Big homes are getting more expensive too but surprisingly not for the reasons most assume. Anyone buying a home in our metropolitan area (as in many cities) will testify that the prices of the houses they are viewing are going up. Yet, surprisingly, the average cost to build a house today has not increased in the last forty years. The average cost of the construction of production houses currently is about $115-$120 per square foot, again according to data from the National Association of Home Builders, about the same as it was in 1970 when adjusted for inflation. Developers are building much larger houses at the same cost per square foot. The increase in the cost of our houses is due to the increasing size, not the cost of the labor and materials used nor the cost of the energy used to produce, move or to join the materials.
There is an ironic relationship between house size, efficiency, and quality, however, that is overlooked. The larger the houses we build, the more we must reduce the cost and quality of the parts, and the more maintenance they require while their very lives are shortened requiring huge investments in energy to demolish and replace them. The smaller the houses we design (at a given construction budget), the less quantity of materials and more quality of materials that we can incorporate and the less energy we need to build, maintain, heat and cool them. Smaller homes built with quality materials last longer too. Inherently, smaller, more energy efficient homes use less energy at all parts of their life cycles and, because they are around much longer, continue using less energy farther into our children’s futures.
In a related correlation, cheaper materials used only for energy efficiency wear out and fail more quickly. Much has been made of the importance of “sustainable” houses; the term is currently fashionable. Building codes (including the increasingly strict codes in the Pacific Northwest) are requiring houses to be more “sustainable”. This primarily means more energy efficient, less wasteful of the air inside that is heated and cooled by oil or gas or electricity, more water efficient. This is important; in 2015, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, about 40% of total U.S. energy consumption was consumed in residential and commercial buildings, or about 39 quadrillion British thermal units.
Yet as our homes have grown in size we have focused only on energy efficiency; very little is done by our building codes to decrease the size of the American house or to reward smaller homes. Building big houses is assumed to be an American right and bigger homes with more space, appliances, use more energy. The American Physical Society reports that “Energy consumption has been growing despite improvements in efficiency. As compared with 30 years ago, Americans have larger homes; (and) more air-conditioners, televisions, and computers; and a variety of other devices that use energy.”
And the very efficacy of the energy codes that define our large houses has been questioned. It is “tremendously difficult to prove empirically” that building energy efficiency codes actually result in energy savings, argues economics Professor Dr. Arik Levinson of Georgetown University. Levinson reported (that) he found no evidence that building codes themselves reduced energy consumption.
As our building codes try to facilitate energy efficiency they often do not encourage better, more durable materials; many of the more energy-efficient materials that are encouraged are shorter-lived (vinyl doors and windows are an example). The less expensive and less durable materials that we are building with allow larger houses to be more cheaply built. The “green” certifications encouraged by our codes (and, in some cases by those designing and selling the homes) are given to houses that often enclose 4, 5, 6 thousand square feet.
Oxford Dictionaries defines “sustainable” as “able to be maintained at a certain level” or “conserving ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources”. At a federal level the Department of Energy details a “whole house approach” to “efficient home design” referencing the house construction and systems without even mentioning the size of the house. Our homes are designed (as required by codes in many jurisdictions) only to conserve the energy and that they require to live in. Their size and the resulting materials and energy that they require to build is not governed or, often, even discussed.