Individual choices about consumption won’t solve the climate crisis alone. But for the richest among us, some forms of polluting pleasure are going to have to go. At the top of the list are giant houses, which are a key reason that the world’s richest 1% have carbon footprint 175 times the size of those in the bottom 10%. That’s why, in our fight to decarbonise everything equitably, we need to ban mansions.
There are no official criteria for a mansion, but in the architectural field, the term often refers to houses that are 465 sq km or larger. Kate Wagner, architecture critic and creator of the blog McMansion Hell, prefers a different definition.
“The thing that tells you a house is a mansion is the intent behind it, and that intent is … to use architecture to convey a certain level of wealth,” she said.
That conspicuous consumption comes with a great deal of ecological destruction. A 2020 study found that Americans living in lavish houses in rich neighbourhoods are responsible for 25% more greenhouse gas pollution on average than those living in more modest homes in poorer areas, mostly because heating, cooling, and powering more space requires using more energy.
Another 2019 report found that building super homes — defined as those larger than 2,323 square metres — requires chopping down 380 trees, while the average U.S. home takes just 20. Left untouched, those extra trees could all be sequestering greenhouse gases. All the extra concrete and glass — both carbon-intensive materials to produce — further increase mansions’ wasteful footprint.
Then there’s the land or buildings razed. Wagner noted that “sometimes entire little woods are torn down to build these subdivisions full of mansions, like neighbourhoods of McMansions, and so you’re losing trees which are part of the carbon cycle and you’re losing space for wildlife.” If it’s not woodlands, it’s often other buildings being torn down. That essentially wastes the energy that it took to construct the original building — a concept called embodied carbon.
Mansions all look different. Drake’s 4,645-square-metre Toronto manor includes an NBA-sized indoor basketball court, while Jeff Bezos decked out his $US165 ($222) million, 1,208-square-metre estate with seven fern gardens. One of the newly divorced Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s mansions, worth $US60 ($81) million, employs (ironically) minimalist design elements, like a massive stone bathtub that they could fit their entire family into. But the common thread is that all these monstrosities take a ton of resources.
That means rich people’s mansions are gobbling up our dwindling carbon budget. When that disappears, we’re screwed. Already, we’re seeing the destructive consequences of the climate crisis that the rich disproportionately helped create, from the Pacific Northwest to Pakistan. It’s not the elite in their climate-controlled palaces who are suffering most because of all those emissions. It’s the poorest among us who are.
Sure, mansions aren’t the only buildings that emit carbon — powering, heating, and cooling buildings was responsible for about 38% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Yet bigger houses are responsible for a disproportionate amount of that toll.
“The bigger the house, the more energy uses. If you have a house four, six, eight, or 10 times bigger than the average home size, you’re using something in that order more energy,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
To avert ecological catastrophe, we need to make big changes, decarbonizing the entire economy by 2030. That will be much easier if we cut out the biggest and most useless energy sucks right now — the less energy we use, the less we’ll have to replace with renewable power — and mansions are at the top of that list when it comes to buildings.
Abolishing mansions won’t happen overnight, but we can take it step-by-step over the next decade. Perhaps we can start by taxing all homes above 465 sq km at 100% this decade to discourage new mansion construction, and then by mid-decade, we can outlaw single-occupancy dwellings above 465 sq km entirely. Or perhaps we could tax the rich to discourage building mansions in the first place. (Who am I kidding, we should do this regardless.) Better yet, we should ultimately end the economic system of capitalism that allowed them to get rich enough to do so in the first place. But that could all take a while. Banning mansions is just the first step.
But suppose you’re an eco-conscious mansion owner. Should these rules still apply to you? Celebrity couple Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, for instance, boast that their massive farmhouse in Los Angeles incorporates reclaimed wood and runs entirely on solar power.
Still, Wagner noted, “a house that big, 3,000 or 5,000 or 929 sq km, is never going to be environmentally friendly.”
This home may be a step up environmentally from, say, McMansions, which tend to be more cheaply built than their custom counterparts and often use more petrochemical-based plastic materials. But they’re still not a good use of materials or energy.
Consider, for instance, Kunis’ and Kutcher’s towering ceilings and luxurious open floor plan. These design elements, like the expansive corridors and massive foyers typical in older, classic mansions, require a lot of energy to cool and heat.
“Heat rises, and if you want it to stay cool down on the ground where the space is actually used instead of up near the ceiling where no one is, you have to basically spend a lot of money and energy to get that to happen,” said Wagner.
Sure, the power they’re using is renewable, but we don’t have an endless supply of clean energy. Building solar panels like those Kutcher and Kunis use, for instance, requires mined materials that are in short supply. Maybe one day some green technology will provide us with infinite energy, but right now, we need to be smart about how we use our resources to decarbonize.
“We don’t know how much energy we’ll be able to produce in a clean and sustainable way in 30 years. But we do know that over the next 15 years or so, when we’re in breakneck decarbonization speed, that we are in a zero-sum situation,” Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “There’s only so many solar panels that can be physically built in the next five or 10 years in the entire world … so in the short term, every single kilowatt hour is precious.”
Even if mansions don’t blow through all our renewable capacity, expending carbon-free power on rich people’s bad habits will also make clean power more scarce. That can inflate its global costs.
“Should we make it more expensive for low income people in the Global South to have access to solar energy, just so that richer people can live a life of undiluted wasteful luxury? I don’t think so,” said Aldana Cohen. “We have to see that there’s eco-apartheid in this system. We have to see that there is a complete connection between deprivation and misery in some communities and ridiculous the wasteful levels of private luxury in others.”
A world without mansions doesn’t mean we all live in austere pods, though. Housing shouldn’t just be functional, but also pleasant to live in. But while everyone needs a home, no one needs 102 square metres of covered terraces off their bedroom like Drake or an entire floor of adult playrooms like Cara Delevingne. Instead, consider if all that space was shared.
This year, the highest award for architecture in the world went to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a pair of French architects who are known for doing beautiful, low-carbon retrofits of public housing in Bordeaux, France, and elsewhere. Rather than letting the super rich ruin the housing market by commissioning absurd mansions or allowing developers build multimillion-dollar estates on spec, we could encourage that kind of public, low-carbon luxury.
“The idea that you have to choose between beauty and between social function is clearly false,” said Aldana Cohen.