It seems rarely a month passes without some new assault on the lifestyle and housing choice preferred by the overwhelming majority of Australians: the detached suburban home. Denigrated by a careless media as ”McMansions” or attacked as some archaic form of reckless housing choice which is suddenly “no longer appropriate” (according to some planning or environmental fatwa), the detached home is under a constant assault of falsely laid allegation and intellectual derision.
The latest of these assaults is the form of a proposed ”green star” rating scheme for ”McMansions” which critics claim cost could cost homeowners thousands of dollars in devalued prices. While the critics’ suggestions of financial hardship might be taking the possible impacts a bit too far, it is reasonable to challenge this obsession of regulators and green crusaders which view the detached home as some form of modern environmental vandalism.
The very first (and what should be obvious) fact that escapes our planning cabal’s attention is that houses, or home units, or even office buildings for that matter, don’t use energy. Only the occupants in them and their behaviour consume energy. The dwelling itself can be designed for more efficient energy use by the occupants, for sure, but remember always that it is people who consume power, not buildings.
That point was brought home, embarrassingly for our rampaging environmental and social crusaders, by no less than the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2007. Their “Consumption Atlas” revealed what came as a surprise to many, but which should have been widely understood from the start: that wealthy people who can afford to live in the expensive home units and townhouses of trendy inner city areas use much more energy, and have bigger carbon footprints per capita than their suburban counterparts. More than that, it also revealed that inner city areas are “consumption hotspots” and smaller household sizes have greater environmental impacts than larger (chiefly suburban) households.
The significance of those findings has been studiously ignored by the advocates of environmental engineering who claim that a leading virtue of wholesale change in housing type from detached suburban to high density inner urban will be good for the environment. The facts, however, show that it ain’t necessarily so. If a large family of five, for example, (mum, dad and three kids) living in a four bedroom house with two cars in the suburbs produce a smaller carbon footprint than the DINKs and yuppies living in their city apartment, why aren’t the media, environmental and planning advocates asking more questions?
At the time the ACF report was released, I was running the Residential Development Council, and can still recall hearing the ACF’s key findings mentioned in some very early radio news bulletins on the ABC. For some reason, the story quietly petered out but the ACF kindly had a version on-line and once I sent a copy to Demographia’s Wendell Cox, it went on to infamy. Wendell prepared a report analysing its “Housing Form in Australian and its Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions” online findings.
There have been other reports too, which have either been ignored (where their evidence doesn’t suit the cause) or attacked (if the evidence is clearly getting too close to the truth). If you’re remotely interested in some of the facts (as opposed to the parade of rhetoric in the mainstream media) have a look at the evidence in this study called ”The Relationship Between Housing Density and Built Form Energy Use”’ which you can find online here. There’s a graph on page six which shows the dwelling operational energy (blue part of the bar) for apartments is roughly three times that of detached homes. The suggestion that occupants of high density apartments will be less likely to use private transport is yet to be borne out by evidence, with the ACF report admitting that higher incomes allowed inner city residents more opportunity to drive despite the presence of convenient public transport and also (heaven forbid) to fly to places, than households with lower incomes.
Common sense also comes into play. Consider the basic design of apartment buildings as opposed to the detached house. Cross flow ventilation in apartments is harder to achieve (unless it’s a penthouse occupying an entire floor) than in the detached home with windows on all sides. Then there are the energy uses that the apartment more or less makes essential. There is no room for a solar powered clothes dryer (a washing line) in the backyard. Instead, energy guzzling clothes dryers are practically essential, as are air conditioners, not just for individual apartments but also for common areas throughout the building (foyers and corridors). Lighting in common areas is also almost always permanently on. Lifts to move people up and down also consume energy – taking two people from ground to level 25 in an air conditioned lift produces a lot more carbon than walking up a flight of front stairs into the detached home, after all.
I’m not proposing that the leftist green agenda which is waging war on the detached home turn the blow torch of blame to the wealthy, nor am I suggesting that there’s anything wrong with apartment and townhouse developments. But what’s wrong with letting market forces play more of a hand without the overt moralising and environmental hand wringing that seems to accompany decisions on urban planning policy? Is it really necessary to malign the detached suburban home, in order to make the alternative more attractive?
We are talking about middle Australia – and their counterparts in the USA, UK and elsewhere – which is under the barrage of assault for having the temerity to choose a form of dwelling that actually suits them. The fact is that people prefer, in the main, to raise children in houses rather than apartments. They often like to keep pets and have a garden around them. The children tend to like backyards to play in. The cars these families drive aren’t a ”love affair” but a necessity – getting from suburban home to suburban workplace and picking up or dropping off children on the way isn’t very practical with public transport. But you get the strong impression, reading the constant digest of anti-suburban living parading through mainstream media, that mainstream Australians are a reckless bunch of self-interested misfits whose behaviour and choices need to be controlled by people wiser than them.
And there’s one of the great ironies in all this: those who advocate denying housing choice and enforcing apartments over detached homes, public transport over private, and inner city density over suburban expansion, invariably seem to do the opposite of what they preach. Next time you come across one of these green jihadists waging war on the suburban home (and the people who live in them), ask them if they live in a house or a unit, how many children they have, ask how many cars (or homes) they own, and ask what their power bill is like.
In my experience, all too frequently the answer reveals itself as a case of “do as I say, not do as I do,” which is just plain hypocrisy.
Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.
Photo by yewenyi.