For almost two decades I lived in a variety of small urban apartments in multi-story buildings. Those buildings are pretty efficient in terms of heating and cooling; most units have only one exterior wall. Plus, having less than 500 square feet per person (in some cases, a lot less) means less energy expenditure than heating or cooling (and lighting) a whole 1300 sqare foot home for 2 people, which is what my husband and I have now. Not to mention the relatively small amount of shared outdoor space in an apartment complex versus thirsty individual lawns. (For purposes of this discussion, let’s leave cars vs. public transit out of the calculations, though obviously that’s significant.)
I knew this was a selfish choice, but we’re trying to mitigate our footprint as much as possible. We have a front lawn, but we’re not watering it at this time. We’re only watering the succulents and the trees, and a lot of the water we’re using for that is recycled–I wash my scuba gear and then dump it out on the plants instead of pouring it down the drain, as I did when living in an apartment. We’re thinking of putting in kurapia or another drought-tolerant ground cover instead of grass. We started composting, which has cut our trash output significantly, and we’re growing a tiny bit of food in the backyard. We also have ambitions of putting in solar panels, maybe a gray water reclamation system, perhaps a heat pump and/or some better insulation.
I realize the answer, at least for us, is probably going to be “no”–we’re never going to be living as lightly on the earth in this house as we did in our old apartments. But theoretically, is it possible? Is there enough technology out there to make a house as green as a typical apartment? I realize the answer is also complicated as it requires weighing the impact of different kinds of environmental harm, but that’s always a challenge in these discussions, so I’m hoping there’s at least a framework for analyzing it, if not a definitive answer we can all agree on.