This week's newspaper column. Read it in the Hattiesburg American.
This past Saturday marked the four year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the recovery is ongoing.
Inland a bit, damage to buildings and infrastructure was limited to consequences resulting from the business end of fallen trees and lack of electricity. Still, almost everyone who went through the experience had an unpleasant run-in with the modern state of homebuilding in America.
Two days after the storm, my Mother’s next-door neighbor commented “Yesterday was the worst day of my life!” as she packed up her car in preparation for driving north to stay with relatives while things were sorted out. “My house was so hot I couldn’t stand it.”
Curiously, in her estimation, the day after the storm was worse than the storm itself. Why? Because her house, as designed, was uninhabitable without the benefit of electric air conditioning. In a hot and sometimes muggy climate, her home was constructed with low ceilings, and the windows - placed for “look” instead of sized and located for comfortable ventilation - were painted shut.
All across the hurricane-affected area people evacuated their homes and set up living spaces under porch overhangs, if indeed the home had a covered porch. Hurricane parties ensued as melting freezers emptied and barbecue grills took flame.
Upon subsequent observation, the houses least affected by Katrina’s electricity-less aftermath were older homes. Turns out, as far as environmental compatibility goes, the older the home, the more human comfort it offered.
A century ago, before electricity was common and without the luxury of 24/7 air conditioning, even the most uneducated builder knew how to construct a home that worked in tandem with the environment. The high ceilings, ample windows, transoms, breezeways, and porches were not accidental. Those elements, common to all older homes in the south, were not add-ons for the sake of curb appeal; they acted in concert to cool the home efficiently, inexpensively, and most of all, naturally.
Here’s how it works.
Hot air rises leaving cooler air below, so tall ceilings allow for the hot air to collect above human living space. Operable transoms allow that hot air to migrate out of interior spaces and escape from ceiling and attic vents thereby pulling cooler air in from under shaded porches.
Breezes also help cut the body’s perception of heat. The passive airflow rendered by convection was important in the design of every older home, and breezeways channeled cool winds from tree-shaded yards throughout the home.
Those principles are just as valid today as they were a hundred years ago. Armed with information on how our physical universe works, we can employ environmentally compatible methods in the design of new homes and the renovation of existing structures.
Just because homes have not been designed to work with the environment over the past few decades does not mean they cannot be; it just takes a willingness to do so.