Jun 21, 2008

Geez, It's Hot.

Geez, it's hot. It's been hot all week, even in San Francisco, even with overcast skies and a westerly breeze that normally chills things to a level that Kenmore should aspire to. Nope, it's been hot, 80 degrees at 5pm in The City, the same at 10pm down on the peninsula.

There's a sort of ritual among old-timers here: when it gets hot like this, open the doors and windows all night to flood the house with cool air, then shut 'em up tight and draw the blinds all day to keep the heat out. It's a pretty good system, and we used it quite effectively in the 1936 bungalow we lived in until recently. The attic trapped and isolated the hottest air, and the crawl space was a permanent reservoir of coolness. The system takes a bit of getting used to, but it works.

Then a couple of years ago we moved into a brand-new house, built to the latest standards and undoubtedly more energy efficient than last century's technology.

Except it's not.

This house is terribly inefficient. Instead of a full attic, the bedrooms have high peaked ceilings that conduct heat in from the roof and hold it in the room all night (compounded by the fact that the bedrooms are upstairs to begin with). Big skylights provide tons of light... and also transmit tons of heat, without opening to vent any of it out. The crawl space is minimal, so even the ground floor heats up relatively quickly and cools down slowly.

Why would someone build a house this way? Because they also plumbed it for air conditioning. I suppose the thinking was, "as long as we've offered a solution, there's not a problem." Heaven forbid they should have spent more time or money building a smarter house; just throw natural resources at it instead.

Unfortunately, I see this kind of short-term thinking all the time in garden-making as well. Gratuitous lawns are the classic case — fast, cheap, attractive, so what if it takes 100 gallons of water a day? Same with trees that have no business growing >100 yards from a river, yet get plunked down in the middle of town: don't change your planting scheme to include water-wise plants — just increase the irrigation! Then there's hardscaping: impermeable asphalt driveways are replaced with impermeable concrete driveways. Existing concrete paths and pads are broken up and carted off, with new concrete masonry units carted in to make new patios and retaining walls. Dining patios get sited in full sun, demanding that a shade pergola be built, rather than in the shade of existing trees.

A few decades ago pioneering landscape architect Ian McHarg wrote his seminal work "Design With Nature". He challenged land planners to analyze, understand, and work with natural systems rather than bulldozing through them. His advice still holds today — no matter what the scale of the project.

What are you doing to design with nature, or to overcome the problems created by those who didn't?