All around my suburban neighborhood in Bethesda, Md., perfectly livable houses built in the 1950s and 1960s are being torn down to make way for grand and stately homes with a dozen or more spacious rooms-mansions, really. The current housing slump seems to have slowed this trend not at all. When I go out for a run, as I often do, and watch the homes go up, and see families move in, I'm occasionally tempted to stick a note in the mailbox, saying something like-"Welcome to the neighborhood. I hope you enjoy your new home. But did you really need to make it so big?" The environmental impact of building these homes must be enormous; think of the trees felled, the granite being moved around the planet for kitchen counters, the stone for fireplaces, the big screen TVs and media centers. What's more, these homes will need to be heated and cooled, emitting lots of greenhouse gases, for decades to come.
This isn't just a problem in my neighborhood, of course. Chevy Chase, Maryland,just down the street from me, slapped a moratorium on the construction of new homes a few years ago because people there were appalled by big new homes going up. In a 2005 Washington Post column headlined "Homes as Hummers," Robert J. Samuelson wrote:
We Americans seem to be in the process of becoming wildly overhoused. Since 1970 the size of the average home has increased 55 percent (to 2,330 square feet), while the size of the average family has decreased 13 percent. Especially among the upper crust, homes have more space and fewer people.
Although I have never written one of those "welcome to the neighborhood" notes, and probably never will, I think I understand what drove a group of so-called eco-terrorists who call themselves the Earth Liberation Front to burn down five luxury "green" homes in a suburb of Seattle a week ago. It's bad enough that people build 4,500 square foot homes that sell for $2 million each. But to pass them off as environmentally responsible is at best, laughable, and, at worst, monstrous. As The Times reported:
The five houses were models built specifically for the 2007 Seattle Street of Dreams tour, their size and price deliberately scaled back, to about 4,500 square feet and around $2 million, to respond to what one builder, Grey Lundberg, said was an increased interest in more subdued and "green" luxury homes.
The FBI website about the arson says that
A large banner signed by the eco-terrorist group ELF, or Earth Liberation Front, was left at the scene on a nearby fence. The sign read: "Built Green? Nope Black! McMansions + RCDs r not green ELF.
RCD is a reference to rural cluster developments, which cluster homes on less land to preserve more open space.
By coincidence, as I walked my dog this afternoon, I was listening to a wonderful CD called An Evening with Ira Glass and the New Kings of Nonfiction in which Ira Glass of This American Life interviews Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean and Chuck Klosterman. At one point, Gladwell read his 1999 Talk of the Town piece about the monster home to end all monster homes, A 42,000 sq. ft. home that a tycoon named Ira Rennert was building in the Hamptons. Here's how it begins:
Now that the strange case of the Sagaponack Homeowners Association vs. Ira Rennert appears to be concluded, it may be time to reflect on what has-and has not-been learned from this, the season's most engrossing episode of rich-on-rich violence. Rennert, as is now widely known, is the multimillionaire industrialist who is building a forty-two-thousand-square-foot single-family home, reported to cost a hundred million dollars, on a sixty-three-acre Hamptons potato field. The Sagaponack Homeowners Association is the opposing group of angry neighbors whose petition to withdraw Rennert's building permits was voted down earlier this month by the Town of Southampton's Zoning Appeals Board. The battle has been a long and heated one, about zoning laws and ocean views, and it has left those of us without homes in the Hamptons more than a little confused. Herewith, then, a brief guide for the uninitiated.
Let's start with the least technical, but perhaps the philosophically thorniest, question raised by the case. Why, in an area full of very big houses, is the prospect of a very, very big house so controversial? The answer is that "big" is a relative term. A standard new monster home in the Hamptons, for example, now runs between ten thousand and fourteen thousand square feet, which is to say that it probably has six or seven large bedrooms (each with its own bathroom), a great hall, a formal living room, an informal living room, a dining room, a media room, a library, a five-to-six-hundred-square-foot kitchen, maids' quarters, a pantry, and, say, a three-or four-car garage. "Some houses have a squash court, and I've built a few with bowling alleys," Kurt Andreassen, a local contractor, said.
When Southampton decided, this fall, to place a limit on the size of all new houses, it settled on twenty thousand square feet, on the ground that that figure represents a reasonable limit, given the big-house norms of the area. At twenty thousand square feet, a house has perhaps ten or eleven bedrooms, a dozen bathrooms, a six-car garage, and maybe, oh, a mini-trading floor for the kids. By comparison, Rennert's house, at forty-two thousand square feet, has twenty-nine bedrooms, thirty-three bathrooms, and two bowling alleys. What the Town of Southampton was saying, in other words, is that twelve bedrooms and one bowling alley is fine, but twenty-nine bedrooms and two bowling alleys is not. Think of the twenty-thousand figure as the community standard-a social consensus-for the maximum size a Hamptons monster home ought to be. With that extra bowling alley and those seventeen additional bedrooms, Rennert just went too far.
You can read the rest of the story here, on Gladwell's website, if you have the stomach for this kind of thing. Speaking of "Homes as Hummers," one of Rennert's companies invented The Hummer, it turns out. That's quite a legacy.
I don't mean to be self-righteous here. For the record, I live in a 1,900-square foot house that is bigger than it needs to be, now that my two daughters have gone off to college and beyond. My carbon footprint is bigger than it should be, too. This week, I plan to fly to LA and back on a trip that is not, strictly speaking, required.
I do mean to suggest that those of us who are privileged ought to think and talk more about how much consumption is enough. Personally, I wish someone would find a way to raise questions about the morality of monster homes without burning them down. It's probably too much to expect of the mainstream environmental groups that rely on donations from people living in big homes. Just look at who sits on the board of Environmental Defense or NRDC. Religious leaders could play a role, but they, too, depend on gifts from the well-to-do. Any thoughts?