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Energy Efficient Home Design – The Basics
Good house design takes its form in part from the forces acting on it. Climate and weather are two of the main shapers (there are no igloos in the tropics), as houses must be designed and built to repel the harmful effects of the world we live in. Mother Nature is always trying to tear down our buildings.
Climate and weather also affect the comfort of our homes and make us look for ways to keep the temperature and humidity in our homes within tolerable levels. A lot of design effort goes into keeping heat in or keeping heat out, depending on the climate and season.
This Old House
At times throughout American history, the shapes of our homes have reflected, to a greater or lesser extent, our ingenuity to make the internal climates of our homes more comfortable.
Settlers in the Deep South built deep porches around their low-slung houses to protect them from the harsh sun and create a reservoir of cooler air that could be drawn into the house.
New Englanders built compact houses with small windows to protect them from winter winds and to retain as much heat as possible. And prairie houses, often built of stacked sod, were half-buried in the earth to equalize temperature changes and protect them from the frequent violent storms that sweep across the plains each summer.
Simple and effective strategies like these were needed because fuel for heating homes was limited. We created houses that conserved resources; we didn’t know how no a.
This changed with the era of cheap and abundant electricity and natural gas for home heating, and with the introduction of the first air conditioners for private homes in 1928. Suddenly, the houses did not need to respond to their surroundings; any house could easily be kept as warm or as cool as desired by mechanical means, regardless of the weather outside. Little thought was given to energy conservation strategies until the early 1970s, when the cheap energy we had taken for granted suddenly became very expensive and the climate-ignorant houses we had built for decades were return faces to heat and cool.
That 70’s show
But then something really cool happened. Architects and builders across the country began reviving the “lost art” of designing homes that responded to climate and weather. Old ideas such as earth protection and thermal mass were used again. New passive cooling strategies and unique ideas such as the Trombe wall were invented.
And most interestingly, houses with low energy consumption techniques took new and exciting forms. Suddenly, there was something more out of the Old World-inspired design. It was a fun time full of invention and experimentation.
But that time was short-lived. By the mid-1980s, fuel was cheap again, and the unique design of the energy-efficient home was forgotten.
Back to the future
So it’s no surprise that we now find ourselves in a closed circle, with rising energy prices and a renewed interest in home energy efficiency. It’s a critical concern at a time when some studies show that residential buildings consume up to 21% of the nation’s energy.
However, today’s home energy efficiency strategies are different than they were 30 years ago. Today the focus is on technology rather than design. New materials and techniques have been developed that make otherwise climate-insensitive housing designs (and there are many) better stewards of the energy they need to maintain human comfort.
However, technical solutions can be expensive as they require common building materials to perform at a higher level. The windows have “high tech” glass with low emissivity coatings, spaces filled with Argon gas and up to three panes of glass. Heating systems work with higher efficiency and can come equipped with programmable thermostats and insulated ducts. Solutions like these conserve energy and are important components in any home, but the technological crutch should not be leaned on too much. We also need better design.
The designer’s challenge
What if, instead of spending hundreds of extra dollars on high-tech glass to keep out the heat of the sun, we positioned our windows more carefully to keep out direct sunlight? What if we used elements of the house itself to shade these windows from thermal radiation and UV rays?
Suppose we better take advantage of the relatively stable soil temperature to stabilize the temperatures in our homes, instead of 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 on shady porches and letting the breeze cool the house?
What if we opened our minds a little – stopped thinking so much about fashion and resale value – and allowed the shapes of our houses to be shaped more by how they respond to the climate and the environment we live in?
The surprising result could be interesting, beautiful homes that cost very little to heat and cool, just like the old days.
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