On the 100th Birthday of Our House: The Past and Future of Housing in the U.S.

This year marks our home’s 100th birthday. Throughout the year I plan on writing a few posts on what it’s like to live in an intact and, mostly, unaltered 980 square foot 1920s era bungalow. Let’s start with the differences between a house in 1920 and now.

In 1920 the average house size in the U.S. was just over 1,000 square feet. Square footage peaked a few years ago at around 2,600 square feet and has declined slightly since. The often forgotten part of these statistics is the fact that the number of people in the average house has declined from around four people in the 1920s to 2.5 today. My late mom told the story of sleeping in the breakfast nook when she was a child in the 20s and, at various times, the family took care of older relatives.

In most other parts of the world people do with a lot less space. In Russia today folks have about the same square feet per person as an American in 1920. By contrast folks in the U.S. today have over four times more space per person. In countries like Russia and Hong Kong, or the U.S. a hundred years ago, you’re likely living in close quarters with extended family. This has implications for child and elder care and tends to make these cultures far less individualistic.

While square footage per person has gone up in the U.S., new houses have become a lot more energy efficient between 1920 and now. We know this from experience. Our old L.A. bungalow is drafty in the winter and sweltering in the summer. New houses use half as much energy per person and are more likely to burn cleaner sources of energy. But, as Bonnie Maas Morrison points out in a paper, “Ninety Years of U.S. Household Energy History,” household energy savings have been more than offset by increases in consumption elsewhere in our lives.

Think of the conveniences required for today’s dual-earner, single-parent/multi-job holding households. Think of the eating-out phenomenon, think of the pre-packaged, pre-prepared meals (from freezer, to micro-wave, to table, to garbage can, all in one container). Think of the transportation to and from places of work, shopping and leisure demanded by these households. Think of the energy demanded in these places of work, leisure, and retail. Think of the energy demanded to process the waste products of this “convenience.”

Even though this paper was written in the 1990s, Morrison goes on to make a point that has become even more true in an always connected internet and smart phone age.

Time itself has become a commodity and convenience has become the oil that lubricates the wheel of time, allowing more activities, to take place either at one time in the same place (i.e. using the cellular car phones while driving), or in a particular time period but in a different place (i.e. doing grocery shopping, while dishes or clothes are machine washed).

In the book, The Overworked American, 1991, Juliet Schor suggests that “U.S. employees currently work 320 more hours–the equivalent of over 2 months–than their counter-parts in West Germany or France.” This American lifestyle demands convenience, and that demand is exercised both inside and outside the household.

So the differences between our 1920s bungalow and the average U.S. house today are much more than just an increase in square footage and more consumer electronics. These differences lead to a difficult discussion about what a more energy efficient future might look like. Our future might be less about energy efficient tiny houses and more about sharing an apartment with relatives. Or getting your not-in-my-backyard neighbors to agree to a bus-only lane on an already congested boulevard. Or democratizing the workplace to ask for fewer hours for more pay to allow more time for cooking and child care. Or revisiting the bungalow court, granny flat or, gasp, looking to multi-generational communal living. These are tough ideas to contemplate from the luxury of our quiet and comfortable but also overpriced and drafty L.A. bungalow.

Happy 2020!

As 2019 comes to a close I’ll leave you with two caricatures by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. The first depicts, I think, William Morris after a night of partying.

The second one is a self-portrait. There’s a nice anecdote about Burne-Jones,

….his pet grandson used to be punished by being sent to stand in a corner with his face to the wall. One day on being sent there he was delighted to find the wall prettily decorated with fairies, flowers, birds, and bunnies. His indulgent grandfather had utilised his talent to alleviate the tedium of his favourite’s period of penance.

Thanks to the Pre-Raphaelite Society for these images.

Saturday Tweets: Say Goodbye to 2019

Le Palais idéal. Image source: Otourly.

Facteur Cheval’s incredible endeavor, the Palais Idéal

Companion Planting: Fraud vs. Facts

Low-tech magazine is now a book!

At the Mexican Border, the Battle for Endangered Species is as Much About Water as About The Wall

Lies, Damned Lies, and Recycling

You Are Literally Working for Silicon Valley and Don’t Know It

Two young climate activists invite Pete Buttigieg to “rethink his strategy” on climate change

For Christ Was Born in a Refugee Camp

The Art of Memory

A Love Supreme

I’ve long made it a policy of this blog to avoid political discussions, believing that we needed to unify folks under a big tent of growing food, keeping livestock and learning to cook from scratch. But in recent years, all around the world, we have collectively slipped into a dangerous crisis I can not longer be silent about.

The neoliberal order has crumbled. Populist, authoritarian leaders such as Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson have ascended to power. Here in the U.S., nearly everyone I know, including myself, can’t seem to turn our attention away from Trump’s siren call of attention getting antics and late night twitter screeds. Concurrently, interest in urban homesteading has waned. It’s almost as if you have to lash yourself to the mast not to wake up with Trump so much on your mind that you forget to let out the hens.

Over the Christmas break we joined 15,000 of our fellow Angelinos at a Bernie Sander’s rally at Venice Beach. It was a beautiful, cool and sunny winter day. We stood with the ocean at our back and a magnificent view of the mountains that surround our city. After a few warm-up speakers and music, surprise guest Dr. Cornell West ascended the stage. Quoting Sly and the Family Stone West said that it was time to take a stand, “You’ve been sitting much too long/There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong.” Invoking a long list of brave Americans who took a stand, including Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day he noted that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Then he introduced Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, as the crowd went wild, I felt an energy and solidarity that I never thought I’d live to see.

As a long time attendee of lost-cause leftist events I’m used to a scattered message, marginal ideas, anger and disappointment. Not at this rally. Everyone was unified behind Dr. West’s message of a “love supreme.” There were people of all races and ages at the rally (though it skewed young). The rally looked like a cross-section of this diverse city. People were happy and positive. Ocasio-Cortez said “One of the things that makes this campaign different is that we know we can’t go back to the way things were before. Because the way things were before is how we got to where we are now.”

The rally, without exaggeration, was a life changing event for me. This is why I’m joining with our friend, climate scientist Peter Kalmus, in endorsing Bernie Sanders. I respectfully ask all of you who live in the U.S. to consider his policies and to vote for Bernie Sanders in your state. I believe that we all need to act on the household level and the community level and the national level and the global level. Yes we need to take personal actions, but those personal actions alone won’t get us out of the crisis we are in. Especially when it comes to climate change we need, radical, immediate action at the national and international level. The time for moderate, measured change has long since past. Electing Bernie Sanders is not an end but a beginning. If he gets into office the struggle will be even more difficult than taking on a few corrupt, corporate Democrats.

Be wary of the mainstream media’s treatment of Sanders. The Los Angeles Times did not even bother to show up to the Sanders rally. When Joe Biden came and spoke to less than 100 people at LA Trade Tech back in November the LA Times deemed it worthy of attention.

I struggled to find any wide shots of the Biden LA rally but couldn’t find any. It’s an exercise in how photographs lie. Frame a candidate tightly and it looks like there’s a lot of people. For contrast, here’s what the Sanders rally looked like from where Kelly and I stood:

In the coming months, as the oligarchs who run this country begin to freak out at the rise of a popular left, I predict that the mainstream media will throw everything they can at Sanders. They will call him an anti-Semite, a misogynist and worse. The Democratic party establishment and their friends in the media will do everything they can to prevent Sanders from winning. I’ve seen, at the local level, how this same establishment does the bidding of powerful interests–here in LA that’s Hollywood and real estate developers.

I’m also sticking my neck out because I’ve seen some in the urban homesteading movement drift towards what I’d call a fascist and/or alt-right adjacent ideology and I want to distance myself from that contingent. More on that in another post. I believe that the way we treat the environment, our bodies and our households is on a continuum with the way we take care of all people. Everyone has a right to health care, housing and education. For the sake of future generations we need to join with Dr. West, AOC and Bernie Sanders in seeking immediate and radical change based on love for each other and for all creation.