(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. See Part 2.)

Ask most home builders these days what they sell, and they’ll say a lifestyle. In most cases, this 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 this lifestyle a sustainable one for the long haul? That is, in meeting our own needs in this fashion, are we compromising the needs of future generations? The needs of our children and our children’s children? In a word, yes.

If we continue to build more than a million such houses every year, the long-term effects will not be good, so say architects, builders, environmentalists, ecologists, engineers and developers in recent interviews. Dan Chiras, an Evergreen, Colo., environmentalist, teacher and home builder, was quite 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. We need the productive farmland to feed our growing population–as many as 120 more million 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 explained. “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. Unbeknownst to most Americans, more than 40 percent of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that we collectively produce everyday are directly or indirectly tied to our buildings, and half of these 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 running the appliances and all the other “plug loads” that are central to our modern lifestyles, we depend on electricity. Nationwide, about half of this is generated at coal-burning plants, which are hugely polluting. Another 20 percent is generated at natural gas fired plants, which are also polluting, but not badly. 

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 same level of car ownership we have now, we’ll 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, as Oakland, Calif., urban designer Richard Register pointed out, “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? As Almonte, Ontario, energy expert William H. Kemp succinctly put it, “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.”

This may seem unthinkable, but life without a car because all one’s needs are within walking distance can be liberating, Kemp said.

“Not only do you save time–all those hours spent in commuting traffic–you also save money; about $7,000 a year.”

When the no-car lifestyle includes good mass transit, it can be especially liberating for parents because their children can become independent years before they are old enough to get a driver’s license.

More Americans have experienced the no-car lifestyle than you might think–many lived this way when they were in college (think back to your own student days when you lived on or near campus and walked everywhere).

Regardless of the advantages of urban living, however, most home buyers are as yet unconvinced. They still want the house and the car. But their lifestyle will be more sustainable if they are willing to accept higher density–for example, a row house on an urban infill site. Collectively, fewer resources are required to build the community because the developer can tie into existing road and utility networks. And, with party walls, the houses will consume less energy for heating and cooling. When the community is located on a mass transit line and it has shopping within walking distance, the household may not need to use a car on a daily basis.

Transforming the American Dream from the single-family house and yard to a more environmentally sustainable, energy-saving vision of row houses with small yards and larger, shared outdoor areas will not happen overnight. But the most critical piece of our sustainability dilemma, drastically reducing our energy consumption by as much as 50 percent below current levels, can be addressed immediately.

Land developers could take a leading role by adding community-wide energy savings to their usual concerns with land acquisition, land planning and infrastructure, said Jonathan Philips, a developer with the Cherokee Investment Partners firm based in Raleigh, N. C. For example, he said, “You don’t always have to have an equal number of properties facing east, west, south and north. There is no reason why you can’t have most houses face south, southwest or southeast so that passive solar heating, which captures the free warmth of the sun, could be incorporated into their design.”

A developer can also provide community-wide energy savings if he/she takes advantage of the logistics at a project’s initial stage and does things that normally are left to individual builders, Philips said. Before construction begins, large and cumbersome equipment can easily move through an entire subdivision, so that, for example, the exterior portion of a ground source heat pump can be installed for every house at far less cost. For a 2,400-square-foot house, the cost drops from about $13,000 to about $4,000.

A ground source heat pump takes advantage of the stable temperature of the earth to provide both heating and cooling. It’s so efficient, a homeowner’s annual operating cost can be as much as 70 percent less than the cost to operate a conventional furnace and air conditioning system.

Many climate-tailored strategies for reducing a household’s energy use are widely available, but they haven’t been widely implemented because home builders are skittish. In the past, when they responded to exhortations for energy efficiencies that exceed local requirements, most buyers were uninterested and unwilling to pay for them. But, home builders will immediately jump on the bandwagon when they are convinced that buyers have decided that a cooler planet for their grandchildren in 2050 is a higher priority than a granite countertop today, and they spend their housing dollars accordingly.

Developers, builders and architects can only take residential energy efficiency so far, however. Heating, cooling and hot water on average only consume about 53 percent of the total. The remaining 47 percent is consumed by the appliances, “plug loads,” and lighting fixtures that the owners bring into the house. This can be significantly reduced by purchasing Energy Star equipment whenever possible and by using more efficient lighting, such as compact florescent bulbs.

Homeowners can also help to reduce carbon fuel emissions by purchasing, where possible, renewable energy. Many electric utilities now offer their customers the option of buying slightly more expensive electricity that is generated by wind, solar or hydropower. The latest generation of wind turbines is so efficient that wind farms off the East or West coasts or across the Great Plains states could supply enough electricity for the entire country. This seemingly futuristic scenario many come sooner than you think. In a recent press conference, Washington, D.C., environmentalist Lester Brown announced that the cost of wind-generated power is now competitive with conventionally produced electricity.

Questions, queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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