David Wogan brings up an important point--if we're serious about global warming, we need to lower the amount of energy buildings use:
Consider this: according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, our nation's buildings consume over 40 percent of the energy consumed across all sectors - that is even more energy than consumed by the transportation sector (29 percent). And in our homes and apartments, nearly half (49 percent) of all energy is used for heating and cooling.
As he points out weatherization is something you can and should do to lower energy consumption. But there's another issue, best illustrated by this chart:
Here's the problem--single, detached houses that require automobile transportation:
One of the best ways to reduce the amount of stuff we have to light on fire is to move from single detached housing in areas with no efficient mass transit to apartments with access to mass transit (keep in mind that residential use and transporation account for about two-thirds of total energy consumption). In other words, we have to massively 'desuburbanize' and simultaneously 'reurbanize.'
And this list is only part of what fixing that would entail:
Would we really be able to change the myriad number of economic and funding incentives in favor of the suburbs and the disincentives for living in urban areas?
Will we remove the mortgage interest tax deduction (most urbanites are renters and most suburbanites are owners)?
Will we decrease the massive subsidies and externalizations at the federal, state and local levels for driving?
Will we intelligently zone communities so apartment buildings could be built in more places?
...Will we adequately fund mass transit, both short- and long-distance? Especially when conservative governors actively refuse what is basically free money?
By all means, improving your home's energy efficiency is something you should do--and you don't have to wait for anyone else. But there is a larger issue of how we live and organize our communities that also needs to be addressed.
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Don't be too quick to lump all detached housing together. We live in a neighborhood designed in the 30s, designed for a street car line that no longer exists, on a lot 38' wide. There are many apartment buildings interspersed. Outside of downtown, this neighborhood is the city's densest. But it has a varied feel, and with quite a lot of nature brought in. Which it wouldn't, were the residences nothing but apartment complexes. It's mostly the houses, which even though on small lots, provide the trees and street gardens and even small wildlife habitats.
Actually, Apartment Buildings Are Noisy
The unfortunate part of re-urbanization is that there are much more than just economic and funding reasons that they aren't desirable. There are numerous other social, regulatory and standard of living issues as well.
Socially, there's a stigma that needs to be changed to move people into cities. Apartments are for people who can't afford a house, while suburbs are to be desired as a social standing.
Standard of Living in apartments (in my experience) is lower, as well. Unlike countries where a large portion of the population share walls, there is little in the way of sound deadening requirements.
With apartment building companies looking to maximize profit without increasing initial investment, this means being able to hear your neighbor loud and clear every time he walks on the hardwood floor, turns on his blender, or coughs. This leaves you completely at the mercy of 4 groups of people when you are trying to sleep, depending on your location in the building.
This is not even including the added noise of traffic and businesses that is inherent in urban environments. Particularly if your city has no specific noise bylaws.
The solutions? Socially, I'm not capable of predicting what needs to be done to change the stigma of apartment living. Standard of Living requires the update of the building regulations for apartments and updating noise bylaws. And the regulations will only help new buildings.
Having spent a fair chunk of time banging on walls trying to silence neighbors, even understanding the added efficiency of multi-family dwellings, and the need for them to mitigate AGW is not enough to convince me against getting a detached house. Re-urbanization is a steep hill to climb, and nobody seems to be all that keen on running the ropes needed to make it easier.
A point I've made before, but which bears repeating - when I leave my apartment for a detached single-family home, my CO2 use will go down, not up, for a key reason - building age and eco-improvements.
Being environmentally conscious, any home I buy would be stocked with as many features to reduce CO2 use as possible, and modified by me for still more later (solar panels etc.). In contrast, my apartment now is nearly 100 years old, poorly insulated, with no impetus for the landlord to improve it because I pay heat and power. And just about every apartment in Providence is similar.
In short - a well-made modern home built with a goal of lower CO2 will have a lower per-capita CO2 footprint than an apartment complex built about 100 years ago and barely improved since then.
JoeKaistoe, I get the feeling you have never actually lived in an apartment building. Certainly not one in the US and built in the last thirty years. Standards, and building construction methods change and noise is not an issue any more than it is with detached houses. If anything modern concrete construction is more immune to low-frequency intrusion than your typical framed house. Time to leave those stereotypes, and testimonies from tenements in the 50s, behind.
Who's lucky enough to live in an area with new apartment construction? New construction here is typically luxury condominiums and suburban homes, and many older apartment buildings are being converted to condominiums to avoid rent controls. No new rental construction here, and very limited in the amount and extent of renovations. Joe's complaints are definitely not stuck in the 50's.
JoeKaistoe, you're right that apartment living presents challenges, but I think they can be overcome to a large extent. I lived for many years in a building where I knew way too much about my next-door neighbors' lives and my upstairs neighbor's hobbies and pets, thanks to inadequate noiseproofing. But my first apartment building and the building where I currently live have excellent soundproofing between the units, as well as high-quality windows that do a lot to dampen sounds from the street.
Here in DC, at least, there is no assumption that "apartments are for people who can't afford a house." Many of us choose to live in apartments because we want to live in a place where we can live without a car, have an easy commute to work, and walk to stores, restaurants, rec centers, friends' homes, etc. Developers have responded with apartment buildings that appeal to people who could afford to live in a house, but would gladly live in the city if they can find a place that meets their needs (including the need for relative quiet).
I'm sure there are lots of place that could use updates to (or better enforcement of) building codes and noise regulations. But I don't see the social stigma as being the problem, at least not in cities like DC where the demand for housing in the city exceeds the supply.
Tenements from the 50s? Where are those? Having experience living in tenements from the glory days of tenements (the 1880s), I can say those really suck. And mind, overall, I like historic buildings. New construction is frequently not much better, especially recent bubble-era building. How many ways can you spell "code violations"?
These days we are fortunate enough to have a semi-detached single in a neighborhood where work and most amenities are reachable by foot, bike, or public transit. I can see the energy advantage of multi-unit housing, and the wastefulness of the suburbs, but the main problem with multi-unit housing is that the multi-units tend to be filled with multi-people. I've done the sardine-can thing, I don't want to do it again.