For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location


Union Square, New York, Image Credit Lloyd Alter

After lecturing on "deep green design", (I am adjunct Professor at Ryerson School of Interior Design) Passivhaus and the fancy gizmo technologies of green building, one of my students said "but not everyone can afford this! How are normal working people going to live?"

A couple of years ago, that would have been a difficult question to answer. But lately, the answer had become a lot clearer: We don't all have to drive LEAFS and Volts and live in Passivhauses. In fact, it might even be counterproductive. Now, more and more tools and studies are making it very clear that just like in real estate, when it comes to energy consumption and climate change, the three most important things to consider are location, location and location.
Image Credit: UNEP. Click to enlarge.

This is not a new idea to TreeHugger readers; we have been talking about it for years. David Owen wrote about it in the New Yorker in 2004 and turned it into a book last year. But we mostly looked at large cities, the Hong Kong vs Houston equation shown on this chart from UNEP. In fact, while dense urban cities like New York and London do well, smaller towns and cities turn out to be rather efficient as well. The critical factor is, in my opinion, not necessarily just density; Australian cities and Toronto are not that dense, and yet they use way less energy per capita than Phoenix or Denver. The key indicator is what I will call Urbanity, a mix of transit-oriented development, walkability, and historicity.

But is there any research to back this up?

Transportation Energy Intensity

Image Credit: Building Green. Click to enlarge.

In 2007, Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen.com applied the term Transportation Energy Intensity to buildings.

"Transportation energy intensity" is a metric that has long been used to measure such things as how efficiently freight is transported. We're proposing it here as a metric of building performance. The transportation energy intensity of a building is the amount of energy associated with getting people to and from that building, whether they are commuters, shoppers, vendors, or homeowners. The transportation energy intensity of buildings has a lot to do with location. An urban office building that workers can reach by public transit or a hardware store in a dense town center will likely have a significantly lower transportation energy intensity than a suburban office park or a retail establishment in a suburban strip mall.

Alex concluded that it takes about 30% more energy for people to get to buildings than the buildings actually use. If you take a so-called green building in the suburbs, the data are even more shocking.

Even more significantly, if we make the same comparison using a new office building that is built according to modern energy codes (ASHRAE 90.1-2004), we find that the transportation energy use is nearly 2.4 times as great as the direct energy use of the building!

It was an early glimpse of the fact that perhaps we are measuring the wrong things.

More: The Transportation Energy Intensity of Buildings
Jargon Watch: "Transportation Energy Intensity" of Buildings

Urban Archetypes



Click image to enlarge

In 2009, Natural Resources Canada released the results of the Urban Archetypes Project. It looked at thirty-one neighbourhoods in eight communities across Canada.

Communities of different sizes and geographical regions were engaged so that a range of climates, energy sources, and energy efficiency issues could be represented. Neighbourhoods were selected based on characteristics such as housing type, age of the development, and for being of interest to the municipality in comparing energy consumption.

Data collected from each neighbourhood included land use and physical infrastructure data from the municipality and electricity, natural gas, and oil data from the utilities. Interviews with local residents were also conducted.



click image to enlarge

I found the results of this report staggering; in Ottawa, for example the Kirkwood area, full of leaky 50s and 60s walkups, blew everyone else away, using the least amount of energy per capita.

But of what I think is greater significance, is the ratio of transportation energy, the red bars, to housing energy, the orange. The people living in the big historic houses in downtown areas are using very little gasoline. Admittedly Ottawa is not a typical city; it is the nation's capital and the government buildings are pretty well concentrated, and there are lots of alternatives among biking, walking, transit, even skating to work. But the results of the study were consistent across the country: people living in smaller units downtown used significantly less energy than those in the suburbs. People living in big drafty historic 19th century houses used less energy overall than people in the suburbs.

More: Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities

Walkscoring Historic Neighbourhoods


For me, this was important information, as in 2009 I was elected President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, a 25 branch local version of the American National Trust for Historic Preservation. My consistent message was that Heritage is Green, and that our Heritage Conservation Districts (HCD,a legislated designation) were energy conservation districts. I used Walkscore as a tool and found that my neighbourhood, a hundred year old streetcar suburb, got a nice 77. But when I started applying it to urban HCDs, the numbers went higher, up to 83 for downtown heritage districts.

But I was shocked when I started applying it to the small towns where I was speaking; Guelph, a lovely but small university town, got 88. Collingwood, another town, got 85. Small cities and towns with vibrant main streets were blowing the bigger cities away. It was clear that heritage districts, designed before cars, were inherently greener than newer ones, because people tend to walk instead of drive. It is just easier.

But Walkscore was just a simulacrum, not a real analysis of energy use. For that, we had to wait for Abogo.

More: LEED Home Award Winners are Walkscore FAIL

Abogo and the Center for Neighborhood Technology



Abogo view of downtown chicago. Green is walkable and energy-efficient.

Abogo is a google maps mashup, a Walkscore on steroids. It adds census and other data to calculate the average energy use for transportation.

Abogo shows you how transportation impacts the affordability and sustainability of where you live. With Abogo, you can discover the costs of where you live now, or where you might want to live. Abogo measures the money an average household from your region living in your neighborhood would spend getting around, including car ownership, car use, and transit use. It also tells you what the CO2 generated by this car use would be.


It uses data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology's Housing + Transportation Affordability Index and clearly shows how important transportation is, how where you live is more important than what you live in. It only works in the USA, so I used the address of my family when I was born in Chicago. It is pretty green and urban.


Abogo view of exurban community

I first learned of Abogo from Kaid Benfield's devastating post last August, What does 'net zero' mean? Sprawl by another name? , where he made it perfectly clear that LEED or no LEED, this development outside of Chicago was not green development but exurban sprawl. Kaid writes:

I ran Prairie Ridge's location through Abogo, too: average transportation costs per household are 24 percent higher than the regional average, and carbon emissions from transportation are nearly twice the regional average. How green does that sound? What might happen to the 'net zero' claim if the 1.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted every month by households in the Prairie Ridge location - and the energy consumption they represent - were factored into the equation? And what about the claimed energy cost savings, if you're shelling out $200 more each month for transportation than the average household in your metro region?

More and more, the disconnect between green building and location is becoming obvious. I have, by this time, pretty much stopped showing so-called green suburban houses and second homes, wondering if they are relevant at all.

More: Is Energy Consumption The Only Thing That Matters In Green Building?
When It Comes To Green Building, Where You Are Is As Important As What You Build

Location Efficiency and Housing Type - Boiling it Down to BTUs


The final nail in the location argument was the recent release of the Jonathan Rose/ EPA study that basically confirms everything we have said for years:

  • Where you live is the most important determinant of how much gasoline you use;
  • The size and type of unit is the next most important factor;
  • All that green goodness of solar panels and green gizmos are almost unimportant in comparison.

The study clearly showed that living in denser, multifamily buildings in transit-oriented locations makes the biggest, and most cost-effective impact.

A home's location relative to transportation choices has a large impact on energy consumption. People who live in a more compact, transit-accessible area have more housing and transportation choices compared to those who live in spread-out developments where few or no transportation options exist besides driving. Choosing to live in an area with transportation options not only reduces energy consumption, it also can result in significant savings on home energy and transportation costs.

But size matters, as does form:

Housing type is also a very significant determinant of energy consumption. Fairly substantial differences are seen in detached versus attached homes, but the most striking difference is the variation in energy use between single-family detached homes and multifamily homes, due to the inherent efficiencies from more compact size and shared walls among units.


More in EPA Study Finds Where You Live Matters More Than How You Live

Recommendations for my Student



Some of my students.

Which takes us back to the question I was trying to answer, "How are normal working people going to live?" I suggest that she try to maximize Urbanity:

  • Live in walkable, transit oriented communities, whether large cities or small towns.
  • Get a bike. You don't have to go all Franke and get rid of your car, they are fun on weekends. But don't use it for everything.
  • Live in multifamily, multi-unit buildings, or on top of the store on main street, where you share your walls with others.
  • Look for old buildings and old neighborhoods, built to be loveable, durable, flexible and frugal. High ceilings and big windows and natural ventilation keep you cool, even if you pay a bit more to keep warm.
  • Do the simple, cheap, low hanging fruit things that cost either nothing or very little. The Rocky Mountain Institute figured this out ten years ago; I wish they would update their fabulous bang-for-the-buck Cool Citizens Guide.
  • Put on a sweater.

Does this mean that LEED and green building are pointless? Am I saying that seven years of TreeHugger showing green houses, solar panels and and electric cars was a waste of time?

Not at all. But it does mean that common sense and low cost, low-tech solutions can go a long way to reducing demand for fossil fuels, achieving energy independence, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also shows that slapping solar panels on every roof or putting electric cars in every driveway is not the best approach for everyone; a good dose of Urbanity is faster, cheaper and more effective.

More on Location and low tech, high impact:
12 Big Steps to Make Building Better
Architects: Go Back To The ABCs and Design Buildings Like Letters Again
Big Steps In Building: Survival, Not Suburbs

Tags: Energy Efficiency | Urban Life | Urban Planning