Earlier this year we wrote about how we're getting nowhere fast when it comes to energy consumption because having more stuff is eating up all the gains from being more efficient. Now, the Pew Research Center piles on with new data that shows just how bad it is. They find that the average new single-family house is 57 percent larger than the average home in 1970. That drives up the averages. Pew's Drew DeSilver writes:

Like Americans’ waistlines, U.S. homes have been expanding steadily over the years: The average home in 2012 was estimated at 1,864 square feet, 28% bigger than in 1970.

The houses are better insulated with better windows and more efficient appliances; the energy used per square foot has dropped by a third. But because they are so much bigger, they use up just about the same amount of energy.

Today’s New Homes 60% Larger Than in 1973

On VOX, Brad Plumer always looks on the bright side of life, and notes:

All those efficiency gains have allowed us to own much bigger houses (and more stuff in those houses) without a corresponding explosion in energy use. It's a net boon for consumers, you might say.

This is also the response of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think-tank that is just thrilled.

Overall, the increasing size, improving quality, and relative affordability of new homes today means that living standards continue to gradually, but consistently, improve year after year for most Americans.

But it really isn't all sweetness and efficient LED light. The whole point of these increases in efficiency was so that we would use less energy, and have a smaller a carbon footprint. Standing still doesn't solve anything. And how did this happen?

First of all, there's the rebound effect, or Jevons' paradox, which says that as houses or cars get more energy efficient, people buy bigger ones or drive further to get to them. It's controversial and used by some as a reason to say energy efficiency programs are useless, but the evidence is out there for all to see.

house sizeHouses get bigger when people get richer. (Photo: MNN Infographic)

Then there's another reason that houses are getting bigger: Only the rich can afford to buy them. It used to be that the so-called working class could get on the housing ladder; that's why Levittown houses were only 900 square feet. Those jobs are gone, and young people starting families are having trouble qualifying for mortgages in any of the cities where there are jobs being created. So the real estate developers build to the market, which means not so many houses are getting built, but they cost a lot more. As Richard Florida noted,

America’s bloated house size is a two-sided problem. For one, it’s yet another indicator of the nation’s deepening economic divide. The wealthy are pouring more and more money into trophy homes, while the professional and knowledge classes, too, are demanding more space for family and media rooms. The poor, meanwhile, are crammed into urban quarters or pushed out to older, dilapidated housing in the suburbs.

Then there's the cost of energy. Thanks to fracking and the low price of oil, nobody really cares anymore. It's short-sighted, but for many people the cost of heating or cooling a house is such a small proportion of income that they just don't worry about it anymore.

I have always thought that the way to solve this problem is to have absolute rather than relative building codes — that a house should be allotted a fixed amount of energy per design occupant rather than the current specification of R values for walls. Then if someone wanted to build a huge house, they would have to crank up the efficiency, the insulation and the window quality accordingly, while smaller houses could be less efficient and more affordable. But I got into a lot of trouble for that one. As one correspondent noted, "very few agree with your viewpoint especially in the real world in which we live.... It is simplistic and doesn't work."

Ultimately, there are so many factors that have to be taken into account if we're going to make our society more energy efficient and reduce our carbon footprint, from urban density to energy efficiency to building size to embodied energy to durability to transportation intensity. No wonder people are frustrated and confused. We'll look at some of these in subsequent posts.

U.S. Homes More Energy-Efficient, But They Are Now Larger, Too

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.