Today's Housing Model Is Unsustainable for the Long Haul

Home builders follow the template of the American dream, but the dream may have to change.
Home builders follow the template of the American dream, but the dream may have to change. (By Steven E. Frischling -- Bloomberg News)

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, May 20, 2006

Ask most home builders these days what they sell, and they will say a lifestyle. In most cases, that means a house on the outer fringes of suburbia with a yard for the kids and a garden for the folks. The house has plenty of room to pursue hobbies, entertain friends, bond with the family and get away from it all in a spacious master suite.

But is that lifestyle sustainable for the long haul? That is, in meeting our needs, are we compromising the needs of future generations? The needs of our children and our children's children?


If we continue to build more than a million such houses every year, the long-term effects will not be good, architects, builders, environmentalists, ecologists, engineers and developers said in recent interviews. Dan Chiras, an Evergreen, Colo., environmentalist, teacher and home builder, was specific.

"We cannot keeping spreading out across the country, gobbling up farmland at the rate of 3,500 acres a day to create roads and highways, single-family houses and suburban shopping centers," Chiras said. "We need the productive farmland to feed our growing population. As many as 120 million more people may be living here by the year 2050. In the near term we need the forests to absorb the astronomical amounts of carbon dioxide that we are producing daily, and we need the pastureland to absorb rain and reduce flooding. All the paving, roofs, sidewalks and driveways that come with every subdivision create impervious surfaces that compromise nature's ability to control flooding."

Not only are we gobbling up land to create new communities, but we are also using vast resources to build the houses.

"For almost every new 2,300-square-foot house, we have clear-cut an acre of forest somewhere," Chiras said. "To produce all the metals and minerals used in construction, we have dug a hole in the ground somewhere that is equal to the entire volume of the house."

There is an even more critical reason to rethink the suburban lifestyle: the energy it consumes. More than 40 percent of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that we collectively produce every day are directly or indirectly tied to our buildings. Half these buildings are houses.

How are houses and global warming connected? Our houses, like our cars, are powered by fossil fuels. When burned, these produce carbon dioxide, as well as small amounts of other greenhouse gases such as methane. For heating, most of our furnaces run on natural gas or oil and the carbon dioxide vents up the chimney. For cooling, lighting and appliances, we depend on electricity. Nationwide, about half of that is generated at coal-burning plants, which are huge polluters. Twenty percent more is generated at natural gas-fired plants, which are also polluting, but not as much.

The third piece of the suburban lifestyle that is untenable for the long term is the nearly universal dependence on automobiles, which also produce prodigious amounts of greenhouse gases. Fuel-efficient hybrid cars can reduce the emissions of individual cars, but if a growing population maintains the level of car ownership we have now, we will have millions more cars on the road and the total amount of emissions will still be high.

A totally electric car would produce no emissions, but, Oakland, Calif., urban designer Richard Register said, "If the electricity that charges the car's batteries is generated in a coal-burning plant, we're still on square one."

So what is a sustainable lifestyle for the long haul? Almonte, Ontario, energy expert William H. Kemp said: "A sustainable lifestyle uses less energy, less land and fewer resources. It's living in an apartment in a city like New York or Boston and using public transit or walking to work, school and shopping areas."

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