April 13, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

Living large: supersizing the American home 

One of a series of articles in observance of Earth Day, April 22.

By now most of us are familiar with the effects of suburban sprawl; living in Greater Rochester, it'd be almost impossible not to notice them.

            We've heard about the burdens that uncontrolled growth creates: more traffic, more reliance on cars, longer commute times, more expensive public water and sewer systems. We know that the amount of housing in Greater Rochester is growing more than twice as fast as the population. And we take note of clashes between new-home developers and residents over issues like open space (see, "Growing, Growing, Gone," February 16).

            But we don't often think about the new homes themselves. That's why an illustration in the March-April 2005 issue of Mother Jonesmagazine, http://www.motherjones.com/news/exhibit/2005/03/exhibit.html, caught our attention. Titled "This New House," the piece documents the growth --- in size and luxury amenities --- of the average new home in the US. Among the findings: While the size of the average American household has shrunk, the size of new houses has grown dramatically and is continuing to grow. "One in four Americans want at least a three-car garage," says the Mother Jones piece. "Seven percent of all homes are in gated communities.... One in five homes is larger than 3000 square feet.... Sales of Sub-Zero and other 'premium' and 'superpremium' refrigerators have been rising by 15 percent a year."

Like everything else in America, the single-family home --- that icon of middle-class prosperity --- is being supersized. Monroe County has its share of McMansions, but how closely does the area follow the national trend of expanding house sizes?

            The size of the typical new Rochester home has increased, says Bob Miglioratti, chair of the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors. "People are looking for more space," he says. "That, I think, is a reflection of a change in the traditional household."

            When Miglioratti began selling houses three decades ago, he says, the typical household consisted of a mother, a father, and a couple of children.

            "That's changed rather dramatically," he says, with a variety of living arrangements now becoming commonplace. For example, more unmarried couples are buying homes.

            And people are doing more work at home: "There's more of a need for an in-home office," says Miglioratti.

            Along with the new makeup of households, there's less sharing of space: "You have two sets of needs and demands," he says. People feel they need separate spaces,and that translates into bigger houses. Miglioratti estimates that half of all new homes in the Rochester area are over 3,000 square feet, and 10 percent top 4,000.

            Charles Ryan, a local homebuilder, agrees. "I've seen 7,000-square-foot houses go up for two people," he says.

            Over the last 10 to 15 years, house sizes have "probably increased 25 percent --- 50 percent at the upper price range," Ryan says.

            (In the long run, Ryan predicts, that will change. "I think that nationally since 2000 there's been a trend to go smaller," he says, but that hasn't taken hold in Rochester yet. "It takes Rochester a while to catch up with the rest of the country," says Ryan. "It hasn't hit here, but it's going to be on its way.")

More houses and bigger houses mean we're using more building materials --- and more energy. There have been, as Ryan notes, developments in technology that make houses more efficient. Better insulation, tighter duct work, and efficient windows save energy from electricity, natural gas, and home heating oil. And many of today's appliances offer a far more efficient use of energy than older models. By Ryan's estimate, about half of local developers build homes that meet the federal government's Energy Star standards. Using Energy Star techniques and products can reduce energy costs by 20 to 30 percent, according to government estimates.

            But gains in energy efficiency can be offset not only by the increasing size of houses but also by the costs emerging from another area where growth is exploding: amenities.

            "Instead of one new element replacing another, we're adding amenities on," says Miglioratti.

            For instance? "From about $250,000 on up, people are looking for a three-car garage," he says. "At 3,000 square feet, it's almost a requirement."

            Other new in-demand amenities: architecturally complex decks, master baths, hard kitchen countertops (granite, for example), and large, stainless steel appliances.

            Ryan says the biggest amenity trend he's noticed is ceiling height. Up until the 1980s, he says, 8 feet was the standard height. In the '90s, that stretched to 9 feet.

            "Now in the 2000s, it's going to be 10 feet," he says. That boosts construction costs by as much as 10 percent, says Ryan. And it makes homes less energy efficient.

And then there's sprawl. New housing growth continues to outpace not only population growth but also the growth in the number of households. And the growth is outward from the city.

            "Right now, Webster's the place that's hot," says Bob King, with Cornell Cooperative Extension. But outlying areas like Hamlin and Mendon are also experiencing housing growth. King cites federal agriculture statistics that show MonroeCounty lost nearly 30 percent of its farmland --- over 43,000 acres --- between 1982 and 2002. While not all of that gets sold to developers building new homes, a lot does.

            "It'll sit vacant for 5 to 10 years, and then it'll get developed," he says.

            "Given that our region is not growing and houses are still being built, particularly in the suburbs, it's likely that buildings are becoming vacant somewhere," says Larry Stid.

            That's something of an understatement; as Rochester's deputy director of community planning and development, Stid knows that that "somewhere" is the heart of his city.

            Vacant housing units in the county increased by more than 30 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the US Census. And in 2000, more than 60 percent of the county's vacant housing was in the city of Rochester. The city has been aggressively demolishing abandoned houses for years. Still, Stid says, Rochester saw an increase in vacant housing units in that 10-year period.

            Neil Jaschik, a planning associate with the CommonGoodPlanningCenter, struggles to find a bright spot in these trends.

            "I can't be optimistic, because the advertising, the promoting, the marketing, the general desire of the public for new things is just something you can't turn around overnight," he says. "There are just too many forces working against it."

            Nevertheless, he and his organization have undertaken the Sisyphean task of educating people about the effects of sprawl.

            "All we can do is point out the overall cost to society and the overall cost to the individual if we go that route," Jaschik says. "Most people intellectually agree; they just aren't doing it."

            That's because the government policies and financial incentives favor such growth over human-scaled development. Until that changes, says Jaschik, even people who understand the costs of sprawl will keep participating in it.

            Next week: City Newspaper looks at municipal programs for collecting household hazardous waste.

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