Looking to the past to provide the way forward in sustainable design and stewardship of the land

sustainable design

The house married the landscape and they lived happily ever after.

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.

sustainable design

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 run off.

sustainable design

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 roots.

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.