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:

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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.

McMansions, SUVs, and megachurches

I recently reviewed the book The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry by sociologists Mark Mulder and Gerardo Martí. As the authors describe Schuller’s emphasis on growth, they include this line on page four:

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As I studied the use of the term McMansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I found people regularly linked McMansions to SUVs. As the cited passage above suggests, McMansions and SUVs came about at the same time. Perhaps some would go even further and say McMansion owners are likely to be SUV owners or the two consumer goods are likely to be found in the same communities or kinds of places. And, like the passage above, the comparisons could go further than SUVs to include large food items.

Rarely have I seen the growth of McMansions and the growth of single-family homes in the United States connected to megachurches. A similar argument could be made: in a period of growth as Americans liked to consume bigger items in bigger settings with providers happy to produce larger goods, McMansions and megachurches came about or became widely recognized at roughly the same time (McMansions built in the closing decades of the 1900s and as a term widely used by the early 2000s; megachurch as a phenomenon known by the 1980s). As everything grew and appetites expanded, so did churches. And maybe megachurches were likely to spring up in or near McMansion filled suburban communities flush with money, family life, and access to highways.

At least in this study, Robert Schuller was enamored with growth decades before McMansions became a thing. Mulder and Martí suggest Schuller pushed for growth in order to encourage more growth; previous accomplishments became evidence for pursuing and fulfilling future accomplishments (until it could no longer hold together). Yet, Schuller was well-positioned in a booming suburban area: he arrived in Orange County in the 1950s and capitalized on the growing population and appetite for large churches in a way that few other religious leaders could match.

Now, linking these multiple phenomena together would take some more work. Were Orange County McMansion owners more likely to attend a megachurch? Is this a pattern throughout the United States? Did an ideology of growth pervade many sectors at the same time and mutually reinforce each other or explicitly intersect at points?

Attaching McMansions to baby boomers

Are McMansions a a defining feature of baby boomers?

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This year has highlighted America’s generation gaps, especially between the two largest generations. Both have been stereotyped as being self-absorbed — millennials as selfie-obsessed avocado toast addicts, boomers for their oversized “mcmansions” and self-indulgence. And both are feeling pandemic pain, though in different ways.

The piece does acknowledge that this is a stereotype. Yet, some of the stereotypical pieces do go together:

  1. The term “McMansion” arose in the late 1990s and the homes have been in the United States at least two decades. The baby boomers were adults with careers and money when McMansions became a thing. Baby boomers also came of age in the era of consumerism and “greed is good.” They had the money and resources to buy the new big houses. This argument has been made before.
  2. McMansions are known for their tackiness and quest to impress; baby boomers are also stereotyped for their indulgent behavior.
  3. Commentators have suggested baby boomers will have difficulty selling their McMansions. Additionally, baby boomers will try to pass their homes to their children.
  4. If McMansions are often viewed negatively, perhaps it is easier or convenient to attach them to a group – here a generational cohort – that receives its own share of criticism. If McMansions are bad, it can be handy to blame someone for them.

Whether McMansions get passed along to millennials and future generations remains to be seen. But, based on what I have seen, there is a good chance that baby boomers and McMansions may be tied together for decades.

Linking storage facilities and McMansions

One billionaire made money on storage facilities and now he hope to profit from McMansions:

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In the depths of the last housing crisis, self-storage billionaire B. Wayne Hughes flew to Las Vegas and Phoenix to lay the groundwork for a new bet. His plan: Buy foreclosed homes, spruce them up and rent them out. He tested his ideas on three houses in each market and then dispatched deputies to buy tends of thousands more across the U.S.

Nine years later the land grab is paying off…

And the rest is behind the paywall. But, the possible connection between these two investments is intriguing:

  1. Both self-storage units and McMansions are relatively recent phenomenon in terms of their scale and regular use.
  2. Americans have a lot of stuff. One answer to having a lot of stuff is to put things in storage. Another solution is to buy a bigger house to put everything in.
  3. Both have architectural quirks. As a kid, I remember more single-story, sprawling self-storage facilities. Now, I see more two to three story buildings – I can think of at least three within 10 miles of my house in built-up suburbia – that look a bit nicer (though are still boxy).
  4. With their architectural quirks, are both of these kinds of structures naked ploys for making money? The McMansion tries to impress and offer as much space as possible for a reasonable price. The self-storage unit facility maximizes the number of storage units and space that can be rented.

Providing a fully designed and furnished home

The CEO of Restoration Hardware recently discussed providing customers with homes that are completely designed and furnished:

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I would ask everybody in this call, if you get a second tonight, go on Zillow, go on Redfin, go on, pick your website for real estate. Go look at 100 homes tonight in a price range that you think we might play at. And tell me how many have great architecture, tell me how many have great interior design and how many have great landscape architecture. If it’s 1% — if it’s more than 1%, like you must live in a really great area. But even in the great areas, it’s so low. How many friends’ houses do you go to that you say, “Wow, this is beautiful architecture. This is great interior design. This is great landscape architecture”? Almost never. Almost never. It’s like a completed — completely uncharted world.

When you really look at the big homebuilders, they’re kind of stamping out some — it’s not a McMansion anymore. Call it whatever you want. But it’s a stamp out, right? And it’s a nice organized development, but there’s no one providing completely turnkey homes. Like Eri says to me a lot, like they don’t sell you a car without an interior. You don’t go buy a beautiful Mercedes or whatever brand you like, and it comes without an interior and you got to figure it out yourself.

I don’t know how many people on this phone have tried to do their own interior design or furnished their house. It’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for me, and I do it for a living. I have a house in the Napa Valley that I finished remodeling like 3.5 years ago. It’s not furnished yet. It’s that hard. It’s a pain in the ass. And so we know how hard it is. We know we’re good at it….

And I sit here and I go, well, why can’t we — we’re really good at architecture, really good at interior design, really good at landscape architecture. I know we can design and build things and furnishing that people will like. And I think there’s — if you think about people with money, okay, and you think about just what’s the most valuable asset, time, right? By far, the most valuable asset. Everybody on this phone can figure out — if you lose your money, you can figure out how to make more money. If you lose your time, you just can’t get it back, right? So we think a lot about businesses that deliver time value will become more valuable.

Four things stand out to me here:

  1. It is interesting to consider this in light of the increasing emphasis on staging properties. With staging, the design is more temporary but it gives potential buyers a vision for what the property could be. The option discussed above is more long-term.
  2. Generally, Americans act as though homes should be empty boxes filled in by owners to fit their tastes. When people buy homes, they customize them (within the confines of what is possible with the home) to what they desire and what they can afford. What if it could also work the other way around: a fully designed home shapes the owner as they come to grow into it?
  3. This highlights the mass produced nature of many American homes, whether they are McMansions are not. Particularly after World War Two, larger homebuilders started constructing more homes and buyers purchased them more like factory items. Straddling this gap from mass produced home to more customized home is not easy.
  4. I think he is right that there is a market for such homes. Yet, I imagine the market is fairly small given the price that would be involved. It is one thing to stage a home and then take those items back out; it is another to have a fully immersive design process and keep everything. For a business, I wonder what is the lower price point of homes that this makes sense for businesses (particularly if this is meant of more of a luxury product that is supposed to remain exclusive).

 

The McMansions and their wealthy owners who do not need house numbers

As one writer walked every street of zip code of 22207 to look at house numbers, they noticed something about some of the larger homes:

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Some exorbitant McMansions featured no address numbers at all, only very pointed security-company signs. (The cars parked at those homes often sport diplomatic plates.) Many of the richest houses in Arlington—for example, the mansions overlooking the Potomac near Chain Bridge—were not visible from the street at all, and so the only address numbers ascertainable were on mailboxes or security gates at the foot of long, winding driveways.

One of the purposes of McMansions, particularly according to critics, is to broadcast the status and money of the owners. Through the garish architecture and an imposing facade, McMansion owners show what they have.

So, if a homeowner does not have a street address visible, does this mean their home is not a McMansion? Perhaps the home still shows off even if it more difficult to connect the home to its particular owners.

The story might be a little different here. Might these be less of McMansion owners – those who want to project their success – and more of people with real money and status who want to stay quiet about their success? One of the advantages of being elite and/or having resources in insulating yourself from the public. This may be why it is harder for sociologists, journalists, and others to get access to the elite as they can better control access to themselves. Not having easily visible house numbers is just a start.

Coming back to the McMansion status of such homes. I wonder if this could turn into a minor addendum to defining McMansions: how does the visibility of the home to the street affect whether it is a McMansion? Let’s say the McMansion is shielded from the road by trees and a gate; does this render the home less offensive since it is not broadcasting its architecture so much?

Recent market interest in large homes

With COVID-19, large homes have been moving on the real estate market:

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Preferences vary by price range and region, but buyers in every market are eyeing extra space. “I would say [buyers are looking at] a 20% to 30% increase in size, whether in the number of bedrooms or square footage,” said Stephanie Anton, who was until recently the president Luxury Portfolio International. [She was interviewed for this story before she announced on June 23 she was leaving her post]. “It’s a jump-up a category or two across the board.”

Versions of this trend are playing out in markets all over the U.S., making it an opportune moment for sellers looking to unload extra acreage, and a time for interested buyers to move quickly…

Whatever the terminology, extra-large properties that might have languished on the market in recent years are seeing a sudden spike in interest, while owners who had previously considered downsizing are suddenly deciding to stay put…

Now that buyers are looking at the long haul of multiple generations working, studying, exercising, and living under one roof, demands for space have expanded accordingly.

On one hand, this is not surprising. This lines up with numerous other media reports that people are searching out suburban properties in which they can spread out inside and outside.

On the other hand, there are several interesting features of these patterns:

  1. The article notes that buyers of these large properties are not interested in McMansions or homes that might be considered McMansions. The negative nature of the term is clearly known. Yet, are these recently hot properties McMansions? I would guess at least a few might be. And once COVID-19 passes, will the appearance of these purchased properties become an issue?
  2. The multiple articles I have read on this trend provide few numbers. There is confirmation from local real estate experts in multiple markets but no hard numbers of how many people are purchasing large suburban houses. At the least, there are not a whole lot of people who can do this, particularly in more expensive markets. Moving from Manhattan to an outer suburb will get you a bigger property but not as much as moving out to a cheaper region.

Connecting urban planning and coping with COVID-19

McMansions might provide a lot of space for sheltering in space but an urban planner in Australia says neighborhoods of McMansions did not do as well during COVID-19:

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McMansion-dwellers in suburbs far from jobs and services and uninviting to pedestrians fared badly during shutdowns, says a prominent Perth urban planner; meanwhile, residents in self-sufficient neighbourhoods with compact homes were much better equipped…

“Those in low-density neighbourhoods find it easier to stay at home, but they are forced to leave regularly in their cars for essential services and goods,” he said…

“For just $80,000, a home owner can build a 40-square-metre micro-workspace or granny flat that could assist a business to start up, or house essential workers – nurses, teachers or police – who often cannot afford to live in a McMansion,” he said…

Communities needed well-connected, shaded, pedestrian-friendly streets, front porches facilitating casual social exchanges while allowing social distancing, and walkable town centres with offices, restaurants, beach facilities and apartments.

It is interesting to compare this assessment to discussions in the United States. In places like New York City and San Francisco, journalists have reported on the move of wealthier residents away from density and to the suburbs. In these narratives, suburban homes and communities provide larger residences and more distance from others.

Yet, in the argument above, it sounds like the urban planner is arguing for New Urbanist-style suburbs as the middle ground: walkable places that offer some density and local community are better for dealing with COVID-19 that either really dense places or isolated suburban communities.

This might depend on what the highest priority is during COVID-19. If the goal is avoiding other people, public places, and mass transit all together so as not to catch the coronavirus, then neighborhoods of suburban McMansions could make sense. People today can have all sorts of goods delivered. And if suburban life is about moral minimalism, McMansions allow everyone lots of space. If the goal is to balance interacting with people and society alongside practicing social distancing, traditionally-designed suburbs could make more sense. Isolation takes a toll on people, COVID-19 or not.

Arguments like the one above are common among some urban planners, architects, and urbanists: neighborhoods full of suburban tract homes do not provide for community life and social interaction, depend on cars and limit opportunities for other forms of transportation, and waste resources. Whether COVID-19 helps advance this perspective remains to be seen.

 

Of the urban residents fleeing for suburbs, how many of them are living in dreaded McMansions?

McMansions have attracted the criticism of many (examples here and here). However, what if some of the wealthy urban dwellers fleeing COVID-19 hotspots end up in a suburban McMansion?

Wealthy New Yorkers, who once looked down on anyone quitting the vibrant city for a McMansion and manicured lawn, are doing exactly that.

Egads! The horror! Even worse, what if those urbanites in suburban McMansions decide to stay for a while and come to enjoy parts of their new suburban lives?

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It is easy here to connect the critiques of McMansions to the broader concerns about suburbs expressed by numerous critics since the early twentieth century. McMansions have multiple issues of their own but suburbs are connected to conformity, ticky-tacky houses, provincialness, middle-class lifestyles, unnecessary consumption, and more. For some urbanites, the suburbs represent the opposite of dynamic, diverse, cosmopolitan, and engaging cities or urban neighborhoods.

Another way to think about this is to consider how much of city life city-dwellers pre-COVID-19 might bring to suburbs. Are the suburbs such a totalizing place that any vestiges of life in New York City disappear? And vice versa: if these residents end up back in New York City, will they bring suburban expectations and values to the city? How many McMansions are there in s the numerous single-family home neighborhoods in many American cities?

The same writer thinks the move to the suburbs is relatively short-lived as the city has many advantages:

The old trade-offs involved in moving to the exurbs or suburbs aren’t going to disappear overnight. France’s Gilets Jaunes stormed Paris precisely to protest the decaying quality of life outside cities. The typical U.S. city resident lives near almost three times as many jobs as a typical suburbanite, according to the Brookings Institution. Those jobs pay better, too, with average wages per worker in urban areas some 46% higher than lower-density suburbs. So it’s likely that making the move will mean trading subway rides for car commutes. And when journeys get longer, there’s generally less inclination to travel to enjoy the fun stuff — the so-called “friction of distance.”

And make no mistake, the fun stuff will be around as long as cities can keep attracting people, money and ideas. In the 1980s and 1990s, metropolises like London and New York reversed decades of decline by focusing on services such as finance and leisure rather than factories. While it’s true that excessive property speculation turned them into playgrounds for the rich, threatening their draw as diverse and creative melting pots, things could change for the better. The next reinvention, according to urbanism expert Laurent Chalard, will be about making cities less dense and more livable: More cycling, fewer cars, bigger homes. Outside the city, life may end up less green and less convenient.

Given the long-term preferences many Americans have for suburban life, this may continue to be a hard sell.

The most McMansiony residence on Modern Family

Adding to earlier posts on the details of the three primary residences on Modern Family and the way the show was successful even with three McMansions, this post considers which home is the most McMansiony.

https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/house-tours/a23472261/abc-modern-family-house-design/

To make this decision, I am working with the four traits of McMansions I developed: size, relative size, poor architecture/design, and a symbol for other American problems.

The Pritchett House: this is the biggest home at over 6,000 square feet. The relative size is hard to judge since the neighboring homes are almost never seen (I cannot recall seeing them). The home is built in a modern style with big windows and some strange angles. There is a good-sized pool in the backyard. With its size and design, the home could definitely be considered for the wealthy and Jay Pritchett is a successful business owner.

The Pritchett=Tucker home is in a more Mediterranean style (title roof, stucco, balcony, some arched windows and an arched doorway). There is a round turret in the middle with the doorway. Cam and Mitchell have the least space (since they only occupy the first floor on the show). Again, we do not have much of a sense of the surrounding neighborhood since other homes are rarely shown. This is easy to select as the least McMansiony home, at least as presented on the show as a oe story dwelling.

The Dunphy home is nearly 3,000 square feet and built to look like a traditional home with its white picket fence, covered entryway, and front entrance that leads to a hallway as well as a staircase to the bedrooms upstairs. The home seems to fit in of what we see of the neighborhood; we see more of the Dunphy neighborhood than any of the other homes. Phil and Claire are portrayed as typical parents who with three kids are just trying to help their kids be successful and keep their sanity at the same time.

Based on my definition and what we see on the show, I think the home of Jay and Gloria Pritchett best fits the bill of a McMansion. It is large. All that space for a family of four. (When the whole family gathers there, it looks like they all fit easily.) It is the most expensive of the homes. It has newer features plus a pool. The architecture is unique though not necessarily garish – this could depend on one’s view of more modernist homes. As the patriarch with his second family, Jay clearly has plenty of resources (and there are other hints of this on the show as well).

Perhaps a more interesting question is whether the Dunphy home is really a McMansion. It is a larger than average home. It costs quite a bit, though this is due more to its metropolitan market and its location. The home does not look garish on the outside; the proportions may be off, the entryway covering is large, and there are multiple gables but it does not scream ostentatious. Furthermore, the show does not portray the family as evil or overly-wealthy McMansion owners; they are a typical sitcom family. Given all of this, I am on the fence about calling this home a McMansion even as a majority of Americans could not live in such a home in that real estate market.