It's been 20 years since James Howard Kunstler called the American built environment "The Geography of Nowhere"—development based increasingly and broadly on erasing regional differences in building, on unyielding suburban similarity, on throwing more energy at every design problem as the default solution.
If we're going to create a society built on an ecological sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of life, we need to change that nowhere geography to a somewhere geography. We need to place focused attention on place, on the variety of location, on the specifics of environment and climate, and on the sort of community we wish to live in.
As with how best to deal with water and sanitation issues, there is no one solution best applicable to all situations. That itself is an important lesson to be relearned, one in which we have the opportunity to look backwards for inspiration so that we can better move forward. Today, in some ways, embracing and adapting what was once traditional is often considered radical.
One way to think about minimizing energy usage is to look at how those living in hot locations dealt with creating livable and comfortable spaces prior to air conditioning being available at all, and well before it became a de facto social necessity. What we find is a wide range of creative solutions that didn't just offer cool buildings but created an architecturally-based sense of place and fostered a sense of community.
For example, cupolas at the top of buildings are both decorative and functional and allow hot air to escape while sucking in cooler air from lower floors and were a popular form of ventilation in Northern Europe; deep overhanging eaves shade windows from high summer sun, as do shutters that actually close, both of which vary according to geography; thick solidly built walls can help interiors stay cool, common in adobe construction in desert climages; and high ceilings and more windows (that actually open) help air circulate in places like the American south, where hot, humid air can stagnate.
India has some interesting examples of pre-air conditioned architecture that stay quite cool. The traditional stepwell or baoli, sometimes descending several stories below ground and intricately decorated, provided water storage while offering cool respite from the heat. Above ground, double-walled structures with the outer wall several feet away from the inner, can keep the interior 20 degrees cooler than the exterior. This traditional technique has been recently put to modern use at the Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipur, Rajasthan.
When it comes to building more walkable communities where the daily necessity for motorized transportation is minimized, there are established and proven patterns of development to draw upon for inspiration—some of which are being used anew.
Though it's not without some controversy, the planned new town of Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorset, England, shows that with the proper will and vision it is indeed possible to still create traditional high-density small towns—the type of places which were once the norm. Built so that the usual daily tasks of its residents can be carried out on foot rather than in a car, shops, businesses, and housing are mixed together without zoning—though with strong attention to the selection of traditional building materials and design patterns, landscaping, signage.
The neighborhood of Vauban, in Freiburg, Germany, offers another glimpse at a way to build a community where the majority of transportation is foot or bicycle, in a traditionally dense development, yet stops short of the sort of aesthetic prescription of a place like Poundbury. In Vauban, the layout of streets, most of them crescents and cul-de-sacs rather than a gridded pattern, is connected by extensive pedestrian and bike-only paths. Rather than banning cars outright, such development filters them out of local transportation. Roughly 70 percent of people in Vauban do not own cars, and those that do park them on the periphery of town.
These examples are all largely based on traditionally dense town and city development—appropriate considering that the trend has and is likely to continue to be toward increased urbanization and increased interconnectedness. For an example of what's possible in less dense areas, where being entirely self-contained may be desirable, we can look to the work of Michael Reynolds.
Even if you don't recognize Reynolds' name, you may well have heard of the Earthship. Dating back to the 1970s, these passive solar homes employ many techniques of traditional design to remain both cool in the summer and warm in the winter, using natural and recycled materials (think walls made of earth-filled tires). Both processing all their own sewage, as well as generating all their electricity on site, Earthships are designed to be, at most, minimally reliant on public utilities. They also have the capacity to grow a portion of the owner's food.
Perhaps more than the individual Earthships, the traditional design principles that Reynolds emphasizes are widely applicable to designing for the future: Use local or regional eco-friendly materials, choosing recycled whenever possible; decentralize energy production and use renewable sources; build for your location, keeping in mind local heating and cooling needs to minimize or eliminate energy use; process wastewater in eco-friendly ways; and produce as much food as close to home as possible.
© 2013 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies