Suburban (In)Efficiency on Multiple Fronts

[tweetmeme source=”intercongreen”]Suburban America often gets the cold shoulder from designers and planners that harp on its inherently inefficient development. The archetype of cul-de-sacs lined with single family homes can often trump and surmount any legitimate goals of its residents to live more efficient lives. As we know, efficiency, and its contribution to a greater idea of sustainability, is a idea comprised of all lifestyle choices–not just CFLs and Energy Saver labels. In their current form, suburbs make inefficiency necessary for living and it is not difficult to spot.

I saw this graphic in an article on the New York Times‘ website. It came from an interesting study that was done by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy as a scorecard for how each of the states perform relative to one another in energy efficiency.

United States Efficiency

Source: ACEEE via the New York Times

The article veers towards the question of whether efficiency is a Liberal notion rather than a Republican one, given that the top ten most efficient states in the country happen to be Democrat while the ten worst performers are red states. I don’t usually use Intercon as a political sparring arena so for now we will just stick to the graphic as a collective, bi-partisan reference guide. (But it does seem like remarkable coincidence)

I was then pointed to this graphic, appearing on GOOD Magazine’s website, by my colleague Michael Ashcroft: a fellow blogger and sustainability advocate. The map originally came from a report titled Driven Apart, prepared by CEOs for Cities and its purpose was to point out how suburban sprawl adds traffic, and as a result commuting hours, to various cities in different degrees across the U.S..

Sprawl and Inefficiency

Source: CEOs for Cities via Good Magazine

Speaking of remarkable coincidences, notice any here? Similarities? Clearly the noted cities with the largest plagues of suburban sprawl and commuting hours happen to be the least efficient states in the country.To be fair, I have to question the graphic a little bit as possibly suffering from selective sampling because for some reason Los Angeles is not on the map. Having been to Los Angeles more than once I have to say there is no more unsettling reality of car traffic and sprawling landscape in America. Long commutes of sitting at a stand still on the highway is as much a part of life as breathing to tens of thousands of commuters.

A Model Destined to Fail

On one hand, it’s hard to blame the residents. Our suburbs are simply not designed to facilitate an efficient lifestyle. A car is necessary for every task outside of the home. Infrastructure becomes bloated and expensive as it stretches miles to serve a limited number of residents. Single family homes are ridden with excess, unutilized space that pulls energy to clean, temper and illuminate throughout the year. According to the 2009 release of the Buildings Energy Data Book, published every year by the Department of Energy, on average an American single family home uses over 44% more energy per person than a multifamily dwelling (42.6 million BTUs per year vs. 29.5 million). Suburban homes also count for the vast majority of our national residential energy usage at 80.5%. Clearly our current model (the same one we have been using for decades) needs to be revamped.

There are plenty of designers that believe the suburbs should be pushed to extinction and all people should move towards a habitat in an urban setting. I don’t consider myself part of that school as I hold out some hope that suburban living can be accomplished in an efficient construct that preserves some of the good qualities that draw people outside of cities (privacy, proximity to nature, private yards and greenspace) while curtailing some of its more wasteful repercussions. However, I do think that whatever that creation is would look like something noticeably different from what most of us think of as suburban standards.

Some places to start could include focusing on condensed, walkable suburban hubs or transit oriented development that could change the dependency that residents have on moving around by car. We should be moving towards a density-driven grid that rewards higher population concentration with efficient grid connection and detaches areas more sparsely settled, forcing them to produce their own renewable power instead of pulling the rest of the grid down with them and that includes all modes of infrastructure (water, power, sewage). As an architect, I would love to say that all of this thinking is on the boards of the profession right now as we speak, but the truth is that contractors and developers, who seldom even employ outside architects, end up crafting most of our new suburban housing and do so without these goals in mind. Real change will take more people and municipalities deciding that the status quo has to change.