The future of sustainability is in the past

There are two types of architecture in the world (at least in the industrialized world): the typical “box” architecture (includes every shopping plaza and big box store, apartment complex, and residential neighborhoods built after World War II) that primarily resides in suburbia and other newly developed areas, and an architecture designed to consciously behave in a more ecologically responsible way (a.k.a. green architecture).

The typical “box” architecture is primarily designed completely dependent on active technologies that provide a hospitable indoor environment. These buildings are typically designed in the void of space-time and have absolutely no design characteristics that respond to any local climatic condition. Sure they may use a regional aesthetic (like looking like colonial architecture if the building was in New England, or using an Taos adobe appearance if placed in New Mexico), but almost never do the buildings take advantage of natural resources like being placed on the site a certain way based on the path of the sun or using the architecture to promote natural ventilation (whether it be a cross ventilation or a stack ventilation).

Before the popular residential use of air conditioners there were actually people living in Phoenix, Arizona. It absolutely blows my mind that people decided to live there, but they had an advantage over people who live there now. The homes constructed in Phoenix before the wide use of the air conditioner were designed for the desert climate. The homes implemented some very incredibly simple strategies for responding to the intense heat of the desert, which included tall ceilings (which allowed the hot air to rise above everyone), tall windows that opened at the top and bottom (the top opening would allow the warm air to escape and the bottom opening would allow cooler air to come in), and a veranda around the house (which had a roof to shade people from the sun, and it provided a place to sleep outside in the cool breezes of night).

But something happened when the air conditioner came into use. Instead of using the air conditioner to complement the passive technologies that worked to create a hospitable living environment, the design of homes rejected what worked and became completely dependent on the air conditioner. I lived in Arizona for seven years, and the house my family lived in was the typical suburban one-story home built in the early 1960s. It was a decent house, but it looked exactly the same as any house I saw while growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis. And about once every two or three years the air conditioner would go out, and that absolutely sucked. The house had the typical eight foot ceilings which brought the warm air closer to people inside the house, and the typical convoluted floor plan that nullified any chance of cross ventilation. In a word- it sucked.

The LEED Rating Systems is a measuring stick used for determining the shade of “green” a building is. It usually takes a lot of effort to make the design and the construction of a building meet the LEED sustainable standards. If you go through the LEED checklist of requirements you may discover the same thing I discovered a long time ago – most every building constructed before the 20th century would at a minimum be LEED certified. Of course there are a few exceptions such as fine hotels that may have imported all of their stonework from Italy, but for the most part homes and businesses were constructed of local materials and were designed to respond to local climatic conditions.

And they were designed like that not because people before the 20th century gave a damn about the environment, but because if their buildings didn’t respond to local climatic conditions then it was nearly impossible for people to live in that climate. How well does your home respond to the local climate if the electricity and the water were shut off for a year? Most likely not very well.

If you want to know the best design for a building for your neck of the woods just look at the people who lived there over a hundred years ago.


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