The American Dream: Downsized
For many, the “American dream” involves receiving an education, locating a dream job, finding a partner, and purchasing a large home. Tim and Shannon of Rochester, New York, thought they had it all when they finally settled down into their eight-room house. They both had graduate degrees and jobs that they loved. They had found each other during college and now with the purchase of their home they were finally ready to begin living. Or were they?
Tim and Shannon quickly realized that their dream home might be more of a nightmare. Frustrations began to grow as they realized that their huge house came with a huge mortgage. This huge mortgage coupled with student loans from four college degrees meant that they couldn’t live life the way they wanted: no traveling, no paying down debt, and no high-end modifications to their home. They became annoyed with all the cleaning and maintenance that went into their big house and quickly realized that half the rooms in their home were barely ever used. Tim and Shannon weren’t happy and they decided to do something about it.
The solution to this young couple’s problem was to downsize. By building a smaller home, Tim and Shannon were able to reduce their mortgage size and pay off their loans quicker. They used the extra money to invest into high-end designs for their new home and to pursue their love for travel. Tim and Shannon were also able to cut back on the amount of time they spent cleaning and maintaining their home. When asked about their choice to downsize, this couple’s response was, “We’re fully confident that this was the best decision of our lives and wouldn’t change it for anything [!]” (Montgomery, 2014).
The Problem with Large Homes:
Since the 1950s, the United States has seen a huge increase in the average size of single-family home construction while the number of occupants per home has decreased. This use of natural resources, in construction as well as operation, is unsustainable and needs to be reversed.
Single-family house size has been steadily increasing since the 1950’s and continues to grow. In 1998, 1.62 million new houses were built in the United States and 1.28 million of those homes were single detached dwellings while only 0.34 million were multifamily units (NAHB 1999; Keoleian, Blanchard, & Reppe, 2001, pg 136). Single-family homes have not only grown in popularity but also continue to increase in size. Keoleian et al. (2001) states that “trends in the average home size in the United States are not pointing toward a sustainable housing future” (pg 154). The average new American home in the 1940’s was about 800 ft2. By 1970 the average house size was up to 1,500 ft2. In 2000 home size increased further to an average of 2,266 ft2 and in 2010 the average house size was 2,392 ft2 (Wheeler, 2012, pg 58). However, this growth has been linked with decreased household family size from 3.67 members in 1940 to 2.62 in 2002 (Wilson & Boehland et al. 2005, pg 278). With the continued increase in the United States population, more space and resources will be needed to build homes for the future. The increasing trend in average single-family home size in the United States can be observed in Figure 1 (Wilson & Boehland, 2005, pg 278-279).
This increase in house size has been coupled with an increase in resource use and greenhouse gas emissions, specifically carbon dioxide. Human-induced emissions are widely accepted as the primary contributor to climate change because greenhouse gas emissions increased 70% since 1970 (UNEP, 2009, pg 2). Scientific evidence proves that climate change is responsible for rising sea levels, increased severe weather events, food shortages, the spread of disease, water shortages, and loss of tropical forests (UNEP, 2009). Energy use is at the heart of the climate change challenge and buildings contribute as much as one third of total greenhouse gas emissions (UNEP, 2009, pg 2). The majority of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are from electricity (EPA, n.d.). Electricity and gas usage for single family homes in particular is almost double that of attached residence types (Wheeler, 2012). Fossil fuels and natural resources are limited and the continuous construction of larger single-family homes will inevitably cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The United States needs a sustainable solution to combat climate change and lower carbon emissions.
The increased size of new construction single-family homes has lead to an unsustainable use of natural resources in both construction and operation phases. Keoleian et al. (2001) states, “the design and construction of a new house is one of the most resource-intensive and economically significant decisions made by developers and consumers” (pg 136). Single-family homes account for a large portion of new residential construction. New sustainability analysis tools, such as ecological footprint analysis, have shown that people started using more resources than the planet can provide in the mid-1980s (Tukker, Cohen, Hubacek, & Mont, 2010, pg 14). This unsustainable trend has only been increasing. Tukker et al. (2010) claims that “if global per capita consumption was on par with that of the United States, more than five planets would be necessary” to support resource consumption (pg 14).
Building Smaller has its Benefits:
For most Americans, buying a home is their single largest investment and single largest expense. Purchasing smaller homes can alleviate this expense. Besides being more expensive to build and operate, larger homes are more costly because they have higher insurance premiums, property taxes, utility bills and maintenance costs (Walsh, n.d., Wilson & Boehland, 2005). A study done by Wilson & Boehland (2005) compared the heating and cooling costs of 3,000 ft2 and 1500 ft2 homes and found a significant difference. Even poorly insulated 1,500 ft2 homes had about $140 less annually in heating cost and $70 less annually in cooling cost than energy efficient 3,000 ft2 homes (Wilson & Boehland, 2005, Table 3). Although it may not seem like much, this difference in utility costs translates into an average annual household expenditure of $1,282 (Keoleian et al. 2001, pg 136). Besides the direct costs of owning a larger home, large homes are most costly to furnish and harder to keep clean.
There are many benefits to owning a small home that extend beyond monetary savings. Many homeowners are concerned with the environmental impacts of their homes such as sustainable resource use, energy efficiency, and emissions. Larger houses consume more resources, both in construction and during operation, than smaller houses. According to Keoleian et al. (2001), “Household energy consumption accounts for approximately 11% of the total U.S. energy consumption” (pg 136). If new construction homes are built smaller they will use less resources and be more energy efficient, cutting U.S. household energy consumption. The National Association of Home Builders found that a 5,000 ft2 house will consume 3 times as much material as a 2,082 ft2 house, even though its square footage is only 2.4 times as large (Wilson & Boehland, 2005, pg 278). By building smaller, natural resources such as wood can be used more sustainably. Building conventionally framed homes 25% smaller saves significantly more wood than substituting the most wood-efficient advanced framing techniques (Wilson & Boehland, 2005, pg 284). Small homes that have poor energy standards still use less energy than large, well insulated, homes (Wilson & Boehland, 2005).
Another benefit of owning a smaller home is a more intimate family atmosphere. With the increase in house size and technology over the past 50 years, families are isolated within their own homes. Less time is spent together and more time is spent in front of a screen. 1950’s houses were built with about 290 ft2 per family member and that number has been steadily increasing. In 2003 houses provided an average 893 ft2 for each family member, three times as much space (Wilson & Boehland, 2005, pg 278). Ghi Crisafulli and her family of four downsized from a 3,500-ft2 home into a 1,100-ft2 home and found that “More family time was probably [their] most favorite outcome” (Crisafulli, 2012, Less Time Driving, More Time Together section, para 1).
Large homes in America are seen as a status symbol, but small homes can still make a statement. The book The Not So Big House (1998), written by Sarah Susanka, suggests an approach to house design focused on quality instead of quantity. “A house that favors quality of design over quantity of space satisfies people with big dreams and not so big budgets far more than a house with those characteristics in reverse,” says Susanka (1998, pp. 4–5). Smaller homes can still have high quality finishes and added amenities. The difference is, if you spend less on extraneous space, you’ll have more to spend on architectural details, beautiful materials, high-quality furnishings and comforting extras that make life easier and richer (Walsh, n.d.). Smaller homes also allow for more innovation such as multi-use furniture and spaces. Custom pieces can really elevate a small home and make it unique.
What can be done?
The unsustainable trend of increasing U.S. house size can be addressed by encouraging smaller house construction through government regulations and incentives. Regulations would include setting a maximum square footage standard of 2,000 ft2 for all newly constructed single family residence as well as requiring special permits to be purchased for any homeowners wishing to exceed this standard. Heavy tax penalties would be implemented on any homes exceeding this maximum standard. Incentives would include tax breaks for new home construction at or below 1,000 ft2 to encourage smaller building.
In order to reduce average new home size across the country, the maximum square footage standard needs to be set by the federal government. Property taxes and building permits are regulated at the state and local levels (Weisbord, n.d.). It would be the responsibility of state and local governments to implement and enforce this federal standard.
Special building permits will need to be purchased by homeowners for all single-family construction larger than 2,000 ft2. Higher tax rates will be applied to all new homes that surpass this standard. Tax rates will increase exponentially as home size increases. The larger the home, the higher the tax rate. The tax rates of pre-existing homes that are bigger than the standard will not be affected with this new regulation.
Money collected from permits and higher tax rates will be used to provide incentives for homeowners building at or below 1,000 ft2. Incentives will be in the form of tax breaks applied to the homeowner’s annual tax return. In no way will the average U.S. citizen be responsible for covering the cost of these incentives.
Is this plan feasible? The short answer is yes. Currently the United States government is regulating many different sectors (the automobile industry, power plants, etc.) in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and its working. According to the EPA’s 2013 Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program Overview Report, GHG emissions declined 1.77% between 2010 and 2011. Between 2011 and 2012 a decrease in GHG emissions of 3.37% was reported (EPA, 2013, p. 6). If the government can implement rules in these sectors to create a more sustainable future, why can’t it do the same with new home construction?
The Opposition to Our Case:
There will be a group of people that are against government regulations encouraging smaller homes because they don’t believe that the government should have the right to control the size of a person’s house. The truth is that in many areas the local government already regulates house size. One example is Fulton County in Georgia, which “specifies a minimum heated floor area of houses in most of its zoning districts” (Wilson & Boehland, 2005, p. 282). Also there are maximum house size regulations in Chicago, Illinois as well as Santa Cruz County in California, which are in place to address trends of “mansionization” (p. 282).
Another group of people that will not want to see government regulated house sizes are people who wish to build large homes. The above proposal does not mandate an end to building large homes; it only encourages the construction of smaller homes. If a person is determined to build a house that exceeds the maximum standards, acquiring a special permit will be necessary. These homeowners will also be required to pay increased tax rates for exceeding the standard. Some will think this is unfair, but according to Grether and Mieszkowski (1974) house size is one of the most important characteristics when determining real estate values (p. 127) and these values determine the amount of taxes a homeowner must pay. Also, homeowners who have the money to build large homes generally have the money to pay higher taxes.
Homeowners with large families might be opposed to this proposal because they need more space. These families have a variety of options. First a large family that needs a bigger home can exceed the maximum standard and accept the penalties that will be applied. Another option is for a large family to buy a pre-existing large home. These pre-existing bigger homes will not be subjected to the higher tax rates of new construction. A final option is for a larger family to build at the maximum standard and learn to live in a smaller space. Benjamin Green, one author of this paper, grew up with a family of eight. Their home growing up was a three bedroom ranch style house with roughly 1,200 ft2 of living area. His family is a perfect example of how a large family can live in a small house.
Contractors might be concerned that they would lose business with the introduction of a maximum house size and the permit fees associated with it. Smaller homes take less time to build leaving contractors with additional time to take on more jobs. A house that is 2800 ft2 takes approximately 6-8 months to build whereas a 6000 ft2 house can take between 12 and 18 months, if not longer (D.A.S., 2009). This means that a contractor has a potential of building twice as many smaller houses in the time it would take to build a single large house.
This proposal could also create multiple niches for contracting companies. Currently companies like Tumbleweed Tiny House Company (Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, 2002), Tiny House Company LLC ( Tiny House Company LLC, 2012), and Humble Homes (Humble Homes, 2011) specialize in building extremely small houses. Incentives that encourage building homes smaller than 1000 ft2 could create a larger market for contractors wishing to focus on smaller homes. Another niche that contractors could take advantage of is retrofitting large houses for people that do not want the tax penalties and permit fees associated with building bigger than the standard. Retrofits could include specialty pieces, detail work, and additions that allow a homeowner to give that new home feeling to a pre-existing house.
Changing the Status Quo:
The United States is one of the largest consumers of natural resources in the world (Gierlinger & Krausmann, 2011) and the construction of single-family homes has a significant impact on this resource use. Since the 1950s, the U.S. has seen a tremendous increase in single-family home size. Although new technology allows homes to be more energy efficient and use fewer resources, larger homes still require more resources and energy in both construction and operation than smaller homes. Reducing home sizes can be accomplished by using government regulations to set a maximum home size on new construction homes. Incentives such a tax breaks, smaller mortgages, and sustainability may also help persuade homeowners to build smaller houses. We hope that these regulations and incentives will help reduce the size of new construction single-family homes however the ultimate factor determining its success is the attitudes of the public. There is obvious opposition to our plan from wealthy homeowners, contractors, and anti-government people. Changing the status quo of large homes is a difficult task that cannot be addressed simply by educating homeowners about resource use and climate change.
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