Place, climate and houses

I’m sitting in my study on an overcast winter day.  The Iron Paw remains in the bedroom, where the heater is still giving off some residual heat.  The newly acquired heater for the study is taking its time to do its thing.  Above me I can hear the insulation installer. 

 This is not a post about the recent scandal, although my heart does go out to the families of the young men who died.  It is a post about place, and climate, and houses.  I’ve lived in 21 different houses in four states, going from the tropics to the spine stiffening cold.  (I may write a post on my capacity to move house a lot another time).  I’ve lived in some very swish houses and also some that should probably have been put to the bulldozer.  The one thing I can safely say about them all was how appallingly there were all designed from the perspective of climate management.

 In terms of block dimensions and orientation, the house I grew up in had fabulous potential for a house that was passive solar.  In other words, designed so that sun could warm it in winter and be excluded from it in summer, and thus limiting the amount of artificial heating and cooling that needed to be applied.  Its length ran east west, meaning that it had fantastic northern light.  So what did my parents do?  They built the garage there.  When I left home I moved into a nineteenth century timber cottage in South Fremantle for a while, which I loved aesthetically and hated practically.  We cooked in summer and froze in winter.  Its main climatic advantage was being two streets from the beach.

 In the tropics the trick is not so much catching the sun as avoiding it.  The keys to surviving in non drippy comfort are shade and ventilation.  The Cairns unit?  Well, the less said about that the better.  Nor would I elaborate on my true feelings for the land lord who instructed me to scrub the plumbing under the sink with a toothbrush dipped in bleach.

 In Canberra, where minus three mornings are not uncommon in winter and we have as many heatwaves as the other capitals, a climate intelligent house is really important.  Otherwise you spend half the year being miserable.  Alas, such houses are incredibly rare.  My current house is in a great location, but god would I love to knock it down and start again.  Like most houses of its 1960s era, it is woeful with the garage on the north, among other faults. 

 Yet house prices are so outrageous here that I’d have to sell most of my internal organs and then some to finance it.  For example, a work colleague bought an eight star house recently, at over a million dollars.  I have a friend here who is going through the torturous process of trying to build a house with an eight star rating.  For what looks to me like a fairly simple and by no means large by current standards house, the quotes they are receiving require a stiff triple gin to take in the implications.  The most I can afford right now is roof insulation. 

 I’m old fashioned enough to think that good design is an investment that pays for itself over the long term.  I’m not talking about the styling either, which is what many people think of when they hear the word design.  Well crafted, thermally comfortable and functional spaces improve the quality of daily life.  I can’t stress the adjective ‘daily’ enough.  Our homes, streets, offices, shopping centres.  That’s where we all go, every single day.  We’re stuck with the housing stock we have now, the legacy of poor decisions, lack of understanding and general penny pinching.  Let’s not keep going down the same path.


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