Rediscovering Good Ideas To Enhance Your Life

Rediscovering Good Ideas To Enhance Your Life

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Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 9:20am

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By Peter L. Pfeiffer, FAIA

One of the great truths about the big things in life is usually what goes around does indeed end up coming around. Building homes are big undertakings for families, and their designs are coming around – again.  For two decades now we’ve seen both the super sizing and the homogenization of the American home. A house doesn’t have to be a little 5500 square foot cottage; with steeply pitched roofs and puny overhangs might make sense in snowbird country but don’t do much good against the Texas sun. (Besides, in my 35 years here, I’ve yet to experience that heavy snowfall that will vindicate these roof designs…) The ever popular extruded modern boxes, or old word styles, with their heavy masonry walls, flat or tile roofs, and little or no overhangs are two examples of home designs that just don’t make sense in our Austin climate – or at the very least, have to be handled carefully. (Just because something wins design awards from the builder magazines doesn’t mean it’s a smart thing to do in Central Texas.) That’s where getting back to our roots comes in; that’s what vernacular architecture is all about.    

Contrary to the mythical lore promoted by the old cowboy TV shows - much of the climate in Texas where we live is NOT the desert Southwest. It’s the Hot and HUMID south. Walls that are thick and store the daytime solar for keeping the home warm at night wouldn’t be doing the Central Texas homeowner a big favor on a typical summer evening; to say nothing of the flat roofs and small overhangs that let that big bright three o’clock afternoon sun come on in. (Summer’s not a season here – it’s an eight month sentence...)  

Now with all this carrying on you might be wonder just WHAT type of architecture I won’t be slighting today. Answer: stuff that responds to our specific & difficult climate. Our interpretation of vernacular style has to respond also to the fact that we use air conditioning here – a lot. Light colored roofs and exteriors will keep us cooler; so will big broad overhangs that shade windows while still letting in REFLECTED sunlight. Cupolas were put on top of our old Texas courthouse buildings, usually above a central stairway, to let in daylight and vent out heat before the days of mechanical air-conditioning. Even the dome above our state capitol had a heat venting function. Our forefathers used light tin roofs, and their homesteads had nice wide porches that shaded the windows. Face the home to take advantage of the prevailing Southeast breezes and shun the ever-so-hot afternoon western sun. The well-built vernacular homes of the past almost always had sleeping porches, often screened in, on the Southeast corner or side of the home. Walls and roof systems that are light weight that shed heat – as opposed to storing heat – made sense then and still do now. Wood was plentiful in much of Texas and still is; so light framed structural systems were smart then, and still are appropriate now. (We just got to continue pushing this concept of sustainable harvesting.)  

When programmed and designed well, our homes of today are safer to live in, provide superior comfort, cost significantly less top operate, and are just more enjoyable places to be in and around. When a home lives well with its environment life can be more FUN. It does require time and talent – but the rewards are worth it!

Peter Pfeiffer is an Architect & Building Scientist who was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects for his life-long achievements in mainstreaming green building in North America. He is a principal of the Austin based Barley & Pfeiffer Architects. Residential Architect cited him as one of the 10 most influential architects of the past decade.

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