Grammy’s house revisited
“Time marches on. The young get old, and the old get cold. Time marches on.” – Bahamian song
Recently I was having a chat with an old friend when she asked an interesting question: “How can I get my architect to design me a house that is energy-efficient, has the breeze blowing through it and is good for hurricanes?” Of course, my first reaction was to suggest changing architects, because that is the definition of an architect’s job in this climate. But I realized that, at least publicly, most architects don’t approach their house projects that way, although it may be their private agenda. So I thought I would share an old article that discussed designing in this climate. I hope my friend gets to read it:
It’s amazing how we think that, because we live in a high-tech world, all those things that worked “back in the day” don’t work anymore. But they do. And some of them just might be the key to making houses built today more comfortable and less costly.
Think about this. When you visited your grammy in Exuma or Eleuthera or Grants Town or Sears Addition, what did you find? You found a house that was cool to be in, easy to live in and fun to play around. You thought the way your grammy and her neighbors lived was way more friendly and neighborly than you see today, with all the technology for keeping in touch. You noticed that it didn’t matter whether it was your grammy’s house or the house of your friend’s grammy, even when they looked different, they were all cool and fun and neighborly. How come?
Well, there were two things the old people knew that we don’t seem to know today. You have to keep the sun out of the house, and you have to let the breeze in.
Keeping the sun out meant never letting the sun hit any of the doors or windows directly. The two ways they did that were with the porch and the push-out shutter. The porch was the most incredible invention. You might call it the first “multi-purpose space”. While keeping the sun away from the doors and windows, it was a place for small children to play, older children to listen to “old stories”, young adults to court and grammy to watch the children play, talk to the neighbors and wait for grampy to come around the corner from work. The porch was not only shade, but it was the greatest social invention of our time.
The push-out shutter also did double or triple duty. It kept the sun away from the window while allowing the window to stay open during bad weather, so the house could remain cool, so you could smell that sweet, fresh “rain” air. It also made it easy to prepare for the inevitable storm and to shut the building down when there was a need for security, like going away. Between these two devices, the sun was effectively banned from the house.
Letting the breeze in was a little trickier. The way it was done was called “cross-ventilation”. The idea was that you let the breeze in on one side of the house, and out on the other, letting it take with it any stale or foul air, smoke from the kerosene stove and the lingering smell of too much “body water”, while cooling the inside of the house. To make this happen, you had to have windows on opposite sides of the house and a path that allowed the air to get across. In some cases, this meant the inside walls did not go to the roof and there was no ceiling. In other cases, there were grilles or louvers built into the space above door heads. In many cases, the buildings were designed to be only one or two rooms deep. Old builders knew how to do this, so whether it was a tiny or a huge house, you could expect to feel a breeze most of the time.
For those times when the breeze was too “light”, most people had their fans. Larger or wealthier houses had ceiling fans. Others had the more mobile table fans. But these were the “back-up” to the cross-ventilation.
Today, because we think of those houses as “old”, we have forgotten the lessons they taught us. And we pay for it in high power bills, isolation from one another and houses that are just not fun to live in. Houses may get old, but the lessons they teach us should not be allowed to “get cold”. The price is way too high.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com and like its Facebook page. The firm’s mission is to help its clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.