Our Own Private Idahos

October 10, 2005, 7am PDT | Sriram Khé
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If happiness comes in supersizing a home, and if this doesn't interfere with somebody else's life, then should we be concerned about what it will mean to fuel consumption and the environment? Sriram Khé, Associate Professor of Geography at Western Oregon University, asks why we have a fascination with such large houses when we don't even use half the space.

 Sriram Khé"That house has 15 phones" remarked a friend about her neighbor's house. It has that many phones for a good reason: at more than 4,000 square feet it is less a house and more a mansion. Perhaps they even have a private switchboard to communicate from one room to another. Should we be concerned about such an approach to supersizing homes? I would argue that we should be concerned about this and even forget about the effects that we notice -- urban sprawl.

A year ago I wrote about my personal experience in buying a home in a high-density neighborhood. The home where we live now is about 1,983 sq.ft., which is less than the 2,150 sq.ft. of our previous home. Even in this 1,900 sq.ft. home, we barely use half the space on a regular basis. When our daughter visits us, or when we entertain guests, well, the space utilization rate is much higher than when it is only my wife and me at home. At most, we perhaps effectively use only about 1,200 sq.ft. on a regular basis; even our dog does not care to wander into the remaining 700+ sq.ft. unless we have visitors!

Interestingly, I rarely see more than three or four people in the huge homes like the 4,000 sq.ft. one that grabs our friend's attention. So, here is another calculation: if my wife and I use only about 1,200 sq.ft. on a regular basis, and if there are only four people in a 4,000 sq.ft. home, then it will not be unreasonable to assume that the unused space in this big house -- more than 1,800 sq.ft. -- could amount to the size of our entire home!

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the average size of a new home is 2,340 sq.ft. (I am amazed that the size of our underutilized home is much smaller than the average!) But, what many may overlook is the consumption required to fill the rooms in such homes. The need to fill up space is the forgotten aspect in the story of the ever increasing average home size. Depending on the room's use, one can easily imagine the range of goods it would take to fill the space.

Before we bought this home, when we were looking around, we did pop in and out of much bigger houses -- one was as much as 2,500 sq.ft. That was a huge house and we wondered how much money, and how long, it would take for us to furnish the place.

To a large extent the house size generates all this additional need. It is understandable why a 4,000 sq.ft. home has 15 phones -- after all, we have five in our 1,900 sq.ft. home! If I were to use the same ratio, then it is possible that this 4,000 sq.ft. home has three times the "stuff" that we have. Could they possibly have three fireplaces? Quite possible; we noticed that one of the larger homes, which is "only" about 3,000 sq.ft., has a backyard fireplace!

If happiness comes in supersizing a home, and if this does not interfere with somebody else's life, then should we be concerned about such a consumer behavior?

Let us draw a parallel with the size of cars. As a general rule, fuel consumption increases with car size -- given the same technology, larger cars tend to consume more fuel than smaller ones. Because of concerns over consumption of the finite resource petroleum, we have discussions on whether or not governments can and should influence car size, or fuel consumption. We also have concerns about the effects of petroleum consumption, such as the exhaust from vehicles that adds to air pollution. We may not have done anything much in the U.S., but we at least have discussions on this topic every once in a while.

Similarly, compared to smaller homes, larger homes will need more resources -- telephones, gas, furniture, etc. Consumption of resources generates wastes: on the days when all our trash cans are by the curb waiting for the garbage truck, I notice that there is a correlation between the size of homes and the trash generated -- the trash cans by our curb are small, and are less than half-full, whereas most of the bigger homes have larger trash cans that seem to overflow.

But, even the little discussion that we have in the U.S. regarding vehicles and fuel consumption is entirely missing when it comes to homes and resources. On slow news days the media may relay the NAHB press release. But, that's it. I suppose a public-policy discussion on home sizes and resource consumption will be the easiest way for a politician to lose elections and, hence, it is not something that will happen anytime soon.

Of course, in a free country everyone has the right to pursue their own version of "life, liberty and happiness". But, I am not sure if 15 phones in a 4,000 sq.ft. home for two people is what the country's founders intended. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson did live in a sprawling estate!

Sriram Khé is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Oregon University. Prior to this, he taught at California State University-Bakersfield, and was an Associate Planner with the Kern Council of Governments.

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