Square Footage Bashing [Best Comment]


Critics gave me a hard time for discussing a 2,988 square-foot home in Florida.  One loyal commenter, bruteforcecollaborative, responded:

"Panning a project on square footage alone is asinine. you don't know the client's programming needs – maybe the house is designed for the grandparents to move in. maybe one of their children is disabled and requires dedicated space. maybe the house is also a home office, thereby foregoing additional office space in another location … size alone isn't a function of how green or ungreen something is."

Mike Eliason, one of two contributors to the Brute Force Collaborative, continued in a subsequent email exchange: "I can have a 900 square-foot energy hog and a 3000 square-foot passivhaus that utilizes less energy than the 900 square-foot house. You know the drill."

I do, and I agree.  Square-footage bashing is easy to do, while other considerations get short shrift, if anything.  Which is why this site leans towards letting readers determine whether they think something is green or not, sustainable or not.  Hopefully, that determination translates into some kind of meaningful action going forward.

What do you think?

  • gerrr!

    The reason why square foot matters, is because the green movement’s roots comes from the early ideas of Henry David Thoreau on conservation.

    And I reject the idea of creating a scenario that supports a circumstantial thesis. I can easily argue that my 610 sf home located in the middle of downtown, allowing me to reduce my annual mileage to 3400 miles, is far more efficient and better than a 3,000 sf home located 10 miles away. One thousand 3,000 sf homes means sprawl, right? Wait a minute…wasn’t that the point recently, by someone who argued that NYC was greener than Portland?


  • http://squallco.tumblr.com/ Kevin

    People tend to over-simplify this issue I think – small=good, big=bad. I don’t think that’s fair or particularly well thought out. I am all for sensible homes and hate the way they grew, like cars and athletes, over the past 10-15 years (and longer, I know). However, every larger home isn’t reckless, just as every small home isn’t intelligent. What drives me nuts is size – and waste – for size’s sake. It’s not that it’s large that is a problem per se. Some people have large families, home offices, or simply want a larger home, and that’s just reality. If the option is for them to live in a huge home with no design and no concern for sustainability in the systems and materials chosen in construction – or to live in a large home that was well designed, energy efficient, and healthy, I’ll take option B time-after-time and save the criticism for any number of other things. All thing being equal the smaller home is still less of a resource hog I know, but that this is even a conversation suggests the progress that has been made towards getting homes to make more sense and people to understand the importance of smart design, even when – and perhaps especially when – their home is a large one.

  • Anonymous

    Preston you explained it perfectly… Although I think going smaller in size is the easiest way towards efficiency in all areas you have to take into consideration the home’s purpose (how many people are living there, working there, special needs, etc.) before you judge.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with most of the comments below. There is smart design and there is sustainable design and they overlap. If there is an actual need for a large home then it may make sense but then that large home should be intelligently design. Energy efficiency is often only a measure of how much energy is used to condition a home but what about the embodied energy in the home and the lost habitat it may have displaced. Good design is about treading lightly and building what makes the most sense for the occupants. Location also plays a role as does whether a building is reusing a site or materials. It is also true that many projects are guilty of greenwashing where they simply spend a lot of money to offset otherwise poor decisions and design elements. That, is not “green”. Green, to me, is building only as much as you need and incorporating as many sustainable and wise decisions as possible. Then utilizing technology and principles to develop a healthy and wise outcome. Oh, and sprawl is stupid ; )

  • Justin

    I think we all agree smaller consumes less resources therefore it can be argued that it is “greener”.

    However I think that is a poor way to promote green building. I own a residential construction company and we build luxury homes that are rarely the primary residence for most of our clients in The Hamptons, NY. Many of these homes are 6, 7, or 8,000 sq. ft. (these are far from the biggest homes around here, there are 20 and 30,000 sq. ft. homes also even though we don’t build them). Our clients demand a certain size home, can afford it, and it’s just what they are going to build. As Kevin suggested there are two ways to build these homes, either sustainable and efficient, or not. I think the last thing you want to do is start turning people off to green building by telling them their house is not green if it exceeds 3,000 sq. ft. (for example). You want to encourage them to build the house of their dreams, but build it in an environmentally friendly way.

  • MrSteve007

    I think it’s important to look at the project at hand – and it’s quite obvious this project adhered to zero universal design standards that’s being argued for in a large home; it’s two stories without an accessible way to get upstairs, tall countertops and cabinets, and even a gravel driveway blocking access into the home. It’s quite disingenuous to attempt to claim that this home may have been built with extra space for the elderly or disabled in mind.

    While I appreciate the architecture and the layout of the original project, I think it’s important to recognize that a 3,000 + sq/ft home (let alone 8,000+ sq/ft as another commenter pointed out), for 4 healthy people isn’t green. This isn’t a passivehouse standard we’re looking at either. Simply look at the large number of 6-inch can lights scattered both inside and outside the home. In just one image of the kitchen, I can count 12 can lights (three of which serve only to light the top of the cabinets), flanked by three accent lights and one large dining area light. While clerestory windows will help reduce the need for the lights, building such a cavernous space is what requires that many lights to be installed.

    Once they begin the fill the home with the items in their life (TV’s in each room, game systems for the kids, computers, DVR’s, lamps, etc) – there is no way this home is going to have anywhere near the operating or embodied energy of even a mildly upgraded & insulated 30 year old, 1,500 sq/ft home down the street.

  • http://twitter.com/lilbridge Bridgette Meinhold

    Couldn’t agree with you more preston.

  • Netgenrb

    “a 3000 square-foot passivhaus that utilizes less energy than the 900 square-foot house”
    of course this statement pretty much discounts the embeded energy in the materials USED to build a 3000 square-foot house…

  • http://www.ListedGreen.com Listed Green


    Even though you’ll get “bashed” for doing all kinds of things nowadays, ListedGreen.com personally looks at the bigger green home with tougher requirements for more green attributes. We take this stand, well, because we shouldn’t judge anyone about size. Why? Because there are folks out there that will say that 1500 sq. ft. is still too big and not really “green”. Where does it stop? So we focus on the education, just as you do, about a better way to build (with methods and products). Hopefully, over time, homes will be built smaller and smaller, with less of an overall carbon footprint.

    Short story about green critics: I remember I had a booth at West Coast Green a couple of years ago and these two older “green” ladies drilled me over my business cards, which were already printed on recycled paper and veggie ink. They “beat me up” anyway.

    • MrSteve007

      I think readers need to start getting serious about demanding some real metrics out of “green” builders/designers/realtors & yes, even bloggers. Luckily the Feds have already created HERS scores.

      If I had my way, we’d base homes on HERS ratings like this.
      100+ = not green (aka, doesn’t meet basic code)
      100-75 = light green
      75-50 = medium green
      50-25 = green
      25 -1 = deep green
      0 = net zero.

      Then we’d talk separately about materials choices and water consumption – and finally start seriously deducting points when the in-home space begins to exceed 1,000 sq/ft per occupant and there’s no special qualifier like handicapped, or works from home.

      Until we get serious about properly identifying spaces & EUI, we’re going to be hoodwinked by greenwashers trying to pitch massive energy sucking homes with 100+ built-in light fixtures as ‘sustainable’ because they have bamboo floors, an efficient air conditioner and low VOC paints.

  • http://bruteforcecollaborative.wordpress.com/ bruteforcecollaborative

    i think you mean the embodied energy or PEI… and again, this is a generalization – you could build a 900sf house with as much embodied energy as a 3000 sf house. but if you don’t bring the energy consumption/efficiency down considerably (a la passivhaus/minergie-P) then it really doesn’t matter. the energy usage of a building dwarfs the embodied energy of a building.

  • Chris2x

    Smaller is greener than big, no way of getting around that. Larger homes also tend to occupy more sprawling neighborhoods and be more car dependent. That said, even a large home can be super green. Just don’t tell me how wonderful your 3,500 sf straw bale home is when you have to drive 10 minutes just to get a quart of milk.

  • http://treehugger.com Lloyd Alter

    The problem of the larger house is not the square footage, it is the land use; every one shown on jetson green or inhabitat or treehugger is invariably in the suburbs or exurbs. We just can’t design our cities any more in such a way that you need a private car to get around. We need density to support walkable commercial main streets. Context is everything and we ignore that when we just look at the house, whether it is 900 or 9000 square feet.

    I personally live in almost 3,000 square feet of leaky old house, but it is three stories on a 30 x 90 lot with no front yard and a postage stamp rear yard. But we can walk or bike for most of our needs and rarely use our car. Studies confirm that my overall footprint is lower because I live this way. Perhaps size doesn’t matter, but density does.

  • Anonymous Bosch

    Perhaps, but I suspect the examples you present are well outside the mean.

    Our neighborhood (actually our city) is rapidly being transformed from cozy 1940s-era bungalows to gargantuan, gaudy McMansions. We’ve lost several heritage homes on our block in the past two years, and unless the “night nanny” is driving off in the family car each day, I don’t see a lot of home offices.

    While they are our neighbors, and I’d never say it to their faces, their homes are architectural atrocities by almost any measure.

  • Cassyspal

    Where are all of these small homes that are so much more ecologically sound? It’s a rhetorical question of course as there are none. The sq. Ft. Problem will need a confluence of two sets of processes to move forward. Firstly, a joint effort on our part to up sell the idea of a smaller home that is just as relevant, comfortable etc. This requires a change in attitude which makes it the more difficult of the two. And secondly a change in local and state building and zoning law that begins putting realizable mandates on new construction.

  • Sea Wolf

    Preston, thanks for starting this conversation. Cassyspal, what do you mean, Where are the small homes? Seattle, Portland, Berkeley — to name just 3 cities I’m familiar with — are packed with small houses, mostly built before WWII. I don’t think it’s possible to say what size house is the right size, or what size is too big . . . but I do think we each have a responsibility to ask ourselves these tough questions and to come up with sincere answers if we’re to call ourselves green. We can quibble all day about my 600 sq. ft. house being greener than your 800 sq. ft. house. Waste of time. On the other hand, I’d like to have a word with the folks who build a 3,000 sq. ft. house for four. I’d like to ask them: Is this the best you can do? Asking them this question doesn’t demand that I be able to defend my own house (let’s say it’s 900 sq. ft., but it could be 1,500 sq. ft. or 600 sq. ft.) against all comers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Burke-VA/Southern-Exposure-Homes/136492286371086 Roger Lin

    I agree. You mentioned Passivhaus, which really is the perfect example. During one of their training sessions, we modeled the energy use of a multi-family apartment building. You can really see the amazing energy economy that larger buildings get. I understand that people are gonna argue that each individual in that building is allotted less space than the 2900sqft house. However, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, in the passive house scenario, the energy modeling clearly show that the larger the house the more energy efficient it is. How wasteful it is that is another question.

  • Anonymous

    This is a very interesting discussion. Now i know the wealthy can get built huge green homes, it goes without saying. They can pick and choose where to get it built. For the majority of people this is not possible. For us we need smaller green homes in a easy access to all setting, as mentioned in previous comments. The only way around this is to start designing and building purpose built green towns, cities, communities and then destroying the old uneconomic ones in order to rebuild more. You cant just build little green houses anywhere, you need space and planning and thought. I dont know Portland, Seattle or Berkley but from what i see thay are cities. The new green or re-greened houses may be small or pre WWII but they all look a short drive from anywhere convenient, ie now not that green.
    We almost need to start again from fresh on a blank canvas.
    Just to let you know, i’m not a greenie or work in the green industry, i just have an interest in it. I live in the UK where they were trying to build “Green” towns, this looks like its failing due to all the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) objecting to it. They moan about the infrastructure etc. If they start with nothing then this can be incorporated. This is politics so i’ll leave this now.
    Continue the good work Preston.

  • Travis

    The programmatic needs of the house are an essential point to make about square footage. As part of a project to evaluate housing design in several north american cities, I’ve been looking closely at the so-called “needs” of developer homes. The 2000+ sq ft homes, in particular, have shown to have grossly overscaled spaces (bathrooms with giant footprints but no more amenities), a lot of floor area used just for circulation (ie. hallways), and feature multiple redundant spaces. Many ~3000 sq ft houses have, for example, a living room, a family room, a media room, a study, and a rec room in the basement. However nominal the difference programmatically, two high-quality, multi-functional living spaces can replace these redundant excess spaces and make a huge impact on the square footage. Not to mention the reduced need for furnishings!

    Type is as important as program in determining the ‘ecological footprint’ of a home. A 3000 sq ft in a ranch-style home has a very different impact on land-use, potential sprawl and environmental footprint than a 3000 sq ft, 4-story townhome (750 sq ft main floor footprint). As an example of inner-city absurdity, a recently completed tower in downtown Philadelphia – the 1706 Rittenhouse – totalling 29 floors features 31 units, nearly all of which take up the full floor plate of about 4000 sq ft. There are large embodied and operating costs involved with this type of development as well. It also reflects the market for inner-city housing in the larger American cities. I don’t want to get into it necessarily, but as the centers of our cities are reconstructed, we’re seeing fewer and fewer affordable options since much of this infill and retrofitting is done to service the highest end of the market – leaving nowhere for average income earners to live!

    Check out theslowhome.com and their Slow Home Project for more info on the discussion of housing quality.

Popular Topics on Jetson Green