I will never forget what the houses in Australia felt like. A very common type of building there are floating weatherboard buildings. The house is basically on little 30cm high stumps. There is no basement. Then there are the floorboards through which one can see the ground under the house. The walls are simple stud frame walls made of wood, with some planks on the outside and more wooden panels or chipboard on the inside.
In winter this type of house is as cold as outside due to all the gaps. In summer it is so hot, some rooms were uninhabitable.
This thermal comfort influences quality of life. And it’s not just thermal comfort, also obvious design flaws or mistakes have a larger impact on quality of life than I previously imagined.
In such a building there are maybe two to three months in the year where the building functions properly and it’s comfortable. The vast majority of the year constitutes an uphill battle against the elements to retain a reasonable climate indoors. And this uphill battle takes its toll.
When it’s cold I need to heat, costing me time and effort. I am heating with wood I need to chop. Most people in the city would heat with mobile electric heaters costing them a lot of money. To earn that money they need to spend time and effort in working hours. When it’s warm, one either sits outside in the shade or is somewhere swimming on the beach. It’s too hot inside without air conditioning. The Australian sun is very strong and will boil anything with exposed north-facing glass windows or walls. It takes effort to escape or pay the power bill for the air-con.
Flaws and mistakes
Christopher Alexander describes in his “Nature of Order” series that every fabricated building has thousands of mistakes. When poorly conceived designs get executed without adjustment, unresolved conflicts between environment and human habitants result. These mistakes mount up and make us feel less “at home”.
In German we have a word for this “at home” feeling: Gemütlichkeit. When something is “gemütlich” then you feel warm and welcome, cozy and content. People tend to “make themselves at home” by introducing decorations, plants and re-arranging furniture. But deep structural mistakes can only be repaired with a lot of cost.
Some examples: Windows that are too small or too big. Doors that are in the wrong spot, windows with poor view or exposure to unwanted neighbourly peeking. Cold decorations and paint choices, poor or toxic materials… These examples are just a small portion of the number of imaginable mistakes that a building could contain.
All these things take life energy away from us. When our building environment is trying hard not to let us relax, we need to compensate and stress about making ourselves comfortable. I talk about this in my article: design matters. We are building more of these fabricated structures that are taxing people’s life energy and make them sick and obedient. Life is tough enough when you work 40 hours+ a week, have a mortgage, children and a long commute.
I want to live in a world where we generate structures not designed as human habitats but evolving into human habitats. A design assumes that someone with a degree knows better than the person who is using the space how to generate the space. That’s not very humble.
It’s important that the users are included in the process. It’s not all engineering and nobody is an expert!
Photography by flickr commons