Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

What is the Future of Home?

We–well Graham, our founder–often gets asked to present on the subject of LifeEdited, doing more with less and the like. And we–well I, David your trusty blogger–am often charged with researching and helping to organize these presentations. Graham spoke at last week’s Visioneering conference held by X-Prize (my research being the main culprit behind the site’s mostly offline status the last couple weeks). If you’re not familiar with X-Prize, it’s an organization that offers up a bunch of money to fund big solutions to grand challenges. Visioneering is a brainstorming session to consider and prioritize what the next X-Prize challenge will be. Graham spoke on the “future of home” and was charged with throwing out a grand challenge around the topic.

In researching this topic, one thing became really clear to me: the future of housing is a really big deal, perhaps the biggest individual deal there is in terms of addressing our biggest problem. What is that biggest problem, you ask? In my opinion, it’s climate change, aka global warming.

Consider the following:

  • 13 of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000.
  • Arctic sea ice is melting at a rate of 12% a year and some believe it might all be gone as soon as 2030.
  • The atmospheric concentration of CO2 just passed 400 ppm, which is already 50 ppm north of what is considered an acceptable concentration for maintaining a stable climate situation. Going at our current our current average emission rate of 1.92 ppm, we will hit 450 ppm by 2042, which might trigger temperature increases of anywhere 2-5 degrees centigrade. This might (i.e. likely) set off a bunch of events like massive glacial melting, triggering sea level rises and the release of ungodly amounts of methane from said glaciers accelerating warming even more. We can look forward to horrible, ongoing droughts in some places (we’re looking at you California) and monsoon like conditions in others. Famine, mass-extinctions of flora and fauna, climate refugeeism, resource conflicts, plagues of invasive species and lots of other fun stuff if things keep going as is.
  • Experts believe that if we are to stand any chance of stabilizing the climate, we need to return to 50% of 2010 global CO2 emissions…and do it yesterday. But for all the resolutions and imperatives to curb global CO2 emissions, there seems scant evidence that it will happen. According to recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) findings, “the average growth rate of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere from 2012 to 2014 was 2.25 ppm per year, the highest ever recorded over three consecutive years.” Ever. Recorded.

How does all of this relate to housing? Well many believe that housing and related mobility accounts for anywhere from 40-70% of our CO2 emissions. If there were one place to focus our energies in reducing our carbon emissions, housing would be a great candidate (or we could just screw it all and go to Mars…either way).

Of course stemming housing-related emissions is not a one-size-fits all proposition. Much of the global population growth in the 21st Century is expected to happen in the urban areas of the developing world; it’ll be tough to anticipate how this growth will go down exactly and its impact on the environment. What we do know here and now is that the developed world (and the US in particular) has a totally outsized carbon footprint relative to its population–a footprint that’s largely responsible for our current quagmire and one that will prove geo-cidal if it were to continue.

visioneer

One interesting study I found used a Swiss village as a proxy for how emissions were affected by housing typologies. What it found was that a small percentage of houses created a disproportionate amount of emissions. Large homes located away from the village center–21% of the houses studied–created more than 50% of the emissions due to heating, cooling and transportation requirements.

In the global housing context, the United States is that 21% that creates a disproportionately large carbon footprint. We are the second biggest overall global producers of CO2, despite being a distant third in terms of population. The second most populated country, India, has four times the population of the US and a per capita carbon footprint 1/10 ours. China, the most populated country, has the largest total carbon footprint, but a per capita footprint that is about 1/3 ours, and a healthy chunk of that comes from manufacturing our–and the rest of the world’s–stuff.

So if there is going to be a future of home–or a future of anything–it seems pretty clear that we Americans, and to various extents the rest of the developed world, must reduce the carbon footprint of our homes. The US released 6.7M metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2013. Halving our housing related emissions (at 70%, roughly 2.3M tons) might not be the end of the story, but could be a good beginning, especially if it were to influence housing in other parts of the world. So the challenge, as we phrased it, was this:

Our grand challenge in the next 5 years is to design and bring into being attractive, cost-effective homes that bring together existing and future technologies and that will compel the developed world to live in them thereby drastically reducing their footprints and inspiring the rest of the world to go this way instead of the suburban McMansion and highway route.The challenge is also for the emerging economies to develop their version of this…a low cost, compelling way of living that is healthy and safe yet attractive enough to compete with the desire for the “Cribs” lifestyle.

A grand challenge indeed. And fortunately for us, we were not charged with providing a specific solution to the challenge. We did present a number of technologies that are addressing the challenge–from transforming architecture to thermostatic smart sensors to 3D architecture and much more. Most followed the LifeEdited ethic of downsizing, doing more with less but better, employing technology to improve efficiency and so on (note: the X Prize is not into policy-making, so these were technological, not political, solutions).

The topic and my findings were pretty overwhelming. As a species, we face a huge challenge. And we the inhabitants of the “developed” world have a huge responsibility. Our big-house dwelling, car-dependent, consumer-obsessed lifestyle will almost certainly lead the planet to environmental catastrophe if continued. If we want to stand a chance, something must change. What will that change be, I’m not sure.

What do you think? What do you think is the future of home? What technological solutions would you employ to drastically reduce our housing-related carbon footprints? Let us know in our comments section.

  • Marrena

    It has to be tied in with transportation infrastructure. Here in Boston we are living it. We used to have a world-class public transportation system, and that organically grew the compact housing around the MBTA. But now after decades of underfunding and mismanagement, it’s all crumbling around us and could not stand the strain of this past winter. Those defects will cause people and companies to flee to the suburbs, thereby increasing carbon footprints.

    I know that particular prize is not political, but all the compact home technological and design know-how in the world won’t make a difference if the public transportation system cannot support the volume, and a great public transportation system will organically grow compact homes clustered around it. Of course having those ideas thought up and tested will make the process easier and faster, but it’s the public transportation that drives the whole thing, not the technology and design.

  • A huge amount of transportation consists of individuals commuting to large, temperature-controlled buildings so they can sit at a computer and work with people using other computers at other large, temperature-controlled buildings. Telecommuting should be the default choice for all office jobs. It doesn’t require any new technology or legislation.

  • Tim Domenico

    Exactly what will the house of the future be?

    What a question.

    How should each of us choose to live our life?

    Do you realize you’re asking for 100, if not 1000, decisions that each person needs to make regarding how to live their life:

    How big does my home need to be?

    How far should I live from work?

    What appliances do I actually need?

    How often do I buy new clothes?

    How often do I venture to a thrift store for clothes and other

    household things?

    What opportunities are available for me to work?

    How far should I live from that work?

    What effect do these decisions have on my children’s happiness

    and success.

    This and perhaps a thousand other decisions, some made almost daily, will determine where you live, work and play and ultimately, how happy you will be.

  • David Bush

    American attitudes towards success need to change. Typically, success is defined by how powerful your car is, how many bathrooms your house has, and how far away that house is from your neighbor. The smaller the number, the bigger loser you are.

    On the bright side, I think that attitude is definitely changing with younger generations. It would be interesting to poll college students from around the country and have them describe what their future successful life might look like.

  • This is a great article from the Economist, Is it global warming or just the weather?(http://www.economist.com/news/international/21650552-scientists-are-getting-more-confident-about-attributing-heatwaves-and-droughts-human). It describes how scientists are getting more confident about attributing extreme weather events to human influence. This is being done the same way we view smoking and lung cancer causation. Still today the process of proving a smoker gets lung cancer directly from smoking is not possible. But everyone agrees that smoking causes an increase in the risk of getting lung cancer. Scientists today are saying that increases in climate change are increasing the risk of extreme weather. Let’s change how we look at resource hogging big houses and make cost effective houses seem like just plain common sense. False message: Tobacco companies used to tell us that smoking was healthy. Thanks for this great post.

  • gocall

    Good points made, but if we all follow them, downsize and live with a smaller footprint it’s still just a stopgap if we don’t halt population growth.