Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Handling Extreme Weather, Convenience vs. Self-Sufficiency

Having the arctic freeze here across the South last week and the subsequent electrical blackouts made me wonder...  How did people handle extreme weather 100 years ago, before the average house used electricity to control the internal temperature and humidity? That's when I had several memories about my grandmother, whom I loved deeply.

My grandmother was the youngest of 13 children and grew up in a one room house in a rural area in Southwest Louisiana. I remember her telling the story of snuggling in bed with sisters under 6 quilts and still shivering and chattering her teeth all night. As the youngest, her chore was to wake up first to get the wood burning stove hot enough to cook breakfast for the family.  As hot and humid as the summers are here, her most vivid memories were of the bitter cold stinging her bare feet while stoking the morning fire.

As a kid, hearing that story made me think about having a cold nose and goosebumps.  As an adult with a strong interest in sustainable methods, I am wondering about the kind of insulation, if any, was in the walls. What materials were used in the construction of the roof? Was the house raised on piers, allowing cold air to flow under it?  Did the house have south facing windows? And a million other questions run through my mind.  How could such a small house with so many people in it possibly be cold? 

In this part of the country, we experience many more months of hot weather than cold, that's why so many houses were built on piers, allowing breezes to pass under the house to naturally cool it.  However, that design does not help in winter.  There are some designs that work for both winter and summer.  For example, windows placed on the south side of the house will allow sunlight to warm the house in winter while shading the house in the summer.  Double paned windows help keep heat in or out.  Most of all, the best way to control the temperature indoors is to insulate well.  

There are new products out there that do a great job of insulating, such as foam products, but there are also many ancient techniques such as using natural fibers like wool, plant fibers, and animal pelts. Wikipedia has an excellent article on natural fibers.

Experts say the erratic weather patterns  (unusually cold weather, flooding, heat waves, and higher average temperatures) are going to increase. One way to react to this news is to pack an emergency kit with enough supplies to handle weeks without electricity, ability to feed your family, bathe, and battle the climate.  Sounds a lot like a camping trip - albeit a very expensive one.  Another way to prepare is to choose a house built to withstand extended periods of time without electricity.   

In my grandmother's day, a person had to go outside to pump water from the well.  During Roman times, water was brought to the city via aqueducts and poured into pools and fountains for community use.  Today, we have the convenience of modern day technology; we only have to turn on the tap.   

After hurricane Katrina, some neighborhoods didn't have power for municipal services like pumping water to neighborhoods.  Some people did not have a way to get water and many had to leave their homes for weeks, disrupting all aspects of their lives. As a civilization, our dependency on electricity has crippled our ability to be self-sufficient. 

To build sustainable, self-efficient, and robust economic communities, we should rethink how we currently design our homes and business places; We should take advantage of technology and modern conveniences while building back up systems and using natural methods, like passive solar techniques.

Why is passive solar important?  Read these other posts.

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