In which the author’s wishes do not come true
May 30, 1980
An intelligent and informed analysis of the relationship between energy consumption and housing in the U.S. whose conclusions are almost wholly mistaken. In neither Springfield nor Illinois did people (as I predicted) abandon energy-hungry single-family houses on the urban periphery. Some folks did move into condos, but to reduce maintenance hassles, and there is—fifty years later—some shift toward city living in the Chicago area, but that’s to avoidf traffic congestion rather than energy costs. As punditry I give this piece a “B.” As social science, I grade it “D.” Still, typical of the views of the hopeful social left in those days.
A piece about my own energy-efficient house is here.
It is already a truism of the age that the new economics of energy will force Americans to change the way they live. Less widely acknowledged is the fact that energy economics may well force us to change where we live too.
At its simplest, the relationship between housing and energy is summarized every month in one's utility bill. It is true that residential heating and cooling account for a sizable chunk of the nation's energy bill, and account in some cases for a nearly equal share of the individual homeowner's energy bill; we have all seen the last winter during which we did not have to listen to our neighbors complain about utility bills that were higher than their mortgage payments. The typical American house, even a new one, is an energy dinosaur. Not just because it is so often sited badly or is under-insulated or has windows in the wrong walls. Its furnishings, even its landscaping, swells the hidden energy costs of home-owning. (This is insufficiently appreciated. Synthetic shag carpeting contributes to our energy deficit as well as to our cultural one, and the only way one could sink more energy into a piece of ground than is sunk into the average manicured suburban lawn would be to bury nuclear fuel rods in it.)
Some Americans have already accustomed themselves to living in fewer square feet, in cooler rooms and warmer rooms lighted by fewer windows, in some cases even to living underground. But the ultimate lesson of the new energy age is proving to be hard learning. We will no longer be able to build the same old houses. We will have to build not just new houses, but new kinds of houses. A California real estate executive concluded a six-month study by predicting that the single-family house will become so expensive to run that single families won't be able to afford them. The answer? The two-family house in which two families—parents and married children perhaps, or in-laws or sibling adults—will share common entertainment rooms, kitchen, and storage facilities. In other words, the family that pays together, stays together.
But there are other trends converging on the housing industry. Cheap energy didn't just make it possible to build leaky houses, or to build them to national standards of taste which require imported rather than indigenous materials. Cheap energy made dispersal out of the city possible, and that in turn made huge tracts of land accessible to development. That process, which since World War II has seemed as majestically inevitable as rainfall, may well be reversed in the next forty years. As distant land becomes too expensive to reach by auto it will lose much of its development potential. Land closer to the city will rise in value, making housing built on it more expensive. Developers (who resemble farmers in their desire to squeeze as big a yield as possible from dwindling acreage) will quickly learn—indeed have already begun to learn—that ornamental front yards and single-story construction no longer pay.
The result may be a return to housing built according to older American urban or European models. Two years ago, Springfield's State Journal Register gave its readers a hint of things to come in an article describing the then-budding condominium craze. Developers interviewed cited two reasons for the switch to condos. One was the changing lifestyles of home-buyers. (The switch from the well-tended lawn to the well-tended window box marks the narcissistic swing from community preoccupations to private ones.) The other was money. Condos, the developers told the SJR, make more efficient (meaning more profitable) use of land.
What is true of condos is also true of rowhouses, townhouses and flats, and any other form of attached housing. But they not only make more efficient use of expensive land. They make more efficient use of expensive energy too; by their very nature, they offer a lower ratio of exposed exterior wall to floor area than detached houses. The changing economics of development, then, offer us a unique prospect, namely that what is good for developers may also be good for the rest of us.
This happy result stems from the fact that cheap energy made not just energy-inefficient housing possible, it made energy-inefficient land use possible. At its worst, it takes more energy over the life of a house to travel between it and jobs, shops, and schools than it does to heat and cool it. In the Springfield metropolitan area, as everywhere, housing development in the 1970s was characterized by the dispersal of people from the city's core, first into the urban fringe and later into the countryside itself. Local planners report that nearly 44 percent of all the new residential units built in the decade (some 1,500 single family homes and 2,500 multi-family units) were built west of Springfield's Chatham Road; housing units in county towns jumped 63 percent since 1967, and more than farm acres were subdivided beyond the fringe. All these units, in short, were built a gas-guzzle away from most jobs—"gas guzzle" being a new measure I here propose to replace miles in computing suburban distances.
Indeed, the contradictory trends of more intensive land use and the still-strong suburbanization have combined to produce the curious anomaly of urban-type housing in suburban settings. A Springfield company is advertising a new "townhome" community on the city's far north fringe, offering three-bedroom rowhouses whose "energy efficiency exceeds even future proposed recommended levels!"—which is a rash thing to say even for a real estate broker. Even if it is true, building them at several miles' remove from civilization means their owners will be able to balance only a part of the housing/energy equation. Clearly this revolution will have to be won in installments.
The real estate industry's PR to the contrary, the postwar suburban boom was not the child of a marriage between free enterprise and Americans’ almost genetic yen for open spaces. It was a manufactured boom, paid for by subsidized mortgages and free highway building. And as Ronnie Reagan is so fond of saying, what the government has done it can undo. In Springfield, for example, the land use policy plan drafted the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission and adopted by both Springfield and the county board suggests measures to stem urban sprawl, provide incentives for central city redevelopment, improve mass transit, and other prudent steps. Developers resent such regulation as infringements on private property rights. But we have long since passed the point at which it should be necessary to point out that the uses to which private property is put have profound public consequences. We have empowered planning commissions and zoning boards to act as developers' consciences for the same reasons we have bred seedless oranges: to remedy a failure of Nature.
Nicholas Von Hoffman addressed this theme in a recent essay titled, "'Reinventing' America to Save Energy." Von Hoffman writes, "We must not only make our homes themselves more energy efficient . . . but we must also alter the overall pattern in which they are placed." Von Hoffman notes that rowhouses use up to 40 percent less energy per square foot than free-standing suburban houses. Population densities may have to be increased, if not toward the congested anthills of the suburbanites' nightmares, at least toward European-style villages and clusters of houses, which Von Hoffman notes are better places to live "than non-communal scatterings of loners, trapped out in the bushes, whose principal neighborhood activity is the drive to the shopping plaza."
It can be done; as Von Hoffman points out, "We have to change the physical shape of our land. Having done it once, we know how." The argument that people are not ready for rowhouses or townhouse apartments in the city reminds me of the more recent fulminations from Detroit. For years people bought only ugly, inefficient cars. Not necessarily because they wanted them, but because they didn't have a choice. And we all know what happened when people were given that choice. ●