Saturday, March 28, 2009

--"How Green Is My House"

Today's "Room for Debate" in the Times references numerous things that can be done to improve the efficiency of existing homes--stopgap measures for homes you're stuck with during the recession. Why not learn from these measures when you buy your next home?

--Greenchip Stocks

On Wall Street, the historically reliable and high-performing stocks are known as Blue Chip. This colorful nomenclature has inspired a new set of stocks to watch, the Green Chips.

--Useful EPA Directory

Check it out

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

--Obama Links Budget to Environment

From the Associated Press

If you don't recognize that green construction will make dramatic leaps forward because of the Obama administration, then you're not paying attention.

Monday, March 23, 2009

--Consumers Sabotage Energy-Saving Efforts

From USA Today

--The First Domino

The playing field was radically altered today--you just don't know it yet.

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced today that it will officially acknowledge the harmful effects of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide and methane. This will open the door for cap-and-trade and other increased forms of fossil fuel regulation.

Those bits of paper that come with your power bill every month? Start reading them. You'll find more inserts describing switchgrass and wind power. Instead of offering free electric water heaters, they'll soon be explaining why your power rate will be shooting up dramatically. Why will this happen?

For all our talk about solar power, wind power, nuclear power, hydroelectric power and other such renewable resources, fully half of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Alabama has long been below the national average in electric rates, but image how that cost would change if the EPA levied fines on coal-burning plants?

This blog does not seek to be political; both "liberal" and "conservative" sources are cited. The blog will not take a position on whether the EPA SHOULD impose such regulations. Rather, the blog assumes that the political and social climate of the coming years will ensure that such regulations ARE imposed. Based purely on that assumption, this blog endeavors to encourage the construction of homes and buildings that can cope with the increased fuel costs generated by these regulations.

Let's be clear: political wrangling will take place. One party will try to halt the imposition of these regulations, arguing that the increased costs of electricity will harm business interests and therefore cause the economy to stall. This argumentation won't triumph; the US suffered such image problems during the previous Presidential administration that both politicians and citizens are courting international favor by making the US a global leader in energy policy. Regulation is coming. Increased energy prices will follow.

(This is an aside, particularly for those concerned with urban sprawl. The current status of the Superfund legislation dictates that the present owner of an industrial site is responsible for any environmental cleanup required by that site. This means that if a substance used by an industry is later declared to be harmful, and if that site is now owned by a new business, the new business is responsible for cleanup on the site. Ever wondered why dry cleaners close up and leave abandoned store-fronts all around town? Because no one wants to buy a site that may later require expensive cleanup operations. Now, consider the invested infrastructure in present industrial sites. If the price of utilities increases such that the invested infrastructure is no longer cheaper to maintain than new infrastructure would be to build, then new factories will be favored by industry. But the present state of Superfund legislation ensures businesses will prefer to buy and degrade present virgin land rather than update old sites. This fact must be considered before the EPA creates sweeping regulations.)


How are you and your business planning for the coming increase in energy costs?

--EPA to acknowledge harmful effects of greenhouse gases

From the New York Times

Thursday, March 19, 2009

--Under Obama, Electricity Prices to Increase by $1800 Annually

What would happen to your budget if your electricity costs jumped by $1800 annually? I'll bet you'd be in the market for a more energy efficient house!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

--US Department of Energy Eletricity Price Projections

This graph is important not only because it shows the increase in electricity prices expected by the US Department of Energy, but also because it compares those price increases to growth in demand. You'll note that even though demand will grow only slowly in the coming years, the price of electricity will continue to climb at a near constant rate. Now imagine what that rate will do if an economic upswing leads to increased demand? This chart more than the time period encompassing the average life-span of any new 2009 mortgages--six years.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

--"Energy Efficiency in Vernacular Architecture"

This link is an interesting examination of energy efficiency in Southwestern Regional Architecture.

--R. W. Brunskill on Vernacular Architecture

"...a building designed by an amateur without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable. The function of the building would be the dominant factor, aesthetic considerations, though present to some small degree, being quite minimal. Local materials would be used as a matter of course, other materials being chosen and imported quite exceptionally." [ R.W. Brunskill, 'Vernacular Architecure: An Illustrated Handbook, (Faber & Faber, 4th ed, 2000), pp.27-28]

--Sense of Place

If you've seen The Truman Show (or if you live anywhere within 200 miles of Florida's panhandle) then you know about Seaside. This master-planned community was one of the first places to introduce a concept of new urbanism into popular consciousness. Mt. Laurel near Birmingham is another such location here in Alabama. A fairly substantial list of Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs) can be found here.

According to one report, 50% of American home-buyers are interested in TNDs, but, despite the large number of projects listed in the above link, only 5% of new home construction in the US is slated to be TND. One reason for this is obvious: the market favors a developer making a large tract of land available for individual contractors to independently build homes according to only the loosest uniform design standards. The less regulation involved in the design of the community, the fewer salaries to pay. Those savings get passed on in the form of lower price per square foot. (A quick couple of phone calls reveals that the price per square foot in Montgomery's TNDS is precisely twice that of the price per square foot in the other fastest growing subdivision in the city, Deercreek).

A TND is certainly a hot commodity, and the appeal of generating such neighborhoods is not financial alone. There is a real sense that the TND represents a better step in the evolution of home building--one in which the environment and culture are allies of the builder. This was partially inevitable: as the last bits of former outlying farms in places like Alabama were built up, more wilderness areas had to be developed. Learning to work with the land and not against it vastly improved the quality of life to be lead in these neighborhoods.

But the work is not over. TNDs will continue to be build. Indeed Hudson, Alabama is an upcoming TND to be built in the Montgomery metropolitan area. Hopefully, the builders of that TND will take into consideration the arguments of this blog that "Sense of Place" should be more than an artificial creation (does Montgomery really need an English country village? Does such construction capitalize on the natural assest of its location, or merely create a Disneyland that appeals to a certain socio-economic demographic?) but should be a way of ensuring that homes thrive as part of their environment.

Monday, March 16, 2009

--LEED Certification

All contractors should be LEED certified. Period.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

--Old Regionalist Architecture

I took this shot in Montgomery's Old Alabama Town. The quintessentially Southern elements are largely in play: a big porch (on the northern exposure), numerous windows to promote cross-breezes, and a traditional foundation to allow shade. One element of this traditional architecture not likely to be replicated in newer architecture is the off-site kitchen. Though joined by a shared porch, the kitchen is housed in a separate building. This prevents the heat from spreading into the other living areas, as well as saves the rest of the house from destruction if the kitchen were to catch fire.

--"What is new about this?"

The Wikipedia articles on Passive Solar Heating and Passive Cooling make clear that New Regionalism is by no means a novel idea nor a breakthrough technology. Quite on the contrary, New Regionalism is a way of integrating an understanding of how energy is gained and lost in a home with an appreciation for the methods of solving that problem that were common in earliest vernacular architecture.

Let's take a closer look. To start, I googled images of "Southern House" and found this house on the front page:
Most people would relatively quickly recognize this as a Southern-style house. Quintessential elements include the wrap-around porch, the galvanized metal (or "tin") roof, the gargantuan windows, and the setting among countless pine trees. But why are those elements quintessentially Southern? Did Southern homebuilders meet together before Europeans colonized the area and set design standards, as neighborhood planners do today? Certainly not. The elements that have come to be considered quintessentially Southern are the product of a type of evolution: the houses best suited to their environment became models for future houses, and the houses poorly suited to their environments were not replicated. With time, the replicated models exhibited increasingly more of those characteristics that observers would regard as exemplary of a given region.

Determining, in hindsight, why a given architectural feature would prove advantageous requires a little forensic science. Most commentators and writers, for instance, have considered the front porch of a Southern house to be a primarily social space: everyone sits on the front porch and greets the neighbors, and conversations and relationships arise accordingly. But why were people congregating on the porch? Likely because the porch was cooler than the house. But did you know the porch also serves to cool the house interior!

Let's revisit the photograph above. The tin roof over the porch reflects the sunlight and therefore prevents the radiant heat from warming the air on the porch. In the summer, the windows around the porch can be opened. Because the air in the house will be warmed by the enclosure during the day, the inside of the house can at times be hotter than the outside. Everyone remembers from high school that hot air rises. By opening the windows in the second story, the heated air inside can flow up and out of those windows. Where will the replacement air in the house come from? It will be drawn in from the first floor windows--the cooled air from under the porch.

This is a passive version of precisely what an air conditioning unit does: pump out the hot air and pump in air that has been cooled. But a passive cooling technique offers this benefit for free. The house has the additional cooling benefit of a pine forest surrounding it. The shade of the trees naturally blocks heat and thereby cools the house.

Now compare that house to this block of houses:
No large trees shade the houses. Small windows on two elevations prevent cross-breezes. No porches mean no cooled air to draw inside. Black asphalt shingles absorb heat and make the whole house an oven. Without an HVAC system, this house cannot breath and neither can the people who live in it!

Now look at this house from Mother Earth News, a design even better than the one above:
The tin roof covers the entire house, reflecting solar energy away and preventing the house from warming during the summer. (The roof is also a barrier to heat loss from the house during the winter). Notice the wrap-around porch extending to the hidden exposure. Also notice the extended eaves on all gables: the sun is shaded from entering the windows and more free heat-shielding occurs even where there is no porch. The traditional (as opposed to poured slab) foundation allows air to circulate under the house. The windows and doors allow for better circulation and thereby free air conditioning.

The proximity to water does raise interesting questions about how one might construct a commercial subdivision: water has cooling effects on nearby houses, but unless that water circulates well, it can promote mosquitoes.

The next post will consider how an entire subdivision might be constructed using these principles.

Friday, March 13, 2009

--Old Regionalist Architecture




One of these little white churches is designed to allow cross-breezes and thereby cool off parishioners on a hot Sunday morning. The other is designed to trap warmth and keep parishioners warm during long winter months. Though similar in layout and simplicity, one church is clearly an example of New England Regional architecture, and one is clearly and example of Southern Regional Architecture. Can you guess which is which?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

--Your House is a Bimbo

bimbo: noun. slang. A physically attractive woman who lacks intelligence. (wiktionary)

The post-war building boom is not singularly responsible for littering our environment with unsustainable houses. But when assembly-line technology met unprecedented market demand, suddenly suburbs sprouted all over the nation. These developments are not inherently bad, of course. They are, however, sites for the proliferation of unsustainable (and therefore unlivable) architecture. According to the New York Times, our most recent stock market decline may spell the end the McMansion. But will it kill a more insidious beast: the Bimbo House?

Like its counterpart in the world of dating, a Bimbo House is aesthetically pleasing but too stupid to make a commitment to. And yet millions of Americans have established long-term relationships with precisely such homes.

A Bimbo House is a home that has no natural relationship to its environment. On the prairie, it may be two-storied and defined by dwarfing gables. In the South, it may be massive and brick and a horrendous heat-trap. Its principle selling point is how physically appealing the structure is--so appealing that no one remembers to test for intelligence until its too late.

A Bimbo House is a home so dumb that it cannot support itself. An external heating and air conditioning unit is required to maintain a comfortable living space. A constant supply of expensive electricity is an absolute necessity. Were the power suddenly cut off, the Bimbo House would immediately become an unlivable chaos.

Why have Americans en masse signed themselves over to Bimbos? Because the alternatives were so utterly unappealing. For decades, anyone who did not want to live in a Bimbo House and opted for something more energy efficient had to live with glass and steel absurdities. Most of the homes showcased even today boast features that the average home buyer shirks without a second thought. "Really? An entire wall of glass brick? How imaginative. Straw bales instead of timbers? Amazing. Do you have anything more conventional?" No one wants the Geek, so they settle for the Bimbo. Neither is ideal, but at least your friends are jealous of the Bimbo.

Continuing to build only Geek Houses presumes that energy efficiency remains a niche market for that portion of the population with post-graduate degrees and Whole Foods shopping bags. But if you are paying attention to global demand for oil, you won't need a crystal ball to understand one fact: the bargain basement energy prices that made Bimbo Houses appealing are disappearing for good. You can't be a sugar daddy when doing so breaks the bank.

This is not a global warming issue. This is not a political issue. This is a supply-and-demand issue. The supply of oil is a limited resource. We have so successfully exported our American way of life to Eastern Europe, India, China, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and countless cities around the globe that those people are beginning to demand precisely as much energy as Americans presently demand. What's the first lecture in First lecture in Economics 101? Constant supply + increased demand = higher prices.

The economy America (and by extension, the world) depends on requires disposable income in the pockets of US citizens. We learned in 2008 that, as oil prices increase, the cost of gas increases. The cost of heating and cooling your home increases. Even the cost food increases. We learned a dangerous truth in 2008: We've reached the Affordable Energy Tipping Point. Oil is cheap right now because the global economy is shrinking. The moment the economy picks up, the price of oil will skyrocket. That will seize disposable income in America, and the domino effect will throw us back into recession. Short of an overhaul of our energy system, we're not going to see economic growth on the scale of the past generation ever again. This is not politics. This is not environmentalism. This is economics.

The average American is becoming aware that the dependence on a constant price of oil makes him extremely vulnerable in a fluctuating commodities market. He is also becoming aware that energy costs are increasingly representing a disproportionate chunk of his expenses. The average hard-working, red-state, conservative American is suddenly interested in precisely the same energy savings the environmentalist has been for some time now, though for entirely different reasons. He is not interested, however, in the glass and steel absurdities the market is offering. He does not want the Geek House. He can no longer afford the Bimbo House.

What will the market provide to fill this void? The answer is a house that is both attractive and intelligent. The answer is a house that the average American is proud to display, but can afford to inhabit. A house that looks tailored to its environment, that evokes traditional and appealing aesthetics, that exists in harmony with its environment. The answer is a New Regionalist House.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

--A Piece from Friedman

This piece in today's New York Times touches on precisely the idea governing this blog: the unsustainability of present modes of construction are a problem now for more than just the environmentally-conscious. The problem has, through this recession, reared its ugly economic head.

--Relevant Quotations

These were found on the previously mentioned USDA Forest Service Building Guidelines site. They are very meaningful statements and encouraging.

“Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for.” —Frederick Law Olmsted

“Architecture and landscape design are not words on paper.…Situated in microclimates on the ground, connecting past to the future, palpably there, alive with flora and fauna, they are the stage for life itself.” —Douglas Kelbaugh

“The relationship of man-made structures to the natural world offers the richest and most valuable experience that architecture can show.” —Vincent Scully

“Organic building is natural building: construction proceeding harmoniously from the nature of a planned or organized inside outward to a consistent outside....” —Frank Lloyd Wright

“If we build in sensible ways, responding to the opportunities and limitations afforded by each site, the light, climate and topography, we will also begin to reinforce the distinctive character of our region, deepening its residents’ sense of place.” —Jeff Limerick

“A natural environment of this magnificence and grandeur has had a humbling impact on the region's architecture.… This is not the climate for loud and glamorous architecture.” —Douglas Kelbaugh

--USDA Forest Service Building Guidelines

A reader has passed along a remarkable resource: The USDA Forest Service Building Guide. Here is an overview from that document:

The built environment, as used in this guide, refers to the administrative and recreation buildings, landscape structures, site furnishings, structures on roads and trails, and signs installed or operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, its cooperators, and permittees.

The elements of the built environment constructed on national forest lands and grasslands, or those used for administrative purposes in rural areas, towns, and cities, shall—to the extent practicable—incorporate the principles of sustainability, reflect their place within the natural and cultural landscape, and provide optimal service to our customers and cooperators.

These elements will:
• Be located, planned, and designed with respect for the natural systems in which they reside.
• Aesthetically integrate their natural, cultural, and experiential context.
• Contain design elements, including appropriate signs, that reinforce a national agency identity.
• Emphasize efficiency of energy and materials consumption in construction and operation.
• Serve as premier examples to interpret conservation of natural resources and sustainable development.
• Create environments for people to enjoy and gain increased appreciation for the natural environment, and in which employees work productively, experiencing the connection to the resources they manage.
In so doing, the USDA Forest Service built environment will strengthen and reinforce the image of the agency as an international conservation leader.

If you are an Alabamian and have not visited any link so far, please, please, PLEASE visit these two following .pdfs. They are indispensable!

South-East Coastal

South-East Mountain

And finally, the entire USDA Forest Service Building Guidelines (The document can be somewhat difficult to navigate. The materials most relevant to readers of this blog are found in chapter 4).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

--Essential Reading

Any and all of these resources are essential reading!

Passive Cooling and Your Local Climate

Two Identical Floorplans: How minor, conscientious modifications to the design of a single-family home can save 70% of energy costs. Some innovations are technological, but many others involve reclaiming such traditional ideas as galvanized roofing and extended eaves.

Cooling Your North Carolina Home


Landscaping for Energy Efficiency


Cool Metal Roofing

The New Ecological Home: How design alterations and make standard homes more environmentally friendly.

The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling

The Passive Solar House: The Complete Guide to Heating and Cooling

--An Absolutely Essential Study

This study is concerned with energy savings based not on a better envelope or better appliances but rather better design. The study proves that architecture suited to environment can eliminate the need for a cooling system in certain climates.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

--Mother Earth News

Mother Earth News (particularly its subsection on Green Homes) is another interesting and relevant website. Take note, though: much of the information available is specialized to that niche audience of exceptionally committed environmental advocates addressed in earlier posts. Be that as it may, some articles are of paramount importance and will be linked to directly in future posts.

--Why The Waters Matters

The Waters, in a suburb of Montgomery, Alabama, is an essential case study for the assumptions of New Regionalist Architecture. Visit the website to find out why.

(1) Standardized, controlled architecture is the norm--and buyers are responding positively. A buyer has extensive limitations on how self-expressive he or she can be, and yet a phone call to building office reveals that The Waters is one of the only developments in Montgomery where construction is ongoing. The conventional wisdom that buyers avoid strong architectural review boards is trumped by the hard evidence.

(2) All houses at the waters have traditional foundations and metal roofing. These methods are no longer standard in home construction, yet buyers are responding positively. Where else are traditional foundations and metal roofs standard in a development? Perhaps a few isolated houses in the country where individuals own land and build to suit their own tastes--but an entire development? And the houses are selling like hotcakes!

(2) The architectural style of the development is romantic and fantastic. There has never in history been a city or town where the elements found in this development naturally and organically arose to form a community like the one at The Waters. Beach-style cottages, a New-England style church, and a New Orleans-style town square are all beloved in their unique settings; the Waters has juxtaposed these elements and in so doing created the most marketable community in central Alabama.

Thus, from The Waters we learn three points: People will consent to distinctive architectural standards, they will accept somewhat unusual building techniques, and they will look favorably upon romanticized environments. The Waters proves that a development with a distinctive sense of place can more than succeed.

Now, imagine if romance were not the only appeal, but also an almost non-existent energy bill? The lots couldn't be sold quickly enough, I assure you. New Regionalist Architecture will make that possible.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

--Old Regionalist Architecture

Typical Southwestern Native American Pueblo
Typical Eastern Woodland Native American Wigwam
Typical Northwestern Woodland Native American Longhouse
Typical Plains Native American Teepee

Each of the above structures presents architectural innovations of regional Native American populations. The structures provide comfortable shelter, use local materials, and are adapted to the needs of the cultural lifestyle. To be successful, New Regionalist architecture must do the same.

--The Green Home Guide

An important resource for home-builders to consider: The Green Home Guide

--Two Key Propositions

One of the oldest and best sites concerned with an approach to construction similar to that of New Regionalism is greenhomebuilding.com.

Take note, however, of a key difference: this wonderful site and many like it are concerned with green home building for green's sake alone. While this is an admirable endeavor that propels innovation and makes strides toward sustainability, it is unlikely to become commercially viable in the coming years. Most homebuyers are not interested in novelty when it comes to the single largest investment they'll ever make.

Do we allow sustainable and green construction to remain a niche market, accessible only to a privileged or committed few? The belief of New Regionalism is that the market simply will not allow this. We cannot afford to keep building houses the same way we have done since the post-war building boom began--not simply because of the effect on the environment, but also because skyrocketing energy costs and changing climate patterns will choke the life out of average homeowners trying to heat and cool their homes.

The hottest years and strongest storms on record have occurred since the turn of the millennium. Oil prices hit crippling highs in 2008. (Indeed, a case could be made that a not-insignificant factor contributing to the present economic tailspin was the cost of gasoline and its effect on the ability for sub-prime mortgage holders to make their payments. Many had mortgages they could never afford, but surely more than a handful only became unaffordable once gas prices hit $4 per gallon). Irrespective of one's belief about global warming, a person with keen business insight must see that building homes to use less energy makes good financial sense.

The problem with that business insight lies in finding precisely how to create homes that use less energy without making the upfront cost of those homes discouragingly high. According to Forbes.com, the average lifespan of an American mortgage is three to five years (though the present recession will likely skew future numbers higher). Even assuming that a family will stay in a home for five years, few (if any) models involving such innovations as better insulation, double-glazed windows, geothermal heat-pumps, solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels can make the savings from the innovation equal to or exceed the cost of the installation within the lifespan of the mortgage.

Various responses to this conundrum exist. Can we encourage people to build one home and remain there for a longer time by promoting schools and communities that a family is unwilling to trade for a larger home in a different location once the bank account allows such a move? Can government provide tax incentives for more sustainable construction? Such responses ebb and flow without radically altering the present landscape.

To truly be competitive in the market, a home-builder must do what has seemed impossible. He must construct a home defined by two key propositions. His home must use less energy without tacking on prohibitive upfront installation costs. The builder cannot rely on tax incentives alone to make the greener home afforadable. Rather, he must somehow integrate those costs or eliminate them in order to sell a greener home at a price comparable to conventional homes. But the home must also possess popular and conventional aesthetic appeal. Hyper-modern design might be innovative and interesting, but homeowners overwhelmingly tend to reject them when considering their own home purchases. Too much glass in unusual places, conspicuous solar panels, and the use of unusual building materials make potential buyers afraid of being labeled "That Tree-Hugger up the Street".

The New Regionalist blog is committed to the idea that both of these propositions can be met via a dedicated examination of traditional regional architectural expression. Handsome, desirable, energy-efficient homes can and will be a marketable reality. Coming posts will prove this point.

Monday, March 2, 2009

--The Energy Challenge: No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in 'Passive Houses'

From the New York Times: Innovative homes pioneered in Germany are encased in such an airtight shell that barely any heat escapes.KEEP READING

--Old Regionalist Architecture

A Typical Frontier Sod Dugout

This home, though unlivable by modern standards, is notable for its use of immediately available materials and its integration to the environment. The low, shallow-pitched roof diverts both heavy snow and strong winds common on the Prairie.


A Typical Adobe Pueblo

The mud-brick (or "adobe") walls of this south-western style dwelling not only make use of immediately available materials, but also serve as thermal mass--cooling the living space during the day and warming it at night.

--The Distinctive Elements of New Regionalist Architecture

The academic study of regional-specific architecture has been propelled largely as a response to growing global dissatisfaction with American economic and cultural dominance. Those who question a post-war American hegemony--particularly Europeans--have lamented the flowering of Golden Arches across their landscape. (see this conference, for instance).

The roots of the idea may spread deeper, however. One might argue that Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan participated in this movement through their quest to create an architectural style characterized by strong relationship to local environment and building materials. Their quest evolved from such movements as Bauhaus and Soviet Constructivism--each concerned with subverting the forms of architecture in favor of more pressing, functional concerns. The need for this realignment, according to its proponents, stemmed principally from dissatisfaction with cultural emphasis on form alone in such styles as Neo-Classical, Italianate, and Victorian.

Of course, New Regionalist architecture is in many ways a conscientious return to an earlier, unconscious model of construction. When Native Americans built long-houses in the Pacific Northwest and collapsible tee pees on the Great Plains, they were employing locally available resources to construct living spaces that met immediate needs.

When Puritan settlers in New England sided and roofed their houses with split-shakes, the decision was based not on appeal to abstract design, but rather to the abundant felled trees from land they were making arable.

When Spanish missionaries in the American Southwest sought to quickly construct churches and schools to convert the native population, they found adobe a ready material well-suited to the hot days and cold nights of desert climes.

When American sod busters traveled West and began to transform the Great Plains into the American Bread Basket, they constructed dugouts from stacked grasses until funds made possible more conventional buildings.

Certainly most of these architectural techniques lacked glamor; accounts of life in Kansas dugouts are abysmal, as are stories about cold night breezes slicing through the gaps between logs in frontier cabins. To suggest a return to a frontier mentality in architecture is absurd. Even so, Frank Lloyd Wright was on the right track when he sought to design homes and buildings that better interacted with their environment.

Why? The European academics have until recently suggested that a vigorous emphasis on regional distinction is the best means by which to oppose the homogenizing influence of globalization. The virtue of regional identity, then, is precisely that the identity is regional and not global. This same spirit insists only one locale can produce Champagne or Emmentaler or Koelsch. This spirit is reactionary and ultimately neither powerful nor profound outside the scope of its reaction. Globalization will continue, and maybe a few McDonald's in Bavaria will be half-timber, but the effect will be little else.

The rising price of energy, however, will move the emphasis on regional architecture from the reactionary to the norm. This is what makes New Regionalism, "new": not unconscious use of ready-to-hand materials, not reactionary opposition to another culture's dominance, but rather a measured and calculated understanding of how energy, climate, and the human built environment can and ultimately must interact.

In an ideal world, this relationship would be studied for its own sake. But history shows Wright's architectural novums remained mere novelties. "Falling Water" may be a tourist destination, but few architects of American tract houses are invoking that model in their contemporary, profit-driven designs. For better or worse, the market dictates what constraints must be considered by those who design the most numerous structures across the American, and indeed now the global, landscape.

That market-driven focus has left a built environment familiar to most Americans: identical restaurants, hotels, and gas stations at every interstate juncture across the nation. This is entirely logical from a business standpoint: uniformity not only cuts down on costs associated with design expenses, but also fosters a brand image that eventually translates into a feeling of comfort within those familiar with the constructed environment of the brand. (Cracker Barrel restaurants readily embrace this union; their locations are billed as spots Where Food Meets Comfort). Such emphasis on quick and simple construction spread also into other built dimensions of suburban America. The ranch houses inhabited by so many Americans were designed to be put together with a slab, four walls, a roof, and an HVAC system able to regulate the comfort within that little box. During the post-war boom, demand for housing so outstretched the available supply that such a rapid method for new home construction was precisely what the market required.

The next series of architectural innovations will also be driven by market concerns. The limiting factor will no longer be the speed with which houses can be thrown together, but rather, the costs of skyrocketing energy prices. Local building materials will increasingly be selected as a means to control the upfront price of transporting materials cross-country. Furthermore, the long-term costs of energy use will be mitigated through innovative, energy-saving techniques.

Truly, advances in technology will make existing homes more energy efficient. Sprayed insulation, double-glazed windows, energy-star appliances and such new technologies as geothermal heat pumps, solar water heaters, and home photovoltaics will cut down on the costs of heating and cooling homes in the coming years. But these technologies are costly and will not be readily affordable for some time; they remain largely a niche market.

Other technologies, however, are free. These are the systems developed through thousands of years of direct interaction with habitable environments. This blog will seek to explore how capitalizing on such technologies can drastically cut costs associated with new construction without sacrificing comfort or creating undesirable upfront costs. A happy by-product of New Regionalist architecture will be a greener, more sustainable way of life, built on design that is better suited to geography and climate.

--Old Regionalist Architecture

A Typical Southern Dogtrot House

Visible in this picture are three principle elements: open breezeways that promote cooling airflow through interior rooms, traditional foundation construction that also promotes cooling, and a large porch that creates pockets of shaded, cool air to be drawn into the house by airflow.



A Typical New England Saltbox

Visible in this picture are three principle elements: a central fireplace to warm the entire house simultaneously, an over-sized southern-exposed roof to catch the sun's warmth and to divert cold northern breezes, and small windows to limit heat loss.



--Eisenhower's Interstate and the Erosion of Regional Architecture

When Americans visit Europe, invariably they comment on the "quaint" nature of the towns and villages they encounter. Interestingly enough, Europeans have their own fascinations when visiting the United States. Imagine a country spread from one ocean to the other in which any night of the week you can buy your dinner at an identical McDonald's before spending the night in an identical hotel room. Imagine walking into that room and knowing precisely where the lightswitch is; the lightswitch is in the same place in every such room at every off-ramp in the country!

Europeans are amazed by the uniformity blanketing the US, and Americans are captivated by the distinctive regions of Europe. From the UK down to Greece, cities and towns arose organically over time with attention to the materials and climate of their location. Half-timber houses in Northern Europe, thatched roofs in cool climes, open courtyards in the Mediterranean, and breezeways on sunny islands not only take advantage of local building materials, but also heat and cool most effectively for their particular environments. These materials and techniques arose over thousands of years of intimate interaction with the local environment.

At one time, this was also somewhat the case in the United States. New England was covered with saltbox houses to conserve heat and divert snow; the South was dotted with antebellum mansions and dogtrot cabins, each designed to promote breezes and break the oppressive heat. Such architectural styles were well suited to their environments, but their construction was halted originally by the Depression and then by the diverting of resources during the war years.

Following this period, the transfer of assembly-line construction techniques learned during the war effort to the post-war economic boom meant those cookie-counter fast food boxes and motels popped up everywhere--as did countless little square houses on little round streets. While this boom was a boon to the economy, we are only now learning that attaching an HVAC box next to any sort of construction may not be the most sustainable form of long-term development.

The New Regionalist will be guided by the assumptions found in the above commentary. This blog will be devoted to exploring ways in which a New Regionalist approach to architecture could help promote a greener--and altogether better--future.