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Waging a green jihad on suburban homes

By Ross Elliott - posted Monday, 29 August 2011


It seems rarely a month passes without some new assault on the lifestyle and housing choice preferred by the overwhelming majority of Australians – the detached suburban home.

Denigrated by a careless media as 'McMansions' or attacked as some archaic form of reckless housing choice which is 'no longer appropriate' (according to some planning or environmental fatwa), the detached home is under a constant assault of falsely laid allegation and intellectual derision.

The latest of these assaults is the form of a proposed 'green star' rating scheme for 'McMansions' which critics claim cost could cost homeowners thousands of dollars in devalued prices.

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While the critics suggestions of financial hardship might be taking the possible impacts a bit too far, it is reasonable to challenge this obsession of regulators and green crusaders which views the detached home as some form of modern environmental vandalism.

The very first (and what should be obvious) fact that escapes our fanatics' attention, is that houses, or home units, or even office buildings for that matter; don't use energy. Only the occupants in them, and their behaviour, consume energy. The dwelling itself can be designed for more efficient energy use by the occupants, for sure, but remember always that it is people who consume power, not buildings.

That point was brought home, embarrassingly for our rampaging environmental and social crusaders, by no less than the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2007.

Their 'Consumption Atlas' revealed what came as a surprise to many, but which should have been widely understood from the start: that wealthy people who can afford to live in the expensive home units and townhouses of trendy inner city areas use much more energy, and have bigger carbon footprints per capita, than their suburban counterparts.

More than that, it also revealed that inner city areas are "consumption hotspots" and smaller household sizes have greater environmental impacts than larger (chiefly suburban) households.

The significance of those findings has been studiously ignored by the advocates of environmental engineering who claim that a leading virtue of wholesale change in housing type - from detached suburban to high density inner urban - is that this will be good for the environment. The facts, however, show that it isn't necessarily so.

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If a large family of five, for example, (mum, dad and three kids) living in a four bedroom house with two cars in the suburbs produce a smaller carbon footprint than the dinks and yuppies living in their city apartment, why aren't the media, environmental and planning advocates asking more questions?

At the time the ACF report was released, I was running the Residential Development Council, and I can still recall hearing the ACF's key findings mentioned in some very early radio news bulletins on the ABC. For some reason, the story quietly petered out but the ACF kindly had a version on-line and once I sent a copy to Demographia's Wendell Cox, it went on to infamy.

Wendell prepared a report analysing its findings for the RDC in terms of housing choice and greenhouse gas emissions, which is well worth reading. You can still find the report 'Housing Form in Australian and its Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions' online. Talk about the man who kicked the hornet's nest.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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