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A right-sized life

It’s astonishing how fast houses have grown. New homes are three times larger than our grandparents’ homes were in 1950 when they averaged 983 square feet. By 2009, Americans were averaging 2,700 square feet of living space to heat, cool and keep lit. It wouldn't be an issue if households used three times less energy than their grandparents'.

It seems the Recession and foreclosure crisis have reduced the appetite for a super-sized home. Less is more, and affordable is a safer bet than the “Hummer house” or “starter castle”.

While homes built in the last decade generally offset increased energy use with more insulation and tighter windows, the fact remains the cold Midwest leads the nation in size (a whopping 3,033 sq. ft. home avg.), and in heating the most space. Bigger spaces and higher ceilings in new homes are the worst culprits in our increased energy use.

A green cottage in the Cleveland EcoVillage at 1,200 sq ft. is a model of sustainable housing size

Americans are starting to have an honest conversation about house size. Are we three times more comfortable than we were in 1950? Are we three times happier? Could we, perhaps, manage to live in slightly smaller spaces if it led to more vibrant, walkable communities and burning less carbon?

Why does house size matter to you?

Size of our living space really does matter for these reasons.

  • Utilities: As square footage increases, the burden on heating and cooling equipment rises, lighting requirements increase, and the likelihood that the household uses more than one refrigerator increases. In Northeast Ohio, where half of our utility bill comes from heating our living spaces, our homes account for 27% of our carbon footprint.
  • Taxes: With the big dream home comes a bigger tax bill.
  • Maintenance: Answer this simple question, would you rather replace the roof on a 1,200 sq ft. house or a 6,000 sq. ft. home? Read more.
  • Budget: Housing costs 30% or more of our yearly income here Northeast Ohio. Rethinking size can be your retirement savings. Calculate the housing + transportation cost of your neighborhood.   
  • Furnishings and gadgets: The bigger your house, the more you'll be tempted to fill it up with stuff. The average annual U.S. household energy expenditure rose to $2,024 in 2009 (up 11.8 percent from the previous survey in 2005). And studies show it's not the one or two personal devices like iPhones and iPads that's raising your costs, but a flat screen TV in every room, and two or three fridges for multiple entertainment areas? That's another story.   
  • Spill over costs—Again, the bigger the house, the larger the tally in embodied energy. The typical new family home construction consumes the equivalent of 90,000 kilowatt hours (or about 8 years worth of powering that house) in materials. The more bricks that need to be fired in a kiln, trees felled, and cement mixed to build a big house increases your cost to buy, own and the carbon pumped into the air (30 metric tonnes for the cement alone)
  • Take control of the issue—you can compare the cost of a house your considering to homes of similar size, and figure for yourself how much its costs per square foot.

Of course, household size is also important. American households, historically, have been large. Our carbon footprint is divided between all of the people living in one space. The U.S. ranks fourth in the world in household size (Germany is 14th. China, with 1.3 billion people and even with a one-child policy, would rank #2 in household size).

But, if the U.S. follows the trends of developed countries, it may be heading toward a future with fewer people living in big homes. That makes size—plus location and energy efficiency—of our living space one of the most important choices we make for planet and our children's future.

Size matters

  • Per capita energy consumption plummets when people live in larger households, with a particularly marked difference between one- and two-person households. Data from Britain suggests 60% energy savings could be achieved for all one and two-person households simply by moving them into five-person households.
  • The average poor American household has 11% more living space per person than the average European. The average American has 82% more living space per person than their European counterpart.
  • The Sierra Club Green suggests a downsizing target for Americans: 1,000 square per person. Is this reasonable, or not going small enough?
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