heavily on the 1957 anti-DDT lawsuit on Long Island. Her research began with the trial transcript, and Marjorie Spock, leader of the lawsuit, then became Carson’s “chief clipping service.” The web of experts Spock had brought in to testify at the trial served as Carson’s own. They and others on whom Carson most relied lived and worked in suburbs, including Dr. Morton Biskind of Westport, Connecticut, and Wilhelm Hueper, at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Even Carson herself was, arguable, a suburbanite: though she loved her spot on the Maine coast, she spent most of the year in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the edge of Washington, D.C.

Silent Spring reached out to suburban readers in a host of ways, both subtle and overt. Ignoring cities, limiting her invocations of the urban to “a small town in the heart of America,” Carson flattered the conceit of the suburban better-off that their homes were not in any “suburbia,” that they led essentially nonurban lives. Factories also feel into the shadowy backdrop: quick-striking maladies and death among workers appeared only briefly and in passing. Dwelling at much great length on cancer and other chronic ailments, more likely to trouble a suburban readership, she studiously avoided mention of infectious diseases, whose absence suburb dwellers of this period, at least in metropolitan New York and Los Angeles tended to take for granted. On shifting from dangers to human health to threats to wildlife, Carson explicitly summoned the self-interest of the “suburbanite.” For the “suburbanite who derives pleasure from birds in his garden,” she wrote, “anything that destroys the wildlife of an area for even a single year has deprived him of a pleasure to which he has a legitimate right.” (256-257)

These two paragraphs remind me of several aspects of American suburbs:

  1. Given that more Americans lived in suburbs than cities by the early 1960s, does this simply reflect the movement of Americans in large numbers to suburbs?
  2. Could the wealth of suburbia – the ability to own a home, have a middle-class or higher lifestyle – provide more resources to pursue causes like environmentalism compared to being concerned with subsistence in other settings?
  3. From the beginning of American suburbs, they were touted as spaces close to nature. This argument was primarily made in comparison to cities which by the late 1800s were viewed as dirty and overcrowded. (Of course, the nature of suburbia has always been carefully shaped by humans rather than being untamed nature.)

More broadly, nature and the environment likely looks different from the suburbs than from urban or rural settings. If Sellers is correct in his argument about Silent Spring‘s suburban roots, perhaps it should be more widely read with the suburban context in mind.

Linking environmental degradation and McMansions

A recent op-ed discussing how to respond to the extinction of species suggested building McMansions is not the way to go:

The solution is simple: moderation. While we should feel no remorse about altering our environment, there is no need to clear-cut forests for McMansions on 15-acre plots of crabgrass-blanketed land. We should save whatever species and habitats can be easily rescued (once-endangered creatures such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons now flourish), refrain from polluting waterways, limit consumption of fossil fuels and rely more on low-impact renewable-energy sources.

This is an interesting perspective of McMansions: they all include clearing broad swaths of land for giant houses and large lawns. If they all had 15 acres, these would be some pretty expensive McMansions. Indeed, I’m guessing these would be far out of the reach of the typical McMansion buyer (or builder) and this is territory for the true mansions.

At the same time, it hints at one of the key critiques of McMansions: they are an unnecessary use of resources. Because of their large size, they often require sizable plots of land to add the yard that is often required for American single-family home life. This does not even include how the resources to build the McMansion were procured. McMansion critics would often rather to build denser housing on smaller lots with more sustainable materials rather than carve out a large domain for one home in a large house.

Presumably, there is some middle ground between 15 acre McMansions and more acceptable McMansions. What if they did have much smaller lots? (This then often leads to complaints that they are too big for their lot.) What if they could be made with sustainable materials? What if they could be net-zero energy homes? What if they were built in denser areas where driving was not as necessary? (This can lead to concerns that they do not fit the character of denser neighborhoods.) There are some possibilities here that might render the McMansion more environmentally friendly.

Perceptions of extreme weather affected by social context

A new study in Environmental Sociology finds that people view extreme weather differently depending on their context:

“Odds were higher among younger, female, more educated, and Democratic respondents to perceive effects from extreme weather than older, male, less educated, and Republican respondents,” said the study’s author, Matthew Cutler of the University of New Hampshire.

There were other correlations, too. For example, people with lower incomes had higher perceptions of extreme weather than people who earned more. Those who live in more vulnerable areas, as might be expected, interpret the effects of weather differently when the costs to their homes and communities are highest.

Causes of extreme weather and the frequency of extreme weather events is an under-explored area from a sociological perspective. Better understanding is important to building more resilient and adaptive communities. After all, why prepare or take safety precautions if you believe the weather isn’t going to be all that bad or occur all that often?…

“The patterns found in this research provide evidence that individuals experience extreme weather in the context of their social circumstances and thus perceive the impacts of extreme weather through the lens of cultural and social influences. In other words, it is not simply a matter of seeing to believe, but rather an emergent process of both seeing and believing — individuals experiencing extreme weather and interpreting the impacts against the backdrop of social and economic circumstances central to and surrounding their lives,” Cutler concludes.

Context matters! (Many sociology studies could be summed up this way.) Weather may have some objective features – it can be measured, quantified, examined, and predicted (to a small degree). Yet we all experience slightly differently based on what shapes us. While it sounds like this study focuses more on demographic factors, I wonder if there would also be big differences based on general attitudes about nature: is it something that is bigger than humans/has a life of its own vs. it is something that humans can control or not be affected by because of our increasing knowledge? Plus, humans are often not the best at detecting patterns; we perceive things to be related when they are not or vice versa.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many people can make small talk about the weather. It isn’t just that it affects us; rather, we all view it in slightly different ways. One person’s big storm that requires changing their behavior might be just an inconvenience to someone else.