Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
You may be wondering if choosing to live in an apartment is a more sustainable choice than moving into a house. Perhaps you want to cut down on your bills, or you are concerned for the planet’s future. But, are apartments really more energy efficient than houses?
Apartments are generally more energy-efficient than houses. They are often located close to public transport and amenities, resulting in less car use. Due to their smaller space, apartments are also cheaper to heat and cool.
One of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals is to ensure that human-built environments are sustainable, eco-friendly, and resilient. In this article, I’ll describe reasons why choosing to reside in an apartment could be better for the environment (and yourself!).
Energy Usage in Apartments and Houses
Every part of our lives—living in comfortable spaces, heating and cooling our buildings, using transportation, creating food, disposing of waste, etc.—requires the production and consumption of various energy resources.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), households consume energy depending on a few different variables, such as the location of the home, the materials a home is made from, and what kinds of energy sources it uses. Residential households are some of the biggest consumers of energy out there.
In fact, did you know that residential households account for roughly half of all building energy usage in the U.S.?
In many of the wealthier parts of the world, a single family will typically reside in a suburban house. They may own one or more cars (or other vehicles), which they use to travel to work, school, and most other places daily.
However, the typical suburban lifestyle (of living in a big house) may be contributing to higher amounts of residential energy usage. This is despite innovations in green technology being installed and used in modern households.
According to Anthropocene, residential energy consumption and household emissions are trending upwards due to a growing share of homes with HVAC systems and because houses are getting bigger while housing fewer people.
Several factors can lead to large, suburban residences being less energy efficient and sustainable than apartments. It’s good to keep in mind, though, that energy consumption encompasses more than the micro-level of your household consumption patterns.
On a more macro level, energy consumption also involves the design of neighborhoods, cities, and public facilities, such as transport. Naturally, the building you reside in contributes to forming a neighborhood, and the neighborhood forms a town or city.
If you live in a city without adequate public transportation, it can be hard to justify living in an urban neighborhood as you will almost certainly need a car to move around. Since parking can be tough to find in dense neighborhoods, living in suburban neighborhoods often makes more sense.
Thus, energy efficiency and use are affected not just by what you do within your household but by where you live, too.
Heating and Cooling in Apartments and Houses
According to the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, in 2021, over 40% of energy in U.S. homes is derived from HVAC (heating and cooling). In particular, it is generally more expensive to heat a space rather than cool it.
Energy use in apartments is lower than in larger houses partly because the living space is much smaller. Therefore, less energy is required to heat or cool the entire space. The construction of residential buildings with denser living areas can also help with temperature control.
For instance, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that apartment units are somewhat protected from external temperatures because they typically have other apartment units and common areas blocking direct exposure.
A similar observation is made in this paper, published in the Journal of Sustainable Real Estate. Apartment units use less energy because the shared walls provide additional insulation from external weather fluctuations. In contrast, free-standing, detached houses do not have this protection.
The U.S. EIA comments that apartments in buildings with five or more residential units use less energy than other home types (including houses).
- A single-family house (built in the 2000s): Uses over 100 million BTU per year.
- An apartment in a building with 2-4 units (built in the 2000s): Uses nearly 60 million BTU per year.
- An apartment in a building with 5+ units (built in the 2000s): Uses about 40 million BTU per year.
As you can see, a single-family, detached house will generate a far more significant amount of heat per year than an apartment unit. Interestingly, high-rise apartment buildings may be the best choice for those occupants who are concerned about energy efficiency.
Furthermore, large apartment buildings are becoming more energy efficient with each passing decade. For example, those constructed in the 2000s use 12% less energy than those built in the 1970s (despite containing more energy-consuming devices).
Interestingly, newer homes built in the U.S. are more likely to have higher ceilings (and thus increased energy costs associated with their heating) while, at the same time, being more likely to have more energy-efficient windows.
Energy Use From Transportation
Larger residences in the suburbs tend to be located further away from convenient public amenities, such as reliable public transport. This leads to household members utilizing their cars for transportation over longer distances.
For example, you may drive daily to work, school, recreational activities, etc. Most new houses are built in the outer suburbs. Naturally, the only way to grow a city is to develop upwards or outwards.
The problem is that local transportation systems in outer suburban areas may not be as robust as those established closer to, or within, the central city area. You may need to use your car to drive to work, or you might have to drive to the nearest train or bus to use that transportation.
As examined in this article by The Conversation, suburbanites relying on cars leads to “a significant demand for transport-related energy, particularly gasoline, especially compared to inner-city households.”
Their article includes findings from a study conducted in Brussels, Belgium. This research focused on the energy consumption of three hypothetical residences:
- An energy-efficient, “passive” suburban house (with a high energy-efficient rating). The hypothetical household included four people relying on cars.
- A standard suburban standard house (with an average efficiency rating). This household also would contain four people using cars.
- A city apartment. This residence would include two people using public transport.
The study examined three types of energy use (estimating the usage over a 50-year period):
- Embodied energy
- Operational energy
- Transportation energy
The findings indicate that the suburban, low-energy house had similar energy consumption overall to the suburban standard house. Although the passive house resulted in fewer operational costs, its embodied prices were higher than those of the standard house.
To be more specific, the “energy-efficient” house would have greater costs associated with embodied energy because of its triple-glazed windows and insulation. (Keep in mind that the study examined a 50-year period.)
Furthermore, the city apartment had the lowest energy consumption across all three categories examined. The researchers have concluded that an apartment is more energy-efficient than a suburban house because:
- The occupants’ use of inner-city public transport reduces transport-related energy demand (e.g., gasoline).
- Residing in a smaller space of an apartment results in the use of fewer materials.
- Compared to a larger residence, the heating and cooling of an apartment unit requires less energy due to the smaller space.
According to the article, more than 50% of residential energy costs are associated with embodied energy and transportation energy. Therefore, it may be the most energy-efficient to choose to reside in an apartment that is located closer to the parts of town you visit the most to minimize your carbon footprint.
For instance, in 2019, 1.1 billion metric tons were emitted by cars and light trucks in the U.S. This figure constitutes 17% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for that year. Considering this, it’s probably a great idea to use public transportation when you can.
How To Make Your Home More Energy Efficient
In the simplest terms, energy efficiency refers to using less energy to achieve a similar result. Unfortunately, many buildings use more energy resources than are necessary. Therefore, by being conscious of energy usage, you can help the environment.
For what reasons should you seek to make your residence as energy-efficient and sustainable as possible? According to Red Energy, an energy-efficient home:
- Cuts down on wasted energy.
- Reduces carbon emissions.
- Reduces the need for non-renewable energy resources.
- Offers a cleaner, healthier living environment.
- Will save you money on energy bills.
The U.N. has listed 17 sustainable development goals, one of which is building sustainable living environments for people globally. You can help in these efforts by creating an energy-efficient home for yourself and your family.
By opting for a sustainable home, you are helping reduce energy waste and saving money in the long run. It’s a win-win scenario for you and the community!
Thankfully, there are numerous ways you can increase your home’s energy efficiency—whether you live in an apartment or a house.
Here is a comprehensive list of many strategies you can implement to make your residence more energy-efficient:
- Swap out your light bulbs for LED ones. They are long-lasting, energy-efficient, and are sure to help you cut down on your energy bills.
- Use smart thermostats. Smart technology can also assist you with appropriate and cost-effective temperature control.
- Wear weather-appropriate clothing. Dressing well for the weather can help you cut down on heating and cooling costs.
- Air dry your clothes. Dryers are some of the most energy-intensive appliances out there!
- Close your blinds and curtains during the summer. You can help regulate your home’s internal temperature by keeping the blinds and curtains on the sunny side of your home closed.
- Air seal your home. Air sealing your home is another excellent way to cut down on heating and cooling costs. You can use weather stripping to seal your doors, windows, and other cracks.
- Install new windows. If your home uses single-pane windows, try replacing them with energy-efficient alternatives. Double-glazing your home is practical for both cold and hot climates.
- Install a tankless water heater. Your water heater is one of the most energy-consuming devices in your home. A tankless version can help you save energy.
- Improve your home’s insulation. By upgrading your insulation, you could be saving from 10% to 50% on your heating costs.
Any of the tips above can help you reduce your home’s energy use, but don’t forget that most of our energy use comes from how we commute! Reducing how much time you spend in a car will have significant energy-saving benefits, and reduced car use is part of the reason why apartments are more energy-efficient than houses.
On both a macro and micro level, it’s in our best interest to live a more sustainable and energy-efficient lifestyle. Living in an apartment instead of a house will help you reduce your energy bills, especially if you live in a building constructed during the 2000s.
Nevertheless, there are many smaller, daily actions you may take to be more energy-efficient:
- Use public transportation (or ride your bike) more often.
- Choose eco-friendly appliances.
- Heat and cool your home (and yourself) naturally, rather than artificially.
- Switch off your electronic devices when not in use or charging.
- Anthropocene Magazine: Hitting Climate Targets Depends on Building Smaller Homes and More Multi-Family Units—Not Just Energy Efficiency
- Center for Sustainable Systems: Carbon Footprint Factsheet
- The Conversation: Why energy-saving homes often use more energy
- Direct Energy: 25 Quick and Easy Energy Efficiency Tips
- Energy Star: What is Energy Efficiency?
- Journal of Sustainable Real Estate: Energy Efficiency in Multifamily Rental Homes: An Analysis of Residential Energy Consumption Data
- Red Energy: Energy-Efficient Homes: What You Need to Know
- United Nations: The 17 Goals
- U.S. Energy Information Agency: Apartments in buildings with 5 or more units use less energy than other home types
- U.S. Energy Information Agency: What’s New in How We Use Energy At Home
- Wikipedia: British thermal unit
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