Are Green Homes Always Better? Depends on Location

Average urban homes beat out eco-friendly suburban homes, according to new research.

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You have the latest "green" appliances, energy-efficient windows, and a cutting-edge heating and cooling system. But if you live in the suburbs and commute to work every day, all those eco-friendly bells and whistles might not matter.

Take a look at the chart above. The average suburban household consumes 240 million BTU per year living in a 2,000-square-foot home, according to recent research. The average urban household consumes a fraction of that at 89 million BTU per year. Energy consumption goes even lower among urban multifamily households.

But contrary to what you might think, upgrading your appliances and buying a Prius doesn't really solve the problem of inefficient energy use in the suburbs. You'd still consume more energy overall than an average urban family.

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"The study shows that just an ordinary energy-inefficient house built in an urban environment is actually going to save more energy in total than even a green, energy-efficient household in the suburbs," says Jeff Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy in Washington, D.C.

That's because the energy suburbanites use to commute to and from work, the grocery store, and the mall cancels out some of the advances in energy consumption found in eco-friendly homes.

"In terms of climate impact, U.S. suburbanites represent one of the most serious threats to our climate," according to a report by Cities21, a group that researches and advocates for efficient cities. "Buying a condo (or renting an apartment) and having a shorter, greener commute are two of the largest individual methods to cut energy consumption."

[Read: Down Payments: What Are Buyers Really Paying?]

So while commuter suburbanites shouldn't be villainized, energy consumption data should provide some food for thought when it comes to creating more efficient, walkable, and eco-friendly communities.

"As we think about how we're going to improve our energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that ultimately we do need forms of development that are more compact," Lubell says.

mhandley@usnews.com

Twitter: @mmhandley

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