We Shape Our Buildings…
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”-Winston Churchill.
The creation of a home is, by no means, a simple act. Thousands of decisions will go into that process and those decisions will be based on stated or unstated cultural values. A home built with the intention of being the largest space for the least amount of money will look, feel and act very differently than one where the driving force of the design is “authenticity”, the health of the occupant and concern for our ecology. It costs a little more per square foot to build a home that won’t harm our health and more again to build one that will deeply nurture us. No one expects a superbly engineered Mercedes to cost the same as a compact economy car because we understand the quality factor. But when it comes to assessment of real estate there is a disproportionate emphasis on initial “cost per square foot” and this remains a stumbling block for home owners who would choose quality over quantity. Our homes are our greatest investment not just financially but in our health, the health of the environment and in our children’s future.
Becoming informed home buyers and occupants is the surest way to find and maintain a good home. The act of dwelling and all its associated systems was once innate cultural knowledge passed on from generation to generation in homes that were also passed on from generation to generation. Now understanding home is considered to be specialized knowledge. In fact most home energy rating systems assume occupant ignorance. For example mechanized occupant sensors to turn lights on and off and operate mechanical ventilation systems are rewarded on green score cards. But mechanical systems inevitably break long before the life of a home is played out. Wouldn’t it be smarter to reward built-in opportunities for occupants to operate their homes wisely over the expected life of the building? In our high desert climate, with large daily temperature swings, a combination of shading, cross ventilation and interior mass walls works well to cool a home without the need for mechanical intervention if occupants open their windows at night. These same mass walls, if heated by a radiant heat source, help to keep a home comfortably warm in the winter. We know that less need for mechanical intervention means less energy use but it can also mean a healthier living environment.
The ideal indoor climate would emulate the feel of the outdoor climate on a fine day. Heating air and blowing it around through duct work changes the nature of that air. The indoor air is depleted of health enhancing negative ions because they cling to metal and synthetic ductwork. Circulating heat via forced air tends to create stratified temperature differentials and makes us uncomfortable. Forced air systems are noisy. Baseboard heaters trap and fry dust and create pollution. Electric baseboard heaters emit high magnetic fields. Radiant floor heating, perhaps one of the more comfortable options, has long response times and creates temperature monotony. Does it not make ultimate sense to first design a home with the least need for mechanical intervention and then choose our intervention wisely?
The next Healthy Home Corner will be dedicated to the element fire and the masonry oven a little known, incredibly beautiful workhorse of a heater that is biologically compatible, ecologically friendly, interactive and available right here in Santa Fe.
Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect and a certified building biology practitioner. She is the principle of Baker-Laporte and Associates and EcoNest Design. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”. She can be reached through the website www.econest.com.