Are America’s Large Homes Bad for Energy Efficiency?

by Farren Washington

Is our love for large homes nullifying the progress in energy efficiency?


Thanks to new technological advances in water use, insulation, heating and cooling and household appliances, today’s homes are more energy efficient than ever before.

Yet new research suggests that increasing home sizes in America run against those trends. Single-family homes have more than doubled in square footage in the last forty years. The Census Bureau reported in 2014 that the average U.S. single-family home was 2,660 square feet, up from 1,660 square feet in 1973. More space means more heating and cooling, more lighting and bigger bills.

Energy Efficiency vs. Energy Intensity

A new study from the Pew Research Center explains that U.S. home sizes today pit energy efficiency against energy intensity.

According to Pew’s Drew DeSilver, there were many improvements in energy efficiency made between 1970 and 2012. Based on data from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, homes in the U.S. used just under 150,000 British thermal units of energy per square foot in 1970; by 2012, that number had plummeted to 101,800 British thermal units.

But at the same time, energy intensity (the units of energy expended per household) has risen significantly since the early 1980s, with the average home utilizing 188.7 million in British thermal units in 2011, compared to 183 million in 1981.

DeSilver equated that contradiction to eating unhealthy while exercising.

“Think of someone scarfing down a chili cheeseburger and fries after an hour on the elliptical, and then wondering why he never seems to lose weight,” he said.

Scaling down house size is related to energy efficiency. A good example of this is an apartment dwelling. Apartment buildings constructed in the first decade of the new millennium that accommodated five or more units used 12 percent less energy per household than in the 1970s. About 10 percent more was used for single-family homes.

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