Should we be building smaller homes?

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No, I haven’t gone mad! According to a recent construction report by the Irish Green Building Council, Irelan d needs to cut the size of its average home by 28%, if we are going to achieve our climate goals as a country.

It’s been suggested that the way to do this is to stop building detached and semi-detached homes and instead switch the focus to building terraced homes. But is that a realistic prospect? Let’s take a look.

Regular readers will know that I’m very much a supporter of sustainability and green initiatives, but if I’m honest I felt more pushback than usual about the issue of house sizes. I have a larger than average household (according to research in the Irish Times the average Irish household is 2.5 people, probably slightly less in the UK), so being told that houses are way too big feels like a joke.

Climate goals

The rationale behind the IGBC’s report is twofold. Firstly, they say that if Ireland is to stand a chance of meeting its climate goals, then we need to build an awful lot more houses on an awful lot less space, because huge inefficiencies in the Irish planning system have allowed for oversized houses to become the norm.

They say that if we continue to build houses at their current sizes, then in order to build 400,000 homes by 2030 (the current proposal for the Dublin area), we need an area of 349 square kilometers (roughly a third of the entire county).

According to the report, the average new detached home of 244m² is about three times the size actually required: they suggest that 30m² is an adequate space allowance, meaning that for that 2.5 person average household size, you only need 75m².

I feel this is too simplistic a view to take. Obviously, there’s no such thing as a household of 2.5 people – you’re either two people or you’re three people. You can’t just take a middle point to work from – especially not in practical terms. Are you building a 90 m² three-bedroom house or a 60 m² two-bedroom house? One way or another you’re going to be the wrong size. And what if your household is above average, like mine? Will you have to go and buy land to build your own home?

Swinging the cat

The report also fails to consider the amount of space that possessions take up. When I lived in London, we had a small place, and even though we had an extra bedroom it still lacked space. We ended up hiring a lock-up garage for storage just to make the place more comfortable, so I find it hard to believe that the average family would be able to manage in smaller homes.

The embodied carbon conundrum

The other rationale in the IGBC report is to do with embodied carbon – the amount of carbon emitted during the construction of a building.

This is one of the big issues coming towards us in the construction sector. Is it more efficient for you to demolish a building and build something new or is it immoral of you to demolish that building and destroy the concrete and other building materials? Should you not simply be repurposing that existing structure?

That’s what a lot of people are doing, but the problem it creates is around densities. You might have a three-storey building and get planning permission for a seven- or eight-storey building, but you can’t do that off the existing footprint, so the only option is to demolish the building, taking you straight back to the embodied carbon issue.

What’s the way forward?

The IGBC suggest that terraced houses are the most efficient type of house building. Semi- or detached houses have a lot of external walls and allow too much heat to escape: the fewer outside walls you have, the more efficient your property is going to be. In the same way, mid-floor apartments are really energy efficient, because you don’t lose any heat through the ground floor or the roof.

The worst offenders by far are allegedly detached bungalows, because they have a huge amount of external surface: you’ve got the heat escaping through the ground, through the roof and you’ve got four walls.  They’re effectively a penthouse apartment built on the ground.

Summing up

To me, the whole IGBC report is controversial: of course, we all want to do better in terms of the environment, but do we really want smaller houses? Personally, I can’t see myself ever downsizing (or at least not until my kids are all grown up).  

Where do you stand?  I’d love to know your views on this – do you think houses are too big? What are sizes like in your region? Do you long for somewhere smaller or would you like to have more space? Let me know!