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.

Recent market interest in large homes

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

purple flowers and white concrete building

Photo by Lina Kivaka on Pexels.com

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.

The factors leading to the states with the largest homes

New American single-family homes are the largest in the world. Here is how they rank in size by state, starting with the largest:

Utah has the highest average home size in the United States, at 2,305 square feet. Utah also boasts a whopping median of four bedrooms for the typical real estate listing. Despite the impressive average home size, the median home price in the state is a reasonable $219,900…

Near the top of the crop, Colorado has an average house size of 2,126 square feet, among the largest in the nation. From 1910 to 2020, the size of the average home in Colorado grew 67 percent. Several factors have contributed to the trend toward bigger homes across the nation, the foremost of which may be 20th century government policies that fueled the growth of suburbs…

The average home size in Wyoming is 2,052 square feet, the third largest average in the nation. The ample home sizes may well have something to do with the fact that Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, which gives people plenty of room to spread out. As in most states, however, the median number of bedrooms is three…

The median size for homes within Bozeman city limits is about 1,790 square feet, just a bit over the national average, and a typical home includes three bedrooms and 2.5 baths. The statewide average, however, is much larger, reaching 2,040 square feet, which means Montana comes in fourth in home size among U.S. states. The median price for a Montana home is around $250,000.

Based on the rankings here and the states at the top, here are factors that likely influence home size across states:

1. The era of development. States in the West and Sunbelt have more recent development compared to the Northeast and Midwest.

2. Prices in local housing markets. People can build and buy bigger homes when prices are lower.

3. The size of land allows for bigger houses. Places with more open land for development have an edge compared to regions and communities that are already built up.

4. A local ethos that emphasizes home and lot size as opposed to other desirable traits (living in a denser neighborhood, access to mass transit and other amenities, etc.). This could come through buying preferences and local regulations.

Not surprisingly, Hawaii has the smallest homes. But, there are a bunch of states in the middle. Additionally, as is noted in the description for each state, the average home size can vary widely between contexts within states.

Designing homes to be “everything all at once” for times when everyone is home all the time

Americans generally like private single-family homes but are the homes Americans have now designed well for confinement and sheltering in place?

Homes, whatever their size or their layout, are constructed to be part of an ecosystem. They make assumptions about the way their eventual residents will interact with the affordances, and the economies, of the outside world. They assume, generally speaking, that people will commute to work (hence, in suburbs and rural areas, the abundance of driveways and garages). They assume that people will live much of their life outside the home. And they assume that the home’s residents will, as a consequence, have access to goods produced elsewhere: groceries, games, cleaning supplies. (American refrigerators are the size they are because their designers made informed bets about how often their owners would visit a grocery store.)

Apartments in cities make similar assumptions, but in reverse: They assume that the city itself is a meaningful extension of whatever square footage a dwelling might offer. They treat the home as what it often will be, for the resident: one place among many in the rhythms of a day…

Neither scenario accounts for what many Americans are experiencing right now: home as the only place. Home as the everything. The confinement can pose, for some, a direct danger. Jacoba Urist, writing about the “tiny apartment” trend in 2013, noted that large amounts of time spent in enclosed spaces, particularly if those spaces have several occupants, can be a source of stress—especially for kids. A child-protective-services worker recently sent ProPublica a list of worries she has about the people in her care: “that my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.” Gwyn Kaitis, the policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted in the same piece that “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.”…

“In general, it’s wonderful,” Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”

There is a lot to think through here. A few thoughts on what this might mean for homes in the future:

  1. I have seen the suggestion from a few places that more Americans will seek out homes in the future that have dedicated office spaces at home. Without a room that can be closed off and relatively quiet, it can be hard to work from home when everyone else is also home.
  2. Will this push more Americans to seek out more square footage in their dwellings? The argument can go like this: you never know when you might need that extra space (such as during a pandemic). An extra room or two could be converted to office space or classroom space or food/toilet paper storage when residents need to stock up. Additionally, does this experience limit how many people will be willing to bet on a tiny house?
  3. A push toward further integration of technology into houses. If people are working from home and spending all of their time there, imagine dwellings with screens and speakers in every space, effective wi-fi everywhere, and both ample space for sitting and standing (with the need to stand and work to vary it up and move around). Carrying a laptop, a tablet, or a phone around to every interior space may not cut it.
  4. Earlier evidence suggested people congregate around the kitchen while other parts of the house go relatively unused. The kitchen might still be a gathering space but perhaps more attention and innovation will come to other spaces that in earlier times would be relatively ignored. When a bedroom has to serve more purposes, perhaps this means there will be different furniture or amenities there.

Researching the downsizing claim: “every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did”

A recent book looks at downsizing and the author says everyone who does it is pleased with the outcome:

“It scares people to think of moving into a smaller space, but every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did,” Koones says. “Time and again, people used the word ‘liberated’ to describe their move to a smaller space, with homes requiring far less time and money to maintain.”

Who are the people downsizing?

“It’s not just empty nesters anymore,” she adds. “Younger people too are in couples where they’re both working, they’re having children later, they want to be active and they don’t want to be doing maintenance on the weekends. They don’t want to be tied down to mowing lawns and doing all the other chores that come with living in a big house.”

Living more sustainably and saving on energy costs is also part of the attraction of downsizing, Koones says.

So is aging in place. There are people of all ages looking for features like a master bedroom on the main floor, or barrier-free showers.

I would be interested to see academic studies of this shift as it could help answer some questions regarding downsizing and the choices people make regarding homes. Here are some of the questions:

1. How widespread is downsizing? My guess is that it is a pretty small movement. In a related question, how do individual decisions to downsize work at a broader level? These choices could influence families, neighborhoods, communities, builders, and others.

2. How much do the people who are downsizing share in common? There are multiple possible reasons for downsizing – economic reasons (including saving on energy costs), wanting less space to maintain, environmental imperatives, prizing location over a home – and it would be interesting to look at more prevalent factors. A similar question: what drives people to downsize (when Americans as a whole are pushed toward larger homes)? Or, is there a particular cultural ethos about downsizing that can be persuasive for some and not others?

3. What are satisfaction rates after downsizing? Are downsizers 100% satisfied or somewhat satisfied and what downsides do they report? Do they stay in smaller homes for the long-term?

4. How exactly should we define downsizing? It looks like this book primarily focuses on single-family homes. Others might see a move away from a single-family home and its property to an apartment, condo, or townhome as downsizing or accomplishing some of the same goals even if the difference in square feet is not that much. Is choosing to live in a multigenerational home a form of downsizing if households are combined and there is reduction of square feet per person? An involuntary move to a care facility might be technically downsizing but it does not carry the same agency.

Gendered McMansions, Part 1: big and flashy homes

A review of a new TV show involving the lives of competitive high school cheerleaders includes a brief discussion of the problems of McMansions:

Colette drills her squad into greatness and rewards them with parties at her home where the alcohol flows freely.  But to Addy, the girl so unlike anyone else in that dinky little town, she lets slip that the suburban fantasy about the baby and the big McMansion is there to lure unsuspecting young girls into a compromised existence.

Relatively little scholarly work examines the gendered nature of McMansions. Do these large homes represent something different to women and men or provide different living experiences for men and women?

Start with the base trait of a McMansion: it is a large home, roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet and above average in size compared to the average new American home. Americans often connect size to males who can have a commandeering or larger physical presence. Purchasing and living in a bigger home is an extension of this: the larger home asserts the domain of the owner in square feet. Perhaps like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages where the size of the structure was intended to produce awe, the McMansion helps others recognize the size of the owner.

Additionally, the physical size of the home also broadcasts success. A single-family home is a key means by which the owners can show others who they are. Like other consumer goods, we assume what we purchase and own says something about us. Bigger often means more resources or money were necessary.

Take as an example the McMansion on The Sopranos. The large home in an upscale New Jersey neighborhood shows off both the space Tony Soprano takes up as well as his position and status. He is not a small guy; he is a leader and this comes out in his physical presence, particularly in anger and violence. His large home sits on top of a small hill, putting those who come to the house having to drive up to Soprano family. (The FBI agents after Tony have to come up to him. This also has interesting implications for McMansions that sit downhill or below the plain of other McMansions; are they less imposing and impressive?) Furthermore, the size of the home suggests he has a successful career and he can provide for his family. Even though Tony is not particularly happy with the life he leads, he never considers selling this home: it is a marker of what he has accomplished and it provides advantages for his family.

The architecture of McMansions can add to this garish or imposing presence. With numerous architectural features, possibly including turrets and other symbols of castles, the McMansions aims to overwhelm. The stereotypical McMansion does not meekly sit on its land or complement the landscape; it asserts itself through its busy facade and large features.

In contrast to males and Tony Soprano, females are often asked to project a different presence in social life: quieter, more in the background, not so assertive. In The Sopranos, Carmela goes about her home differently than Tony with more attention to the care of her family and guests (more on this tomorrow). Does this suggest women prefer smaller homes and men larger homes? Are more men driving the purchases of McMansions? Perhaps someone has data on this (I would guess Toll Brothers has an idea).

The suburban McMansion is masculine in size and presentation. Tomorrow, I’ll consider the interior spaces of McMansions and gender.

Move to the big city to live in a capsule

Difficulty in finding cheaper housing means Americans moving to a big city might consider living in a capsule:

Each room contains up to six capsules, which Wilson describes as “cozy.” They contain a single bed, a bar for hanging clothes, a few compartments for storing shoes and other items and an air vent.

By most standards, the accommodation is still not cheap — $750 per month plus taxes. That works out at around $800, which is slightly more than the 26-year-old was paying in Bethlehem, around 70 miles outside Philadelphia…

Cheaper options exist, but UP(st)ART offers a good, central location and modern buildings equipped with a gym, dance classes, recording studio, art workshop and free cleaning and laundry services…

Still, the capsule-living concept is also catching on in other expensive US cities including New York.

The key redeeming feature to these capsule in Los Angeles appears to be that it is located within an artistic community. Capsule inhabitants may not get much in terms of space but they are plugged into a set of like-minded people and have attached facilities they can use.

On the other side, imagine capsules with no community. Would people be willing to rent/occupy those and at what price point? Would it be worth it to have a roughly 31 square foot area for $800 a month in Manhattan? Would the price drop significantly if the capsule was in one of the other boroughs of New York? Or, imagine capsule for people who are not so free to simply pick up and move. Where would you go if you had a spouse? A child?

Both of these could be true:

  1. There is a needed for cheaper housing in many American cities so that young people can get their feet on the ground and start down a path toward adult success.
  2. There might be relatively cheap housing available in many locations, either in smaller cities or neighborhoods beyond the most attractive ones in cities. But, a good number of young adults want to go to the most exciting places such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, neighborhoods with lots of millennials such as in Chicago, etc..

What a McMansion looks like to an insurer

I find McMansions to be fascinating but rarely have I thought how an insurer might view a Large Tract Home (LTH):

While they might look grand, LTHs are different from high value homes in a few key ways. Their location and design is similar across an entire subdivision, the construction materials are lower in quality, LTH construction practices are focused on efficiency, and other LTH construction costs are more predictable and less expensive. Despite those differences, insurers can run into problems when assessing the reconstruction bill for an LTH.

“A lot of times, the sheer size of them [means] a lot of carriers classify them with a much higher reconstruction cost when it comes time to rebuild,” said Benjamin Abbott, product manager for CoreLogic Insurance Solutions group, adding that the latest RCT Express release “allows carriers to visually see whether a home is classified as a large tract home or not. And if it is, then we turn down the reconstruction costs a little bit with our assumptions and allow the tool to more accurately price [the property].”

The valuation distinctions between McMansions and high value properties becomes important as natural catastrophes bear down on many parts of the US, at the same time as a lot of new homes are being built in the LTH model…

“It’s important for the insurance carriers to accurately value the reconstruction costs of any property they have because their client, the homeowner, is going to see the impact of that reconstruction cost directly in the premiums that they pay,” Abbott told Insurance Business. “Prior to this update and with other tools out there, they are potentially over-insuring, meaning that premiums may be inflated, which hurts the homeowners directly.”

Interesting assessment: the size of McMansions would lead to a higher reconstruction cost until the insurer considers the quality of the construction and the reconstruction cost drops. I assume this then means it could be cheaper to insure a McMansion than a different kind of home of a similar size?

More broadly, I wonder if insurance companies could provide data on McMansions:

  1. Just how many McMansions/Large Tract Homes are there in the United States?
  2. What is the worth of all such homes?
  3. How many and/or what percent of McMansions are located in areas more prone to natural catastrophes (such as coastal areas where beachfront McMansions can be popular)?
  4. Because of the lower-quality construction of McMansions (as noted above), do McMansions have an above average number of claims on the home insurance over time? The lower-quality construction claim is a common one but we have not necessarily had enough years pass before we can easily see more issues with the longevity of McMansions.

At least 12 reasons Americans have the biggest houses in the world

Why do Americans have the largest houses in the world? A lengthy list of reasons:

  1. Americans like private homes. This often means they desire detached single-family homes in the suburbs. So why not have a lot of private space? Similarly, Americans place a lower priority on pleasant public spaces or spending time in public.
  2. The trend toward larger homes really took off in the postwar suburban era. At the time, this could be linked to growing family size with the Baby Boomer generation. (Interestingly, as household sizes decreased in recent years, homes continued to get bigger.)
  3. Americans like to consume. With relatively large amounts of disposable income, Americans need space to store their stuff, ranging from clothes to media to new technological devices to cars. The answer is not to get rid of stuff but rather to have a big house to store bulk goods. Garages are important parts of homes since driving is so important.
  4. Americans have increasingly viewed housing as an investment rather than just a place to live and enjoy. If the goal is to get a big financial windfall later in selling the home, it could pay off now to buy as much as possible.
  5. Compared to some countries, Americans have a lot of land to build and sprawl. Americans have also made different land use decisions to prioritize lower densities and sprawl.
  6. There are regional differences regarding large homes. McMansions are everywhere in the United States but more culturally acceptable in Dallas than in New York City. Many metropolitan regions have housing prices that make having a big house possible (compared to New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle).
  7. Developers and builders are less interested in constructing starter houses as there are more profits in bigger homes.
  8. A number of communities will only allow homes of a certain size in order to maintain their character and status.
  9. The government has provided funding and support for mortgages, suburbanization, and driving over the last century.
  10. Americans have a bigger is better mentality as well as believe that growth is good. This applies to population growth and also applies to houses.
  11. McMansions are popular with some but America has plenty of large homes that would not qualify as McMansions. From large urban condos and homes to large rural properties, Americans can find plenty of big homes to purchase.
  12. The space in homes does not have to be used to be desirable. For some owners, the space itself is just worth having.

(This post was inspired by this recent article. Also, see this earlier post “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”)

Counterarguments to the claim that people should not waste money on a big house

Economist Robert Shiller argues Americans do not need large houses:

“Big houses are a waste. People are still in a mode of thinking about houses that is kind of 19th century. As we modernize, we don’t need all this space,” Shiller told the Journal…

Shiller said advanced technology has replaced the need for extra space in our homes.

“For example, we don’t need elaborate kitchens, because we have all kinds of delivery services for food. And maybe you don’t need a workshop in your basement, either. You used to have a filing cabinet for your tax information, but now it’s all electronic, so you don’t need that, either. And bookshelves, for people who read a lot. We have electronic books now, so we don’t need bookshelves anymore,” Shiller said.

“Having a big house is a symbol of success, and people want to look successful. People have to know about your achievements. How do you know, really? Who knows what people are doing in their day job? But you do see their house.”

The counterargument for a typical owner of a large house might look like this:

1. What else could be such a worthwhile investment over time? Many people assume their home will appreciate in value and a big home purchased today means not only more space but more money down the road when the home sells.

2. Private space is still important. The kitchen may not be just about cooking. Of the spaces Americans do use in their homes, the kitchen is one. Or the idea of a workshop: there can be public spaces where people could come together to share tools and use common space but how many Americans are ready for that?

3. Shiller may overestimate the rate at which people are willing to get rid of stuff in favor of electronic copies or technology-aided alternatives. Shiller cites paper and books above. But, Americans simply consume a lot, ranging from video games to decor to furniture to electronic gadgets. Don’t they need bigger houses to fit all their stuff?

4. Status symbols matter in American society. A home is a very tangible expression of status, particularly compared to smaller items like watches, smartphones, jewelry, clothing, and other items.

All of these reasons may not be the most efficient or rational but they are a product of decades of social and cultural action and values. For more reading, see an earlier post: “Explaining Why Americans Desire Larger Homes.”