Energy Efficient Home Design
Good house design takes its form in part from the forces that act on
it. Climate and weather are two of the strongest form-makers (there are
no igloos in the tropics) since houses must be designed and built to
repel the damaging effects of the world we live in. Mother Nature is
always trying to tear our buildings down.
Climate and weather also affect the comfort of our homes, and cause us
to seek out ways to maintain the temperature and humidity of our homes
within tolerable levels. A great deal of design effort is devoted to
keeping the heat in or keeping the heat out, depending on the climate
This Old House
At times throughout American history, the forms of our homes have
reflected - to greater or lesser extents - our ingenuity in making our
homes' internal climates more comfortable.
Settlers in the Deep South built deep porches around their low-slung
homes to shade them from the harsh sun and to create a reservoir of
cooler air that could be drawn into the house.
New Englanders built compact homes with small windows to shield them
from winter winds and to hold in as much heat as possible. And prairie
homes, often built of stacked sod, were half-buried in the earth to even
out the temperature swings and to protect them from the frequent violent
storms that sweep the plains each summer.
Simple and effective strategies like these were necessary because fuel
for heating homes was limited. We created houses that conserved
resources; we didn't know how not to.
That changed with the era of cheap and plentiful electricity and natural
gas for home heating, and with the introduction of the first air
conditioners for private homes in 1928. Suddenly, houses didn't need to
respond to their environment; any home could easily be kept as warm or
as cool as desired using mechanical means regardless of the weather
outside. Little thought was given to energy conservation strategies
until the early 1970s, when the cheap energy we'd taken for granted
became suddenly very expensive, and the climate-ignorant houses we'd
built for decades became expensive to heat and cool.
That 70's Show
But then a very cool thing happened. Architects and builders across the
country began to revive the "lost art" of designing homes that responded
to climate and weather. Ancient ideas like earth-sheltering and thermal
massing were used again. New passive-cooling strategies and unique ideas
like the Trombe wall were invented.
And most interestingly, the houses using low-energy techniques took on
new, exciting forms. Suddenly there was something else out there beside
Old World inspired design. It was a fun time full of invention and
But that era was short-lived. By the mid-1980s fuel was cheap again and
energy-efficient unique home design was all but forgotten.
Back To The Future
So it's no surprise that we now find ourselves having come full circle,
with rising energy prices and a revised interest in home energy
efficiency. It's a critical concern in a time when some studies show
residential buildings consuming up to 21% of the nation's energy.
Today's home energy efficient
strategies are different than they were 30 years ago, however. Today
the focus is on technology rather than on design. New materials are
techniques have been developed that make otherwise climate-insensitive
home designs (and there are plenty) better stewards of the energy they
need to maintain human comfort.
Technical solutions can be expensive, however, since they demand that
common building materials perform at a higher level. Windows have
"high-tech" glass with low-emissivity coatings, Argon gas-filled spaces,
and up to three sheets of glazing. Heating systems are running at higher
efficiencies, and may come equipped with programmable thermostats and
insulated ductwork. Solutions like these do conserve energy and are
important components in any home but the technology crutch shouldn't be
leaned on too heavily. We also need better design.
What if, instead of spending hundreds of additional dollars on
high-tech glazing to keep the sun's heat out, we more carefully located
our windows to avoid direct sunlight in the first place? What if we used
elements of the house itself to shade those windows from heat radiation
and UV rays?
Suppose we took better advantage of the ground's relatively stable
temperature to stabilize the temperatures in our houses, rather than
exposing every square foot of a home's exterior surface to the elements?
Instead of constant mechanical air conditioning to remove heat and
humidity, why not try opening windows onto shady porches and let the
breeze cool the house?
And what if we opened our minds a bit - stopped thinking so much about
fashion and resale value - and allowed the forms of our houses to be
shaped more by how they respond to the climate and the environment we
The surprising result might be interesting and beautiful homes that cost
very little to heat and cool - just like the old days.
Richard L. Taylor, AIA is a published author and
recognized expert in Residential Architecture. He is President of
Richard Taylor Architects, a 5-person firm in Historic Dublin, Ohio.
Residential Architect - Luxury Home Plans
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