Expert Commentary

U.S. EPA: Energy-efficiency limits by housing location, type

2011 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how building location factors into the total cost of household energy use.

In the quest for increased energy efficiency and smaller carbon footprints, many individuals are now making more conscious consumer choices, looking for greener alternatives in everything from household appliances to hybrid vehicles. However, the basic structure of homes, as well as the areas in which they were built, may represent deep challenges to achieving real cuts in personal and family energy consumption.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Location Efficiency and Housing Type: Boiling It Down to BTUs,” compared annual energy outputs (in BTUs) of households in conventional suburban developments with those of households in compact, transit-accessible neighborhoods.

The report’s findings include:

  • A detached single family home in a conventional suburb uses, on average, 91 million BTU’s of energy more than the exact same house does if situated in a transit-accessible compact neighborhood. The entire differential — a 38% overall difference — is accounted for by transportation energy costs.
  • A household in a multifamily unit with a green car in a transit-accessible area uses 70 million BTUs annually. A family in a detached house in a suburb with a conventional car uses on average 240 million BTUs.
  • A household in a conventional suburb with a green vehicle would still on average expend 9 million BTUs more than a household without a green vehicle in a transit-accessible neighborhood.
  • Household energy savings for multifamily homes, which use only 54 million BTUs annually to power the living space itself, are dramatic when compared to single-family detached homes — which use 108 million BTUs for home energy. This is because of inherent efficiencies from more compact size and shared walls among units.

The authors conclude that “while energy efficiency measures in homes and vehicles can make a notable improvement in consumption, the impact is considerably less dramatic than the gains possible offered by housing type and location efficiency.”

Tags: carbon, greenhouse gases, mass transit

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