More comfortable buildings with less energy use
January 1, 2019 10:33 PM   Subscribe

 
This was an interesting twitter thread tangent to a number of my personal and academic interests. It's important to remember that our forefathers weren't idiots. If anything, energy expenses were much higher historically, what with the labor required for obtaining and preparing firewood. So of course historical buildings were designed for certain values of energy efficiency.

As an anecdote, I work occasionally in one of the rooms pictured in the thread, and often sit in almost exactly the perspective presented in the image. What the image doesn't show is all the Dutch visitors hitting their heads on the doorframe or the children nearly getting burned passing by the wood stove just off to the left. We do have different demands on our built environments than previous generations did, and that must be taken into account.

My curiosity being whetted, I visited the twitterer's tmbler and got a whiff of Moldbug. You have been warned.
posted by St. Oops at 12:30 AM on January 2 [23 favorites]


Content warning: Twitter author is clearly well inside the Neo-reactionary sphere & using architecture as an entry point for these ideas.

Doesn't mean their wrong about the architecture however!
posted by pharm at 1:05 AM on January 2 [17 favorites]


It is interesting to observe the ways in with Neo-reactionary thought overlaps with left/anarchist ideas about human-level institutions though. There’s a deep well of dissatisfaction with modern life there which both are drawing from, even though they come to different conclusions about how to structure their future utopias.
posted by pharm at 1:09 AM on January 2 [13 favorites]


It's weird, just a few days ago I was thinking about why so many traditionalist architects in the west have reactionary politics, and sort of concluded that it has to do with their essentialist thinking. I mean, I really enjoyed the thread, and absolutely agree with a lot of what's in it, but there's also this thing that a lot of poor people and even some rich people lived under terrible conditions back in those golden olden days. Homes were too cold, too hot, and almost always too damp and moldy. Oh, and filled with vermin.
And on the other hand, there are plenty examples of contemporary architecture working with climate and energy use that he doesn't reference, first to mind was Glenn Murcutt, from Australia, for an example of large-scale work, there is Renzo Piano Studio.
Obviously, there are plenty of architects and others in the construction industry who don't care about the functionality or sustainability of their work, and obviously, there is a lot to learn from vernacular and historical architecture. But that hardly means we can't do better.
posted by mumimor at 3:09 AM on January 2 [16 favorites]


It is interesting to observe the ways in with Neo-reactionary thought overlaps with left/anarchist ideas about human-level institutions though. There’s a deep well of dissatisfaction with modern life there which both are drawing from, even though they come to different conclusions about how to structure their future utopias.

Yeah it’s very frustrating if you’re say, a huge god damned commie but also interested in traditional archtequire and materials as a way of adapting spaces to human life and needed cause so many of the big voices in it are ....reactionary at best.

There’s a leftist argument for traditional forms if not style. Passive heating and cooling, less dependent on oil and plastic, repairable and customizable by humans, usually built to last, increased density to maximalize efficiency while also including ornament and design because skill labor is labor that can organize and also people have a right to beauty and comfort. I underline traditionalist forms and materials, wood, for example, is a good carbon sink provided it doesn’t burn and recent advancements have made wood bearing skyscrapers a possibly (they char rather than burn). It’s a bit like how buying a plastic Christmas tree means you have to use it for ten years before you make up the carbon cost of extracting the shopping the oil to make the plastic to make the tree. A tree you buy once a year and then send to a composer or to become woodchips is effectively neutral.

What we don’t want is this line of thought leading to reactionary entryism or somethingmkudcrious like Poundsbury, which is a cartoon version of traditional architecture that ignores all the reasons WHY buildings used to look like that. I belive A Pattern Language even goes so far as to say the design and decor of a building doesn’t matter if the form is human scale and human focused - you have a block of rounded concrete beauhus buildings provided the doors open onto the street, the windows allow cross ventilation, the ceiling height is righ for the environment , etc. “International style” is a right wing dog whistle but it’s true many of our current building forms are woefully inadequate at creating livingable, lasting structures because they’re based on an outdated world of endless oil and power of by how much money a developer can get before moving on. Housing, in terms of being something people need to live and as a contributor to carbon emission and pollution, is just too important to be left to the inanities of the market.

Hmm, maybe this should be a pitch.
posted by The Whelk at 4:24 AM on January 2 [32 favorites]


Like, the Greenbelt town experiment is one of my favorite examples right here in the USA, a blending of the rural and urban, bicycle presented as the primary mode of transportation, large intergrated parklands, tidy homes from single family to semidetached to apartments, asked around a central green with the communal laundry nearby the library and greengorcer to facilitate socialization and community. Also, collectively owned as a co-operative
posted by The Whelk at 4:29 AM on January 2 [11 favorites]


Very cool ideas!

Though, getting a custom built house with all those features - the super tall skylights, real wood (as opposed to laminate or other engineered construction), extra high ceilings, special openings for air at certain times of day, indoor courtyards / gardens - would easily add $100,000 to the cost of a home build.

I would instead just throw on $15,000 worth of insulation, solar panel and batteries and live in climate controlled comfort all year round with net zero carbon emissions.
posted by xdvesper at 5:05 AM on January 2 [9 favorites]


Traditional building ideas are definitely relevant for a world with a tenth of the population of this one. They need to be adapted for the world we of 2030 and beyond where we need to lighten our impacts, live compactly, and be vastly more efficient. Like his advice for a Wisconsin dwelling down in the replies clearly involved at least an acre of land, and a constantly burning (all year) hearth fire. I'm like ... nnooooooooo, that's not sustainable.

Kind of not surprised about the intrinsic politics.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:07 AM on January 2 [10 favorites]


His praise of traditionally ventilated Japanese homes glosses over the fact that they are seriously cold in the winter.
posted by rh at 5:12 AM on January 2 [7 favorites]


Heh, yeah, he does not mention the kotatsu, or how the frequently resulting fires from the charcoal burners were dealt with by firemen just knocking down neighbouring houses so fire wouldn't spread. (Modern kotatsu are heated electrically, of course.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:16 AM on January 2 [9 favorites]


Or the fantasy of an “efficient” wood burning fireplace in a traditional Swedish log cabin. The BTUs needed to heat via fireplace are enormous, and most of the heat goes up the chimney. There is also no such thing as a log cabin that isn’t drafty as hell.
posted by rockindata at 5:34 AM on January 2 [8 favorites]


Lots of good ideas from historical architecture, but much of this is nostalgia as much as anything, and I'm plenty guilty of that as a history and old-house lover. Living in a nice house with rugs, well fit paneling, good furniture, with good clothes, radiant tiled stoves etc. is great and full of features we can borrow and combine with well thought out and proven modern methods as well. Living in a 2 room cabin with an open fireplace that doesn't draw unless the door is open, not so great, I've experienced that too.

One thing to understand about old buildings and old technology in general, is that it is crafted not manufactured. This requires a much different economy of creation and continued maintenance than almost all of us are prepared to do today. This means fewer things, less materials used, a lot more time to make them, and much more time in repair and continued maintained, things have to be re-crafted more than parts replaced.

Finding the right way to re-integrate some of that into modern life might be worthwhile. But we need to do that with clear analysis of how and why. (And with recognition that we must also preserve the equality, liberty, and other benefits that a modern economy and society has achieved and can progress towards.)

(Oops on preview kind of what you guys are also saying too :)
posted by thefool at 5:35 AM on January 2 [13 favorites]


I live in a colder climate zone [but climate change...] so don't use it at home but maybe it's most urgent to reduce the need for constant air conditioning and better small commercial/industrial building methods.

I have never worked in a building with natural ventilation--- just sealed windows, block walls, carpet over slab floor, very little insulation, very little natural light (for no good reason, just windows placed randomly on the walls) a flat dark sun-absorbing roof, and constant A/C in the summer. Would love to see these buildings adapted for passive cooling, solar, better insulation, and healthier ventilation and light.
posted by thefool at 5:42 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]


Beautiful pictures there. I'm more used to hearing these kinds of observations from the hippie/environmentalist left, but I suppose traditional architecture has a broad appeal.

I think it's good to keep in mind that the survivorship bias very much applies to traditional architecture. Ugly, uncomfortable hovels tend to be torn down -- or fall down -- while beautiful, well-crafted houses tend to survive. That means the surviving buildings often have a ton to teach us, but can also leave us with a misleading impression of the how great architecture used to be.

A Pattern Language, mentioned earlier, does the best job I've seen of trying to learn from traditional architecture without slavishly copying its forms or eschewing new technologies. I just wish it had more impact on actual architectural practice!
posted by Kilter at 5:44 AM on January 2 [21 favorites]


He tries to hand wave away the issue of places (like many parts of Japan! and also like where a whole lot of us live) that have large swings in temperature throughout the year. "They had these kinds of buildings in those places, so that is the answer" is not actually an answer. Hence: Japanese buildings allow for comfort in the hot, humid summers, but are cold as a witch's tit in winter. (Personally, I get the trade-off being made there--you can only take so many clothes off in the summer, but in winter you can put more clothes on and stick half of yourself in the kotatsu--but that is not the same as "comfortable and efficient home all year long.")
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:56 AM on January 2 [8 favorites]


His praise of traditionally ventilated Japanese homes glosses over the fact that they are seriously cold in the winter.

They're so cold! And the style he's discussing were designed for people who had servants to run around opening and closing things and throwing water around.

Some dudes never think about the amount of work that went into housekeeping in the good old days or about the people who had to get up before sunrise to start those lovely fires in the fireplaces.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:07 AM on January 2 [32 favorites]


I feel like any of these topic discussions that go down the rabbit hole of equating past practices to present needs/expectations is incomplete without somehow normalizing the past inhabitants expectations regarding body odor, insect abatement, and/or how that one or three or whatever nuanced degrees of temperature related comfort has been blown to bits by climate change for cities that were established a century or more ago.

Seriously. And I say that as someone who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering who was one of the VERY few in that circle in my time and place to do a focus on sustainable building materials and energy efficient techniques (and organic farming for that matter). Seriously, I want these things and they're valuable tools to have in a tool chest of "how I want to design and build a house" but damn it's a hard nut to crack.

Though, getting a custom built house with all those features - the super tall skylights, real wood (as opposed to laminate or other engineered construction), extra high ceilings, special openings for air at certain times of day, indoor courtyards / gardens - would easily add $100,000 to the cost of a home build.

I would instead just throw on $15,000 worth of insulation, solar panel and batteries and live in climate controlled comfort all year round with net zero carbon emissions.


Well, the difference, to me anyway between these two groups of things is that folks can DIY the first things when they look to build a home in the countryside whereas those latter things are things you have to buy from elsewhere since folks just don't have a silicon forge, lead smelter, and circuit board printer in their backyard whereas the former things can, albeit in a time consuming and moderately skilled way, by folks with 1800s level education, some hand tools, and sweat equity.

I'm a huge fan of folks being given the power and agency to do that rather than be expected to take out a mortgage, not to mention buy a battery bank, controller, and solar panels, to get a start at a life that is more energy efficient than the norm, which is often appalling, these days.

Ugly tl;dr - Clothes lines before solar panels.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:25 AM on January 2 [16 favorites]


Thanks, everyone-- I didn't think to read more of the author's posts.

The thing I was wondering was to what extent (if at all) those ideas can be applied to high density housing.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:38 AM on January 2



His praise of traditionally ventilated Japanese homes glosses over the fact that they are seriously cold in the winter.


Indeed. The only reason Mrs. Ghidorah and I are experiencing any level of comfort whatsoever is the gas heater currently warming the one single room of our house that it occupies. The rest of our home is literally a no go zone, except when I’m making sausage. The average Japanese home in winter, unheated, is perfect for making sausage, in that the room temperature is already close to zero.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:38 AM on January 2 [19 favorites]


One of thr big appeals of things that are more crafted, or at least designed to be repairable, is that I think we all have an innate feeling that “waste is bad” and repairing or customizing things helps us feel less alienated ans in control - deliberately designing inns with repair long use in mind could have tremendous side effects as wella using the sheer amount of STUFF we produce and throw away.

Also, you know what was efficient? Mixed density Streetcar suburbs, loess parking lots more two up two down across the walkaway from a community center slash daycare, etc
posted by The Whelk at 6:41 AM on January 2


repairing or customizing things helps us feel less alienated ans in control

As an abstract concept, everyone loves it. But in practice, how many people want to darn their socks rather than get new ones to replace the old?
posted by Dip Flash at 6:45 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


The thing I was wondering was to what extent (if at all) those ideas can be applied to high density housing.

Yes, I think so. That was the short answer. The longer is that your post came at a very perfect time for me because I am doing research on social housing for a book, and #1: I will put some of my research into a new post, #2: you and some of the comments inspired me to do a separate chapter in my book on climate, tradition and technology.
So: thank you very much!
posted by mumimor at 6:50 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]


I'm an inveterate watcher of home reno shows and the conclusion I've come to is that I would like us to move beyond ridiculously fragile ballon-frame house model to 3-d printing houses that are well-insulated, vermin-proof, incorporate wiring and plumbing, and durable as hell.

Because even a new house seems mostly like a drywall tent, impossible to keep in good repair/free of pests for long, and I increasingly resent the idea that this is the best we can do.

If we want to bring in ideas about ceiling size, etc, great. But mostly I just want to buy something that isn't a money pit.
posted by emjaybee at 6:51 AM on January 2 [15 favorites]


As an abstract concept, everyone loves it. But in practice, how many people want to darn their socks rather than get new ones to replace the old? What are the best, most long lasting socks we could develop while also making them available to fabric recycling programs after they’ve become to wear or repair?
posted by The Whelk at 6:55 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


I have darned socks to repair them, it does not take long, I am unskilled but used youtube for a reference and a lightbulb as a darning egg. I did it while watching The Office if I recall correctly. I have had people, literally, look at me amazed since they "thought holes in socks were not fixable" and wanted to know how I did it. The former made me really sad, the latter rather happy. Just one data point but still...
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:58 AM on January 2 [4 favorites]


Almost all of his examples are from coastal climates, not continental climates with hot, humid summers and dry, frigid winters. For example: "Using wood for your interiors will not only create better indoor air (no off-gassing of formaldehyde, common with particle boards, paints, drapes etc.) it will also help regulate indoor humidity, buffering moisture when air humidity is high and releasing moisture when it is low." ORRRRRR if you live in the US midwest, it'll mean your doors constantly fucking stick in the summer and can't be opened or closed without throwing your shoulder into the door, and in the winter they shrink so far away from the frame that you've got your own howling wind coming in around the door. I mean, yes, there is a humidity improvement and makes the house marginally more comfortable. But it's more than offset by the fact that half your windows are stuck shut in the summer so you can't get a cross-breeze, and every exit-hole in your house is 100% draft in the winter.

I loved my older house with traditional materials! But it was not as comfort-friendly as he'd like to believe.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:58 AM on January 2 [15 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee, there's discussion of mid-continent houses in the comments to the OP.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:06 AM on January 2


Yeah, I've got an older house in MN that is seemingly optimized for summer conditions. Those tall cellings that make for comfortable summers are a hell of a thing come winter. You can have ceiling fans on reverse but then you have moving air cooling you down.
posted by Ferreous at 7:21 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


From today's NYTimes: Log Cabins? No, These Wooden Buildings Are High-Rises
About the new timber construction trend, which is global. I think there are more interesting things going on that the article only hints at, but the basic concept is that using timber construction is better for the climate and better for the end user's comfort.
The thing is that there are so many levels of change needed to do this, so right now those timber construction buildings are more expensive than the steel and concrete ones. It is mentioned in the article, but let me give a small example: I'm building a tiny shed of a bathhouse for some of my family in another country. The initial price we got was insane. The reason is that the local architects and builders literally can't figure out how to make a sound little wooden house, but imagines we need all sorts of reinforcement and deep foundations. My cousins just don't have the couple of free weekends needed to build it themselves, so now I'm looking for a tiny house manufacturer who can pre-fab it and bring it to the site on a truck (which is something relatively normal in that country). So the mainstream construction industry, from architects to site managers to workers are so far removed from the practice of putting planks together, that there is an entire industry devoted to making sheds.

About continental climate construction: I think tradition in many such places was for houses to have designated spaces for the different seasons. Same with houses in areas where there are huge temperature swings between day and night, like deserts.
posted by mumimor at 7:29 AM on January 2



Because even a new house seems mostly like a drywall tent, impossible to keep in good repair/free of pests for long, and I increasingly resent the idea that this is the best we can do.


I've always lived in older homes (current house is c. 1950, and I grew up in 1920s houses) in a city where basically everyone has an older home, so I never really encountered new construction until I started traveling to visit my husband's extended family. I am always shocked at the amount of structural problems these homes always seem to have. Leaky roofs, leaky window casements (speaking of: we stayed at a newly built mid-range hotel over Xmas and the casements leaked there too--that building could not have been any older than 4 years old!), weird shit going on in the basement, pests. I mean, owning an older home is also not a maintenance-free experience, but you kind of know that going in. I had not expected "every time it rains, the ceiling in our dining room starts dripping" to be a problem found in a 10-year-old home.

(Also holy shit high ceilings suck in winter. Visiting my husband's family, we started bringing our own blankets and slippers over because it was impossible to get warm in their two-story living room.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:35 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]


His praise of traditionally ventilated Japanese homes glosses over the fact that they are seriously cold in the winter.

It was amusing to me because this is essentially the very pinky-up version of anime avatar nazis who punt to their weird conception of an idealized Japan, which I think also describes the relationship between run of the mill shitlords and the DE/NRx type intellectual shitlords.
posted by fleacircus at 7:43 AM on January 2 [9 favorites]


you: kek poggers MAGA

me, an intellectual: gnon phyg traditionalist
posted by fleacircus at 7:59 AM on January 2 [6 favorites]


I'll cop to not looking at the whole thing, but there's an apparent implicit assumption in at least the first half-dozen tweets that the only thing driving building design was occupant comfort. At least part of the goal in (US, mid-continent, affluent-to-wealthy) Victorian homes was to impress visitors. High ceilings helped with that goal. They were compounded by using other aspects of design (low staircase banisters, low furniture) to trick the eye into thinking the home was bigger than it was (and thereby give an inflated sense of the owner's wealth).

Assuming the factors influencing the way a home (or any other building) was built 100+ years ago are the same as the factors that would influence designers today (or that the things you care about in building design are the same things they might have cared about) is just bad history.
posted by nickmark at 8:24 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]


There is also no such thing as a log cabin that isn’t drafty as hell.

Having built one and owned it for decades, I can assure you that this doesn't have to be true at all. Caulking and modern construction techniques can make log construction just as good as frame and stick houses. The insulating value of logs is easily sufficient for Ontario winters, and after that, it's just dealing with the challenges of chinking and sealing openings. Not the most difficult task.

There are good reasons not to want to build with logs, expense, insect issues with wood, style, but making them 3 or 4 season habitable, comfortably, cozily habitable, isn't one of them.
posted by bonehead at 8:33 AM on January 2 [4 favorites]


Regarding the high ceilings in winter, don't people just hang a plastic drop cloth about 7 or 8 feet up to form an artificial ceiling? Doesn't work in the kitchen, because then some of the high cabinets become inaccessible, but the kitchen tends to stay warm from the stove. Also living rooms are sometimes wide enough you have to support the drop cloth in the middle. And obviously requires a certain amount of labor that might be beyond older or disabled people. But otherwise, it works pretty well.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:06 AM on January 2


I'll cop to not looking at the whole thing, but there's an apparent implicit assumption in at least the first half-dozen tweets that the only thing driving building design was occupant comfort.

It's true; people expected less comfort in general. Not long ago, I was rereading Sei Shonagon's diary from medieval Japan, and I remember a passage in which the ladies were lying around prostrate in the heat. They were the queen's attendants, belonging to the most powerful and wealthiest families in the land, and all they could do was sit around and moan -- in multiple layers of robes, too, or else the scandal would have been unspeakable. He doesn't seem to take into account the traditional clothing of any or all of these climates. He also doesn't take into account daily routines of behavior.

As for mid-continental architecture, I once passed a winter in a stone dorm where the steam heat was unreliable, and some girls were finding frozen liquid in their mugs when they woke up. Myself, I lit a candle and pushed my fingers near to burning just to type. And that was nothing but a typical winter routine two hundred years ago. Except, of course, that it would have been considered wasteful to burn a candle for the heat, and I would have been expected to warm my hands at the fire that the serving girl built -- unless I was the serving girl, and then, of course, fuck me. If this writer is neo-reactionary, then he is completely taking for granted the amount of female/lower-class/enslaved work that goes into maintaining daily comfort in a pre-electric home, considering it only right and natural.

Still and all, I do hate the International school of architecture; I'm sorry to know that that is now a dogwhistle. I've heard it said somewhere that the hard Right wants the economy of the twenty-first century and the society of the eighteenth, whereas the hard Left wants just the opposite. It wouldn't surprise me if the horseshoe meets at architectural theory.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:11 AM on January 2 [13 favorites]


His praise of traditionally ventilated Japanese homes glosses over the fact that they are seriously cold in the winter.

Japan's also not a small country. Osaka is as far south as the Carolinas, while Sapporo is further north than Boston. Lumping the two together as a single culture or architecture makes about as much sense as assuming Boston and Charlotte share architecture. And to be frank, I don't think I see many verandahs in Boston.
posted by explosion at 9:17 AM on January 2 [6 favorites]


Incidentally, if you want to experience architecture that is fine-tuned to a climate, take a visit to the wonderful house-museum complex at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. You might also see the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or Paul Revere's house in the North End of Boston. Step inside the houses; try the stairs -- see how small they are. "But I've been in old houses," you might say, "I know they were built smaller!" No. These are small. The staircases are so fitted to the human body that it's like you're stepping through an open coffin. Old houses that are still inhabited today are the one we consider reasonably comfortable, whereas these homes would have been knocked down if they were not preserved. They are unbelievably poky and entirely without codes of any kind, and if you were not faced with the choice of a New England winter and these little Lincoln Log sets, you would not care to stay inside.

And people didn't! When they had a choice, they lived outdoors. Indoor work and social codes kept many people, particularly women, inside more than they would have liked, but when it was more comfortable outside, then that was where people went. Before widespread AC, hundreds of ordinary NYC families went to sleep in Central Park in the summer -- and, of course, on the fire escapes.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:28 AM on January 2 [6 favorites]


Yeah, this struck me as a bit too Gladwell-ian, that is a few simplistic assumptions that supposedly explain everything if you ignore any counter-examples.

My grandmothers old house in Mexico is not made for heat at all. Thats ok because houses are built with expansive open central patios and in the summer you spend all your time basically outdoors - though still inside your house. In winter, the place is severely drafty but that ok because you layer on a huge heap of wool blankets. The house itself was never considered an 'environment' that had to be designed for comfort.
posted by vacapinta at 9:32 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Anybody who believes they can improve A Pattern Language by removing 9/10 of the pages has an agenda or is seriously self-deluded.

The author handily elides the scale of economy in these proposals. 19th century urban Japanese working classes lived in one- or two-room apartments with front doors and rear windows. The houses in Japan he lovingly describes were not those of the common people, but of the wealthy merchant classes who could afford large houses and private gardens in major cities. Their class counterparts in the present-day United States will mostly consider energy costs too cheap to inconvenience themselves with unfamiliar house designs for; at worst they can content themselves with a solar array on the roof of their McMansion or bespoke postmodern design.

He also goes on at weird length about the benefit of wood for regulating humidity. I live in a house that's old enough to have all-wood doors and frames, and has all hardwood flooring. The wood does obviously change with temperature and humidity, but the effects are too limited to be advantageous on their own. Summers are humid here but once the floorboards are swollen in mid-May, they've done all they can for the rest of the summer. Winters are milder than summers, but the boards are still dried completely out before mid-December. Us occupants are only getting some -- if any -- benefit from its effect on the interior climate for less than half of each year, and primarily the times when the weather's already neither too hot nor too cool. If we didn't have central heating, a wood floor might have more impact, but only at the cost of losing the utility of the unheated rooms in the house every winter; that doesn't sound like a win.
posted by at by at 11:00 AM on January 2 [3 favorites]


Fun thing about wood (for his oddly narrow definition of wood) absorbing and re-emitting humidty is that leads to things like doors that stick in the summer and don't latch right in the winter. This is a big reason why we try to control the humidity in our homes is so all the wood DOESN'T keep expanding and contracting leading to damage over time...
posted by MrBobaFett at 11:21 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]


I was part of a charity that preserved a beautiful old Victorian whiskey mansion in Peoria (quite an early Queen Anne, with some Second Empire features/feel as a result). It actually was relatively comfortable for both winter and summer living, provided that in the summer you didn't want to move around very much and didn't go above the first floor or ever turn on the stove.

HOWEVER. It cost SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS A WINTER to run the dang boiler (and even then the rooms were a bit chilly and you'd want some layers), and that was after modern reinsulation; it was $10,000/winter before; and you absolutely could not keep any electronics in the house in the summer. We had to insulate a quite separated maid's room and install a room A/C for that room to use as an office for the charity where the computer could live. Not only did the computer make any room it was in absolutely unbearably hot in the summer, but the heat and humidity would have things self-protectively shutting down all the damn time.

Before widespread air conditioning, families in cities like Baltimore and Chicago would wait for the air to cool off and go to bed much, much later in the summer (and sleep on sleeping porches, fire escapes, or in parks); because everyone did this, society generally accommodated this summer shift in schedule. These days, however, for poor families without air conditioning (who definitely aren't allowed to go sleep in the parks) who are staying up late not because they want to but because it's too hot to sleep, their kids are still expected at school at the same early hour in the morning, leading to a real effect where teachers can often pick out which of their students have A/C and which don't in late August/early September when there's a heatwave, because the kids without aren't getting NEARLY enough sleep between the twin demands of the climate and early school start times.

It would definitely be good to build houses more appropriate to local climates and to reappropriate some older concepts (sleeping porches!) for modern living. But there definitely has to be a recognition that there have been enormous changes to society in the last 70 years that have to be accommodated, and some can't be accommodated within traditional architectural styles no matter how well they suit the climate.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:18 PM on January 2 [8 favorites]


The whole thing needs a big [citation needed]. Yes, wood can be useful and great, but it's not a panacea. Neither is evaporative cooling, which doesn't work in hot and humid climates and has its own issues (like the risk of Legionella growing in a cooling tower).

Better building codes and more government intervention in building would help. A new house shouldn't be built like crap, and they don't have to be built like crap, but we let them be built like crap.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:40 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


equating past practices to present needs/expectations is incomplete without somehow normalizing the past inhabitants expectations regarding body odor, insect abatement, and/or ...

Life expectancy... Good sanitation, the current lack of thousands of people either freezing or "baking" to death every year due to bad housing... (Or getting sick/chronic illnesses from the burning of material to stay warm... heck, even bad ventilation...)
posted by jkaczor at 1:54 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


(Favoriting primarily because of the great commentary in the thread, because as soon as I saw the warning about "Moldbug" I guessed the author
)

This subject is really dear to me. I want to build a house. I've done a lot of bits and pieces remodeling wood-framed. I've gotten my hands dirty with some traditional techniques and earthen materials. I'm so *itchy* to be able to do this.

(Correction: I want to build many buildings because each one is a new opportunity to explore solutions.)

Regulatory hurdles and costs where I currently live make building my own home unlikely. I am...not happy about that.

A lot of the desire is born out of a want to live in a space that suits me, and to experience the empowerment of creating that. And also because I like traditional materials and the environments their use fosters.

But I also have lived in old houses. Old houses falling down from bug issues. Old houses sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. Windows and doors shrinking and expanding. Plumbing freezing. Paint peeling off after a single year.

This subject touches on materials, techniques, energy use, sustainability, local empowerment, urban planning, law, human comfort, health, and safety, the psychology of spaces, the relationship of individuals and families to their surrounding communities. It's so incredibly interesting. I freely admit that I can be diverted for hours by thinking through what traditional approaches would best suit various locations, such as the place I grew up in. Because houses there tended to be miserable without endless application of electricity for heating and cooling.

The key complaint that I do agree with from the Twitter thread is that housing tends towards an unwarranted uniformity across large areas of the world. But that's unsurprising given the industrial age. With housing, the human sensitivity to temperature and humidity variation means that the industrially-mandated general solution is going to be less-pleasant than one constructed with even a cursory review of local conditions.

But the problem space in which housing is constructed in the western world is driven by cost (which is mandatory through industrial methods demanding uniformity as well as construction which is done with as little consideration and planning for local conditions as possible.), legislation, and fashion. Very few individuals have the ability to build or buy a house constructed just to their desires. This envelope pretty much ensures homes are designed to an environment which exists only on a spec sheet.

It's hard to see how the empowerment of individuals to build their own spaces will ever happen without a vast shift in society, though. And it seems unlikely we'll see any serious increase in the percentage of homes constructed with awareness of local conditions, using natural/less-processed materials when reasonable. Within our regulatory environment, the optimisation of short-term return on investment stands in opposition to improvement in the experienced quality of the results in housing.

Or, to say it in a way that doesn't sound like I'm writing a thesis proposal:

You aren't going to get nice houses suited for their local environment as long as there's more fast money to be made churning out cheap cookie cutter boxes designed elsewhere and people are blocked from building (or organising the building of) affordable alternatives.
posted by allium cepa at 1:54 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


And as long as housing is considered a.specualtive commodity you’re going to get lots of expensive garbage not worth rehabbing in five years.
posted by The Whelk at 1:58 PM on January 2 [7 favorites]


It's rather hard to change building practices radically, because of training and distribution issues. We build platform light-framed houses (or concrete-block houses) because that's what the local tradespeople know how to make, and that's what the materials are available for. When all you have is a nail gun, everything looks like oriented strand board and two by lumber.

You can adapt your building to local conditions, and you have to if you care about durability or quality. You need to account for snow load, wind load, moisture, rain, heating load, cooling load, etc. And you can't design to a very narrow set of conditions because of climate change; your somewhat wet and warm area might become proper wet and hot in 20 or 30 years.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:44 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


I think it's good to keep in mind that the survivorship bias very much applies to traditional architecture.

Yeah, if he had to live in a pre-Law tenement on the LES, he'd be singing a different tune.
posted by praemunire at 2:51 PM on January 2


I think the discussion also needs to look at multi-family dwellings. Well designed, well built medium-density multi-family residential gets overlooked and denigrated in discussions like this, probably because a lot of the medium-density multi-family residential we have now (or that people remember from 20-30 years ago) was built like shit. (And many of the modern "motel/hotel" buildings that look like apartments are also built like shit.)

And so the whole idea of apartment buildings has a terrible rep, and my friends who live in houses all scream they'd never be able to live in a multi-family dwelling.

There's a shitload of privilege in "owning" a piece of land and reserving it for your exclusive use, and while there's certainly some justifiable reasons for it in some cases, not everyone needs to do so, and the cost of doing so should definitely be reflected in the cost of owning one (especially in urban areas where SFDs have no right being because they're stopping the proper densification of an urban core. But we've had that argument before).

As a species we have to figure out how to live more efficiently, and to use our resources more wisely, and figuring out the best way to build a "house" is only a tiny part of that question.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:31 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


The "housing as a speculative commodity" problem is part of the larger set of issues stemming from the wholesale remodeling of human society for speed and effectiveness at transference of power and wealth to the already privileged through the gating of access to natural resources and the transformation of these resources at ever higher rates into non-refusable, inaccessible, pollution.

We've built a self-sharpening machine to make the rich, richer through squeezing everyone else and trashing the planet. Housing as a speculative commodity is just one expression of this ideal. If we want to reclaim a better existence, we have to put into place regulation and build culture that assert there are more important principles than the freedom to pursue unfettered wealth.
posted by allium cepa at 5:34 PM on January 2 [5 favorites]


It would probably be easier to institute rules that ensure that doing the socially beneficial thing will increase a person's wealth faster than the alternatives. Then you'll have people clamoring over themselves to make their lives more sustainable.

Most of us have already seen at least one complete reversal in the rules by which we force markets to operate, so I find it a bit mind boggling that people think that the system can't be changed without tossing it out entirely when the whole of the 20th century shows the exact opposite.

I guess people are attracted to the idea that everything is different now. Or maybe the right wing propaganda has so limited people's range of thought that the entire concept of using economic levers to force social change is impossible to conceive.
posted by wierdo at 6:53 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


I mean we’ve had to reinvent the idea of public spending in this country so yes I think the propaganda worked
posted by The Whelk at 7:10 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


That's what's infuriating. Public money is a helpful addition, but it is ultimately unnecessary if the goal is to place a financial cost on carbon emissions or whatever other socially harmful activity that is amenable. Housing and agricultural policy literally reshaped the entire landscape of America in 30 years, mostly through private expenditure changing in response to those policies.

Like it or not, that's the sort of thing that sticks. Unfortunately, it also becomes part of the landscape and people forget where these things came from and question the need for the old ways because surely newer is better just because it's newer. (Sometimes newer is better, but it's not being newer that makes things better)
posted by wierdo at 9:59 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


our forefathers ancestors weren't idiots

FTFM. Great discussion here, sorry to kick things off with a dose of patriarchy.

I was at a lecture by Jan Gehl a few weeks ago, talking about these issues as they relate to urbanism. In general I felt he gives designers and architects far too much credit for shaping our public spaces, and not the sources of capital that fund them. For a truly disastrous example of pastiche neo-reactionary urbanism see Jakriborg.
posted by St. Oops at 11:22 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


My architect friend has made a career of designing houses that combine the elements of traditional Mediterranean houses of the Balearic islands with the forms of the International Style. It turns out that the traditional shapes of an old farm's stables are perfect for renovating into a Modernist house. He can talk for hours about the centuries-old techniques for managing air flow, collecting and distributing rainwater, or using curtains and shutters to manage light and heat at different times of the year.

The house he designed for us needs no air conditioning in the summer, and we heat the entire house with a single wood stove for less than 100 euros/month in the winter. To achieve that, it's never just one technique. Traditional limestone walls hold humidity in the summer drought, but he added an inner layer of modern insulation to keep them dry and livable in the wet winters. The air circulation throughout the house is based on a combination of high and low ceilings, and different ways of opening and closing windows and doors according to the season and the time of day.

He also puts a lot of attention into how light enters. Pergolas of grapevine and bignonia provide cool shade in the summer. In the winter they lose their leaves and let the sun come in, where it falls on dark-colored floors that store up heat during the day and release it at night.

He always felt like a misfit for his interest in traditional materials and natural climate control, which were mostly ignored by his generation of architects. But now that he's in his 60s and wants to retire, suddenly the power of word-of-mouth has overwhelmed him with a flood of new clients interested in exactly what he does, and he's constantly receiving invitations to present at conferences. This stuff is fashionable now. It's a shame that all those technical ideas need to get caught up in politics, ideology, and intellectual fashion, because the techniques that have always worked well for the climate here make his houses a pleasure to live in.
posted by fuzz at 3:59 AM on January 3 [7 favorites]


fuzz, that sounds really interesting. Does your friend have a website or something?

Back in the day in West Berlin before the wall came down, a lot of social housing was financed by giving private investors a large tax credit if they let out their apartments at a low, controlled rent for the first 20 years. So after 20 years, they could rent out the same apartments at market price (to new renters, the existing ones were safe). This had several good outcomes: it was a good form of investment for small business owners, who saw it as pension savings, so there were many small developments, leading to varied neighborhoods. The investor was interested in good quality construction, because they were planning to keep and maintain the buildings for a lifetime -- at least. The renters were safe in their homes, which were of good quality and well-maintained, and there was a short distance to the owner of the building, if any issues came up. And over time, it meant that each neighborhood would have a mixture of social housing and private housing, so the population would be mixed and so would public schools and other neighborhood functions.
I haven't worked in Berlin for ages, but I have heard that this system came down with the wall (or rather some years after, when Berlin became the capital of the reunited Germany), do any Berliners know if this is true?
posted by mumimor at 4:16 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I have darned socks to repair them, it does not take long, I am unskilled but used youtube for a reference and a lightbulb as a darning egg.

I've never heard of a darning egg; when I've repaired socks, it was generally by sewing the adjacent edges of the hole together (resulting in some, though generally manageable, shrinkage).
posted by acb at 8:40 AM on January 3


Does your friend have a website or something?

As befits a traditionalist, he's got no Internet presence at all. But if you can read Spanish or Catalan, you might find a lot of material on the ideas and techniques by searching for "arquitectura bioclimática".
posted by fuzz at 9:52 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I feel like any of these topic discussions that go down the rabbit hole of equating past practices to present needs/expectations is incomplete without somehow normalizing the past inhabitants expectations regarding body odor, insect abatement, and/or how that one or three or whatever nuanced degrees of temperature related comfort has been blown to bits by climate change for cities that were established a century or more ago.

Eh. I mean we just had a tread about going into people's homes and finding roaches, so many roaches, and an ENTIRE TOWN JUST BURNED DOWN IN THE USA A MONTH AGO. Handwaving away these problems like they are solved is just wrong. I've never even heard of neo-reactionary/dark enlightenment/moldbug before, which could mean that I am seriously out of touch, but I'll take them as allies at shaking off the modern nonsense of cities(suburbs), roads, and building practices, and once we win at that, and they switch the battlefront to facism/feudalism/whatever their ultimate goal is I'll fight them on that front once we get there.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:51 AM on January 3


This is really great.

We recently moved into a (rented) relatively modern two-storey townhouse. It's all nice and new and everything but is an absolute putrid hotbox upstairs, with no effective ways to get decent airflow or dump heat out of the rooms without turning on the air conditioner (which is only in the master bedroom). Ceiling and standing fans do zero.

In Brisbane these townhouses are I am pretty sure extruded by some kind of big machine in a big tin shed in Darra, and townhouse complexes are popping up on every single "spare" scrap of land (made spare by bulldozing the few sparse trees that remain, of course). Every single one of them is the same shitty design that make no accommodations for the rapidly-worsening reality of the SE Queensland climate.

On top of this, the complexes are being built in the outer suburbs, but no changes are made to the public transport situation, and no additional infrastructure is constructed to handle the huge increase in traffic. It's just stupidity and greed across the board, and while I make relatively decent money, I'm still left with no real choice but to be a part of it, because there are no other real options.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:46 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


There is also no such thing as a log cabin that isn’t drafty as hell.

Depends on how well the cabin is made and if it's been caulked or chinked. And also the construction method and the logs themselves. Everything's relative.

My 4th great-grandfather's log cabin was considered the best in Peoria in 1825, because it was the only one in town built with hewn logs--so the town used it for the first courthouse/county commissioner meetings/classroom.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:51 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


But now that he's in his 60s and wants to retire, suddenly the power of word-of-mouth has overwhelmed him with a flood of new clients interested in exactly what he does, and he's constantly receiving invitations to present at conferences. This stuff is fashionable now.

This is wonderful to hear! My parents live in a rural area in Minnesota and new homes keep going up (once upon a time you had to buy farm-size acreage if you wanted to buy, now you can buy 5 acre plots so development has really kicked in). There is ONE home that is really lovely and looks like it has more planning and stability than a gingerbread house. The others hurt my heart. One almost across the street from my folks has big living room windows on the northwest side of the house. IN MINNESOTA! Northwest is where the cold wind comes from. And the garage takes up the south face. I guess they really love a cold north wind and hate sunshine? These people have the money to build a brand new house on expensive land and nobody in their life to suggest they not get in a permanent fight with the weather. I don't get it.

Anyway I hope being smart about building becomes way more fashionable. Or maybe just...normal.
posted by Emmy Rae at 5:37 PM on January 20


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