Wednesday, September 2, 2009

--Restating the Thesis

Science has taught us to view all things through the lens of Darwinian evolution. That is to say, nothing in its present form got to where it is without a long process of adaptation to its immediate environment. We tend to think of human inventions as distinct and separate from this process, but architecture is a field in which one can recognize the gradual development of style through regular, minute innovation as each new building in a location takes shape. Unfortunately, the homogenization of American culture following WWII meant that the natural development taking place in distinct regions of the country were largely halted in favor of identical boxes that could be transplanted from one location to another and "acclimated' via an adjustment to the thermostat. As energy prices continue to rise unpredictably, however, the freedom to make those adjustments is increasingly limited. In this case, Americans--indeed, all people--do well to retrace the historical architectural developments of their region, garnering insights and learning lessons to help them live with greater freedom from fluctuating fuel prices.

As examples, let's look at a few thought experiments where innovations in architecture have clearly followed realizations about environment. Many of the wealthy merchants in American Southern and Western cities came from East-coast locations where Europeans had been settled since the seventeenth century. Space in these areas comes at a premium, of course. Houses in New York, for instance, were cramped and crowded--though stately!--to take advantage of the limited space. And don't forget that New York was founded by settlers from Amsterdam, where compact houses were a necessity:
So imagine that wealthy merchant has made his fortune in Chicago. Would he not wish to build a similarly styled mansion in this city?
You of course see architectural progress. The New York brownstone is plainer, closer to Federalist in style. The Chicago brownstone is more ornate; I can't help but be reminded of Romanesque form. But both houses have a similar footprint. Not until Frank Lloyd Wright did Chicago discover its own native form, however. Wright called this "Prairie Style," inasmuch as the design was meant for the wide, open spaces of the American west. The home's primary axis is no longer vertical as in New York, but rather horizontal, like the great expanse of the Great Plains.
In this example, we see three homes from three distinct periods of time. The design of these homes is altered over time to reflect a more direct interaction with the immediate environment. Literally, the homes are more "fit" to their surroundings.

We see the same effect when a style of architecture is so suited to its environment that it can't be improved upon. Pueblo and adobe construction in the American Southwest is a perfect example. The material availability and temperature-mitigating effects of mud-brick construction define the style of the region.
As you read other posts in this blog, you'll find that every region of the world has these locally perfect forms. You'll also see properties that were determined to be wise in one home that were repeated in future homes.

The achetypical Cape Cod house, for instance:
What do you notice? Here are three prominent features immediately obvious: (1) a central chimney. (2) A low, broad roof. And (3) Shutters. Here are two more pictures of the same style in which the same features are prominent. (Google "Cape Cod" and you'll find these houses are the rule, not the exception).

So why do these features repeat? Because they make the house livable during the Northeasters of Massachusetts lore. No heat escapes the house as when the chimney is stuck on the outside. The windows can be locked tight against flying debris. The roof does not present itself to be torn off by heavy winds. Wind, rain, and cold are the principle components of a New England winter. Obviously a New England house would be designed to combat them.

But let's say the son of that New Englander moves to Alabama to start a farm. Does he build the same house in Montgomery as in Massachusetts? The first few people likely did, for lack of a reason not to. But look at this picture of a typical Alabama dogtrot house:
What do you notice first? Two chimneys on the exterior walls instead of one chimney in middle. Why? Because Alabama is a lot hotter than Massachusetts, and trapping extra heat simply isn't necessary. Historians will tell you that a house like this was likely built in two stages. The first cabin was constructed, then the second, and then a roof stretched over both. Ample opportunity existed to build both cabins around the single fireplace, but trapping that much heat would be miserable most of the time in Alabama! Instead, the middle of this house features a tremendous breezeway to promote air circulation, just as the off-the-ground conventional foundation helps to keep the home cool. Here are two more pictures to show that we're dealing with core styles here and not outliers:What I hope is evident in these illustrations is the way in which historic homes were constructed to mitigate environmental effects.

Modern homes are also constructed to mitigate climate. But homes today do so in enery-intensive ways. This might allow you to construct a Cape Cod in Alabama or a dogtrot in Massachusetts if you happen to like the style, but you do so by paying a hefty energy bill every month.

This blog exists for one reason: to encourage home-builders to look at these insights from the past. As energy prices continue their upward trend, everyone can benefit from the "free" energy efficiency of historical regional architecture.


  1. Nice post. Are you familiar with Ozarks fieldstone farmhouses? People around here used to build houses out of the plentiful rocks they pulled out of their fields in order to farm them.

  2. T.E., you make an excellent point about those farmhouses.