The House as Machine

I found these two articles interesting, and have been considering a similar idea recently: the house as machine. One commenter even used the same phrase.

Shades of Green

Solar vs. Superinsulation

My point is this: homes of the past did a better job, in some ways, of adapting to the changing weather. Houses in hot climates incorporated high ceilings and transom windows, with multiple windows arranged to encourage breezes to flow. Homes in cold climates incorporated small rooms around the heat source, and sometimes were earth sheltered. Actually, earth-sheltering is an effective strategy in all climates.

Back before we had abundant and portable energy such as natural gas and oil, buildings were built to be heated and cooled without machines specific to those tasks. There was no machine to add to the house that would provide abundant cool air, for example, and an affordable heater was a wood stove. Most of those homes were quite small by today’s standards.

Homes of the past certainly had problems, as air-sealing and insulation were not well understood. They tended to be drafty, and therefore well ventilated. Many homeowners created a fire hazard by extending their wood stove chimney in all directions to capture the most heat possible before the smoke escaped outside. People who could afford one employed a metal pan called a bed warmer, often filled with hot coals.

In the last few decades we’ve replaced good, regional design with more machines. More machines require more energy, and that leads us to the energy-guzzling homes of today, with homes all over the country adopting a more-or-less standard suburban architectural style (McMansion) that wastes energy like mad.

A home in the desert southwest, for example, should minimize the number of windows that face the southern and western sun. Most homes built in suburbia don’t consider such ideas, though, and are oriented to the street, with a huge air conditioner blasting away much of the year.

As the two articles state, the oil embargo in the 1970s got the efficient-home movement rolling, with great advances made. Builders and architects used superinsulation and passive solar design to cut down on energy requirements. These remain two of the most important components of efficient homes today.

A funky passive solar home with shading, solar gain, and thermal mass. A machine that works. Creative Commons license.

A funky passive solar home with shading, solar gain, and thermal mass. A machine that works. Creative Commons license.


This earth-sheltered, passive solar home with photovoltaics uses only a fraction of the energy of a normal house. Creative Commons license.

The house as machine. Now it’s the house of machines—energy sucking machines. That’s not sustainable, but it’s easy to do so much better.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

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