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Blog/Opinion: The Great Downsizing Debate Continues

So I guess I’ve started the great downsizing debate ... which is a great thing, really, because it focuses attention on this important sustainability issue. To downsize, or not to downsize, that seems to not be the question. The point of contention is how much to downsize where we live. What is an appropriate number of square feet per person to live comfortably yet sustainably?


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We have received literally hundreds of comments on HuffPo, BlogHer and Sierra Club Green Home about this raging debate. Many of them were very critical of my original column on Downsizing, which explained the concept of sustainable living as defined by how large a home Americans aspire to, versus really need. We mentioned that ideally, 500 square feet per person, perhaps 750, would be an ideal size that balances our tradition of larger spaces with a home that can still be designed and built as an energy-efficient structure.

The real point of our article — which was missed by a number of the angrier respondents — was to suggest that we put the 7,500+ foot “McMansion” behind us as an aspirational icon. Instead, I suggested that we have a maximum of 1,000 square feet per person as a benchmark, preferably less, but at Sierra Club Green Home, we try to change hearts and minds of the uninitiated, the unconverted, the nonbelievers, those who don’t care about green. Thus we settled on 1,000 feet instead of the lower numbers, because, well, you gotta start somewhere.

Perhaps it was my bad. At least based upon your reactions, my bad. It is always a positive when we have beaucoup comments, so, even to those who accused me of elitism and being out of touch with the working class core of America, thanks for taking time to write in. All I ask is that those of you who have families of four or more living in 1,500 feet or less, please understand that we do admire your green lifestyle and the sacrifices you are making in the name of efficiency. That said, many Americans we hope to reach still leave their thermostats on 72° even in the dead of summer; don’t recycle; don’t try to save water; don’t turn off the lights. You know the drill. And many of these folks hope to live in a giant house if and when they can afford it, without regard to the environmental costs. This includes many of the newly successful types living in China, India, Brazil and other rapidly developing economies.

So how to resolve this? I would say, OK, unlike some politicians, we try to listen to our constituency. Thus we are amending our initial “benchmark” for residential downsizing from 1,000 sq ft per inhabitant, down to 500 sq ft. Hopefully this will satisfy the more committed environmentally responsible crowd, but still allow the newly green to have enough space to be comfortable. Now, for our next trick, how to get this across to the first generation upper middle class in China and India, to whom a huge house is an important status symbol of their new economic status?


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The Great Downsizing Debate Continues:  Created on July 21st, 2011.  Last Modified on July 27th, 2011

About Jennifer Schwab

Jennifer Schwab

As Director of Sustainability, Jennifer is responsible for all environmental information, education, and initiatives at Sierra Club Green

Jennifer studied environmental design and sustainability at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, then completed her Master's in Urban Planning and Sustainable Design at the University of California -- Irvine.  Jennifer is a LEED Accredited Practitioner and serves on the USGBC Education Committee.  She also serves on advisory boards for the UC-Irvine Sustainability Leadership Program and the Healthy House Institute.  Jennifer consults on energy efficiency and sustainability for various corporate clients, restaurants, and hotels.

Jennifer serves as a member of the Board of Advisors for Source 44, a carbon footprint assessment company based in San Diego; and on the Board of Advisors for BlogWorld Expo, the largest social media tradeshow in the country.

She is a widely quoted media analyst appearing in hundreds of articles both in print and online.  She has been interviewed by NY Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Dwell magazine, CNBC, Good Housekeeping magazine, Fortune magazine, the LA Times, The Oregonian, Forbes, Self magazine, Kiwi magazine, the Examiner, EcoSalon, Consumer Digest, SheKnows, and Planet Green, among many others.  She has also appeared on NBC-U, Good Morning America, and Fox News.

Away from work, Jennifer can be found on the tennis court or in the Bikram yoga studio. She follows art and design avidly and is also a trained Cessna pilot. She also serves on the LA Museum of Contemporary Art Photography Selection committee.  You can find her innermost green thoughts as a contributor to the Huffington Post, LOHAS, BlogHer, Healthy House Institute,, as well as on the home page of


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