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Mission of the York Energy Efficiency Committee

Our mission is to respond to the global warming crisis by promoting energy efficiency, alternative energy, and environmental initiatives throughout the town of York, Maine.
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[Source: The US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)]

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Real Homes: Small, Frugal, and Green

Doug Pibel of Yes! Magazine writes that “with 5 million houses in foreclosure, we are rediscovering that living sustainably includes living affordably.” The real estate bubble of 2008 showed that buying and turning around a house is not necessarily a way to get rich quick. It didn’t use to be that way, and it may never again be the same.

… There were a lot of things wrong in the ’50s that we don’t want to recapture. But living in small spaces was not something that people complained about. And here’s a fact: The average American now has about 961 square feet of space. That’s awfully close to the average size for an entire house in 1950, when we managed with 259 square feet per person.

Reversing the trend

Why, over the course of just 60 years, did we triple our living space? In part, because we could. Building materials were cheap. The energy to run a house was not too costly. For builders, whose main cost is labor, the profit margin on a big house is greater than on a small one. We slipped into a feedback loop, where builders pushed bigger houses and consumers, seeing what everyone else was buying, started demanding them. Once square footage became the key measure of value, banks were less interested in loans on small houses.

Ella's House photo by Dawn JenkinsThere are signs that the trend is reversing. The average size of a new house peaked in 2007 and has gone down since. But so far that only replicates what happened during past recessions—although the decrease is larger this time. The question is whether we return to the pattern of ever-increasing house size if the current recession ends for everyone, not just the rich.

Doubling up

There’s also hope in the growing trend toward “doubling up,” whether in the form of multigenerational households or shared living with people of different families. For the moment, this is a matter of economic necessity as people who have lost their jobs and homes move in with relatives, and recent college graduates, saddled with debt and unable to find work, move back in with their parents.

But this may be the beginning of remembering that people can thrive in smaller spaces. A Pew Research poll of people living in multigenerational homes found about 80 percent reporting that the living arrangement had strengthened family bonds. (A similar percentage reported that it had increased tension—the two are not mutually exclusive.)

We can expect to see more doubling up as a matter of necessity as baby boomers enter their elder years with retirement funds depleted by the housing and financial crashes. But as it becomes more normal for people to use less space, we may figure out that what worked in the 1950s was much closer to what we really need.

Then we can convert the giant houses of the bubble into multifamily housing; make sure new housing is small, green, and affordable; and have a shot at housing everyone without destroying our habitat.

Read the rest of the story.

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