Pay Now or Pay Later – Constructed Space per Person

Lucas Hamilton

I recently read a report in the Department of Energy’s 2009 Building Energy Data Book that referenced the amount of constructed surface area per person around the world.  The United States is second only to Canada in the amount of constructed space per person – the U.S. boasts 3,000 square feet per person. This concept of constructed space per person includes home, work, shopping centers, sports complexes – any constructed buildings where we live, work or play. 

This is far more than most of the world. Comparing the United States to the United Kingdom, for example, the average English citizen uses approximately one-third the space of Americans.  Americans have come to expect this right-of-space. But there is a price to pay if society continues to expect large buildings. If the goal is to move toward net-zero buildings we are going to have to become very creative to overcome our need for space.

One example to consider along these lines is the issue of rain water run-off. For the most part, constructed space represents hard surfaces which prohibit rain water from being absorbed into the ground.  This not only overloads our water treatment and sewer systems, as we discussed in a previous blog about Live Roofs, but it effects the sequestration of carbon dioxide. 

The new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes program sponsored by US Green Building Council is penalizing homeowners for having more space in their home than they need.  However, if a 4,000 square foot home for two people is still desired, the LEED program will allow it but will require more energy efficiency components in order to certify the home. This seems reasonable to me.

If Americans wish to build large spaces, designers and developers are going to have to work harder to offset the impact on the environment.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation