Looking to the past to provide the way forward in sustainable design
and stewardship of the land:
The house married the landscape and they lived happily ever after.
by Nicholas Cusano
W.G Clark, the esteemed architect from Charlottesville, Virginia poetically depicts the perfect marriage
between artifice and nature in his description of an ancient stone millhouse reaching across a forest
stream. In this vision, still present on so many back roads and small streams of New Jersey, landscape
and artifice come together seamlessly to create a more powerful union than either could alone. Nature
is intensified by the imposition of the dam, creating a pond that becomes the habitat of waterfowl and
deep dwelling fish. The rushing waters through the dam provide power to the mill and expressively
bind man’s fate to the landscape.
Today “Sustainable” building and “Green” construction have become very fashionable marketing
words more often used to sell a product than achieve a goal. Although we are certainly on the cusp of
a technical revolution in terms of new housing technologies such as solar panels, geothermal heating
and LED lighting systems, some of the most useful technologies may be found in our rear view mirror.
For those looking for a way forward in creating a home or building that uses less energy and has less of
a negative impact on the environment it may be beneficial to look backwards to a time when energy
was far more scarce and our relationship to nature was far more intimate. Before the age of
industrialization and mass produced energy, individuals were innately sensitive to the conservation of
energy and resources. This was not long ago and plenty of the farmsteads and houses built during
these times still exist in New Jersey today as examples for us to follow.
When energy in all forms was at a premium a crucial factor to the success of the home was to position
it correctly on the building site or farmstead. In almost all situations one wanted the house on the
higher elevations of the property. This allowed the dwellers to take advantage of summer breezes and
plentiful fresh air. It was the part of the site most open to sunshine, which provided much needed light
and warmth. It was consistently the driest portion of the land, preventing molds, mildews, and rot
producing leaks. These concepts still hold true today.
Once the position was chosen the orientation of the home was refined to make sure the most
important rooms received sunlight at the appropriate times. South facing rooms received the most
light throughout the day, so the long face of the home would preferably face south. In today’s design’
s the kitchen is the heart of the house and is best served with a southern exposure. On the other
hand, garages have little need for natural light and can be happily placed on northern facing
exposures. This orientation has the double benefit of controlling prevailing winds. In this region, the
winds mostly run from the southwest in summer and the northwest in winter. It is helpful to use a
relatively closed portion of the building, like the garage, to help block the cold northern winter winds
and an open portion facing south to catch summer breezes.
In the past, plantings and trees were used to further control winds and sun. Rows of coniferous trees
were utilized to help block the cold northern winds while tall deciduous trees were planted to create
shade from the summer heat, while allowing wanted sunshine in winter. Overtime the plantings and the
house became wedded together; each giving shape to the other. Hundred year old houses framed by
100 year old treestands still flourish today along our rural roads. This arrangement today, as it did
back then, will save in heat loss in winter and save in lighting costs throughout the year.
In the past, many homes and farmsteads were a collection of a dwelling and various outbuldings. In
these homestead designs care was taken to position these outbuildings where they would have easiest
access from the road and the main dwelling. In addition, they arranged the outbuildings around a
square or “yard” to help define a more private “garden” or outdoor area on the property. In farming
days this was done to simply help keep livestock out of the “kitchen garden” portion of the farm.
Today this concept is still important because in addition to helping keep deer out or pets and children
in, it can mediate between the public and private realms of the property. Through the proper
arrangement of natural and built elements on the site the private realm can be greatly expanded
beyond the walls of the house and utilized as an additional living space. This allows the possibility for
the house to be designed smaller and more intimate, while still providing larger spaces for larger
gatherings or activities.
For the dweller of the preindustrial past, the first step to conserving energy and resources was to limit
the size of the building. Houses were built smaller not only because resources were scarce, but the idea
of heating and maintaining something large was overwhelming. Anyone who has overzealously planted
a “ bit too large” of a vegetable garden in Spring has learned that lesson all too well by Autumn. Today
our houses are designed far too large. We can cut down the sizes of our homes by eliminating rooms
that are no longer used and combining underutilized spaces. More importantly, we can make the
spaces we build more livable by opening them up to the landscape. This is achieved not only by adding
windows and doors but by adding transition spaces. Porches are a powerful example of transition
spaces that truly join indoor and outdoor space. They greatly expand the usable living space of the
house, while modestly expanding the energy and resource usage. They are a place to take refuge from
the heat of the summer sun while soaking up the summer breezes. They help shade indoor space and
provide a wonderful protected perch to enjoy the surrounding landscape.
In an effort to further create transitions between nature and artifice, dwellers of the past gently re-
graded sloping hillsides into terraced gardens or subtle outdoor spaces. They often used natural
materials such as local fieldstone to hold back the earth between these levels. The use of local stone
had the duel benefit of helping clear fields for agriculture and was a material that would not need to be
replaced for many lifetimes. Builders of the past knew that one of the most powerful ways to conserve
resources and energy was to build it to last. These terraces also helped control soil erosion and water
Water management was a matter of survival in days before plumbing, but now we again are aware of
the need for water conservation and management. In the past, wells were supplemented by
employing cisterns to create an ample supply in times of drought or high use. Today we rarely fear
running out of water but we understand the need to conserve. We can conserve rather than waste
by not tying our gutters into the storm water system where is it piped far away from the house and
community, but instead tying them into a cistern system on our site where it can be used for garden
or lawn irrigation or allowed to slowly percolate back into the water table. The upfront cost of the
cistern system will pay for itself in time in lower water bills, but more importantly it is a way of treading
lighter upon the landscape. In addition, our plants will appreciate the non-chlorinated water on their
House designers and builders did not have the ability to mechanically control light or air temperature.
They instead employed simple devices such as having windows on two opposite walls in each room to
allow for more consistent natural light throughout the day and create the opportunity for cross
ventilation. These devices are still just as valid today but are often overlooked. We would also be wise
to reemploy the use of the large roof overhangs that were “value engineered” off houses in the 1950s
as “obsolete”. If we do, our roofs will again block the “high in the sky” summer sun, while allowing the
low winter sunshine to reach inside. This will save in air conditioning in the summer while saving on
heating in the winter. It also will keep our furniture and finishes from pre-maturely fading and provide
protection for our exterior finishes.
It is easy to sometimes pass right by these homesteads of yore because they are so intertwined with
the natural landscape it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. They sit quietly and
elegantly. Like any great composition, they appear timeless and effortless. These are worthy goals for
our new buildings to strive for and we would be wise to study them to find our way forward.
Architecture + design