Thoreau’s Coffin

by Craig Hollow, VIA Architecture
“Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free.
This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Last week, at a dinner party with a group of the most dedicated proponents of density I know, I took an informal survey of how many of us actually live in multifamily housing. Out of eight hardnosed urbanists, I was the only one who could claim the righteous mantle of walking our talk, living in a 650 sq. ft. studio apartment in a multifamily…mansion? Ok, even I don’t rate as a purist given that my ‘dense, urban’ living situation includes a front and back yard, a two car garage, and is actually a grand old Capitol Hill manse divvied up into five surprisingly spacious if quirky apartments.

At this point, it’s a well-publicized fact that for all of their grime dense, walkable cities like New York are the greenest developments out there. Freedom from cars is part of Manhattan’s green story, but there are many other beneficial by-products of density: the energy efficiencies inherent in larger buildings, the critical mass necessary to support robust transit options, neighborhoods with enough amenities that they are worth hanging out in, infrastructure that serves more people per dollar, no lawns asking for constant doses of pesticides, the long list goes on and on.

The efficiency of the city is underlined when we look at the numbers comparing the net energy use of density and sprawl. The cowhands of Wyoming, the least energy efficient state in the Union, produce 124.11 million metric tons of CO2 and consume 937.9 trillion btu’s of energy apiece while driving 44,080 miles a year, from the ranch to the steakhouse and back no doubt. Meanwhile, the accidental environmentalists of New York produce only a tenth the CO2 and consume less than a quarter the number of btu’s than the average Wyomingan. Even compared to the latest and greatest utopian experiments in zero-energy ecotowns, the city comes out ahead. No matter how you cut it, single family housing just isn’t sustainable.

We know these facts and many of us repeat them like parrots. But given a choice, the best-intentioned among us often are not trading our single-family homes for multifamily living, even in the Pacific Northwest, a veritable hotbed of eco-activity.


This is an important question because as Saul Griffith pointed out in a recent New Yorker article by David Owen, it’s extremely unlikely that we will come close to meeting minimal global goals for carbon emissions reductions if we count on new infrastructure and green power to do the job. The problem of climate change is primarily a problem of over-consumption and while the magic of carbon neutral power sources will help us consume cleaner if they ever materialize, we simply need to consume less. Choosing to live more densely is a key to consuming less.

When gently chided for living the All-American single-family dream, the responses of my urbanist friends ranged from open-mouthed, blinking silence to apologetic stammerings about the pastoral requirements of raising children. The most cogent and disturbing response, however, was simple and distressing, “We can’t afford it.”

This was shocking to me. Aren’t condos and apartments cheaper than single family houses? How can less cost more? The answer is complex and says much about the challenges to increasing density in our region. On a dollar per square foot basis, a single family home is often cheaper and that’s the plea my delinquent friends made to me. “Try finding a condo with two bedrooms in a decent building that isn’t a million dollars or more,” they complained. But when you factor in the costs of owning a car, utility bills, and the costs of maintenance the numbers tend to flip.

If we try to account for the difference between the price of housing and its cost by factoring in the infrastructure of roads and utilities and remediation it quickly becomes apparent that the market isn’t working to bring price and cost into alignment. For the moment, because a buyer’s options are driven by financing and purchase price, it’s often true that you have to pay more to get less if you opt for a condo rather than a single family house.

The challenge to creating density today is that when even its cheerleaders add up the numbers they find that choosing to forego a single family house in exchange for a condo in an urban, walkable neighborhood is too often like choosing to live in Thoreau’s three-by-six foot box when for the same price you can afford to live at Walden.