Monday, January 29, 2001

Big homes mean big bills

As house sizes grow, heating problems expand

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Special Report
In Sunday Enquirer
        Mary Kuramoto looks up as she talks about her heating bills. And up and up, to the top of the 18-foot ceiling in her great room.

        “It's just a big barn,” Mrs. Kuramoto says of the Symmes Township home she shares with husband, Todd, and their 9-year-old triplets. “That's all it is.”

        The 2 1/2-year-old house with 4,800 square feet of horizontal space and high ceilings, typifies a decades-old trend: New homes have grown by a third, to an average of 2,130 square feet, in the Midwest since 1971, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Kuramoto's family room has the kind of high ceiling popular with new home buyers.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        The home also typifies another Midwestern affection that's haunting almost everyone this winter: The region has one of the nation's highest concentrations of homes heated by natural gas, the price for which is at historic highs.

        According to the Census Bureau, 90 percent of new homes here and in the West are built for gas, compared to 70 percent for the country as a whole. More than 63 percent of all Tristate homes are heated by gas, compared to 53 percent nationwide.

        The trend toward bigger houses isn't helping Tristate heating bills, which have doubled and tripled from last winter. More space, after all, mean more space to heat.

        But at the same time, newer houses are being built with more energy-efficient materials. High-tech improvements in furnaces, windows and insulation are keeping more of the heat inside.

Where the space is
               The added footage in today's houses shows up in walk-in closets, extra bathrooms and larger, more numerous common spaces, builders and remodelers say.

Growing houses

Gas dominates

Have questions about the high cost of keeping warm? Questions about ways to conserve energy and save money? Send them to us. We'll ask the experts and report the answers in days to come.
        Space also is expanding vertically. Even mid-range builders routinely install 9-foot ceilings instead of traditional 8-foot ceilings.

        Rooms, too, are more open, flowing into each other where walls used to be built. That makes it harder to close off space and partially heat a house.

        Other increasingly common luxuries include master bedroom suites and dining nooks, says Rick Koehler, who co-founded Blue Ash's Architects Plus 22 years ago.

        “The people I was dealing with then were 50 and up, and they spent their money conservatively,” Mr. Koehler says. “Twenty years later I'm dealing with their children ... and they don't spend their money as conservatively. They're willing to lavish on themselves what they want in a house.”

        “They” are the baby boomers, who have joined younger families such as the Kuramotos in the space quest. The boomers also are behind an upswing in remodeling projects, says Kevin Ford, publisher of Qualified Remodeler, the industry's largest trade magazine.

        They have more discretionary income as they enter their 40s and 50s, Mr. Ford says, so they're reinvesting in their homes. Often this means addings great rooms and master suites, mirroring trends in new homes.

        “We've put the kids through college and married them off, and this is for us,” Stephanie Stuebing of Montgomery says of a planned sunroom addition. Her and husband Gary's 2,700-square-foot home is their last, she says.

        The most static space in both new construction and remodeling projects is number of bedrooms. While 30 percent of the Midwest's new homes now have four bed rooms — up from 24 percent in 1971 — a slim majority still are built with three bedrooms, according to the Census Bureau.

        Still, people cherish their privacy now more than ever, Mr. Koehler says. “They want to be able to stretch out and have their own space.”

        That's why the Kuramotos finished their basement a year ago. They already had a living room, a great room and a bonus room they used as a second-floor family room. But there was no good place for the kids to play out of the grown-ups' earshot, Mrs. Kuramoto says.

More efficient
               The finished basement increased their heating space 25 percent, which, coupled with rising gas prices, had Mrs. Kuramoto dreading her utility bill. So she was pleased when December's bill came in at $343 — “only” 62 percent higher than December 1999.

        “They're just building houses a lot tighter these days,” she says.

        Zaring, which built the Kuramotos' Symmes Township home, uses double-pane, energy-efficient windows, president Dan Jones says. Zaring also uses Tyvek, a breathable house wrap that cuts down on air currents, he says.

        Mrs. Kuramoto's first home, an 85-year-old Cape Cod, had a December gas and electric bill of $268, according to Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. The former home's bill was three-fourths her current home's bill, even though it's only one-fourth the size.

        Bigger homes and better building materials have pretty much canceled each other out, the experts say.

        “Better technology has allowed people to make houses bigger and not hurt them in the pocketbook,” Mr. Koehler says.

        Even with higher gas prices, homeowners aren't about to start moving back to smaller houses, he and Mr. Jones say. Buyers don't want to give up their walk-in closets or the cathedral ceilings in their great rooms.

        Too, rising gas prices are unlikely to turn home buyers against gas heat. It's the most efficient fossil fuel to burn, and people like that it has neither the cool feel of electric nor the slight odor of oil, Mr. Koehler says.

        Painful heating bills likely will, however, encourage more interest in energy-saving technology.

        The Stuebings have educated themselves on R-values — which measure the insulation level of walls and windows — in planning their sunroom. Today's double- and triple-paned windows have 2.5 to 4.5 R-values, compared to less than 1 for the single-pane glazed windows of the past.

        “There's a lot of glass there, and that's a big consideration,” Mrs. Stuebing says.

        The project also has gotten her thinking about replacing the rest of the windows in her 30-year-old home and even reinsulating some drafty rooms.

Another view
               Not all professionals, however, are subscribing to the sky's-the-limit theory of home-building. Mount Adams architect John Senhauser thinks we could be due for a downturn in home sizes after almost two decades of steady increases.

        He points to the mid-1970s, when the square footage of new Midwestern homes dropped slightly.

        The energy crisis then might have been a factor, Mr. Senhauser says. But also, baby boomers began buying small starter houses, and their aging parents were downsizing their own homes.

        “There, in general, is a move toward smaller houses again,” says Mr. Senhauser, who mostly designs in the 2,500- to 8,000-square-foot range.

        That's a trend Karen Matthews can go for after five years in a 5,500-square-foot home in West Chester Township, in southern Butler County.

        “I could definitely move smaller,” Mrs. Matthews says. “We have this huge living room that we don't use. The master bedroom is the size of a three-car garage, which it sits on top of.”

        She and husband Ricky chose the house, then 3 years old, mostly because they like West Chester and the plethora of playmates for their three young children. They didn't consider the possibility of their heating bill surging from $300 to $800 a month, as she fears it could this winter.

        “And maybe we are having a little bit of a shift in values,” Mr. Senhauser says, “where bigger isn't necessarily better.”


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