Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The place looks like a building site!

Building a house is something that everyone thinks they can do. And in fact everyone can do, if they can get their hands on enough materials, time and money. Shelter has been part of the human thing for tens of thousands of years. It may be that part of the problem is the fact that anybody can do it, which means that standards are not so high.

People have the idea of our distant ancestors having lived in caves, but most of them probably never did. We just think of them as cavemen because a lot of their bones and artifacts were found in caves. They ended up there and were preserved, while the ones in the forest or on the plains were not. Ancient cave paintings survive because the sunlight has not dimmed them. That doesn't mean people didn't paint on animal skins or bits of wood, or on the walls outside caves.

They have been making structures to keep the rain or sun off for at least half a million years. The oldest yet discovered was in Japan. Older, in fact than modern humans.

Although stone buildings have been popular in the UK since Tudor times, when they started using all the trees to make ships for the navy, most people for most of the human condition have made shelters of wood and mud. These structures, although we should call them permanent, have probably been somewhere in the process of being constructed or falling to pieces throughout most of their lives. We are very aware of the consumerist age and the abundance of stuff, but I'm sure dwellings have always been partially filled with things that need throwing away or that people shouldn't have acquired in the first place. Although I suspect there have always been a few people who live in permanent tidiness, I think they are, and have always been a minority. Our idea of normality is somewhat fictitious. The snapshots that make up our picture of the world are only taken when we feel it's worth getting the camera out.

There are different extents to which structures are windproof, waterproof, winterproof and summerproof. Windproofing and waterproofing seem the most basic, although our old house fairly rattles around when the wind is blowing outside, and for a while rain was pouring in through the kitchen wall. In terms of summerproof, this old house is better than many modern Japanese houses, with extended eaves and opening windows towards the prevailing wind. 

For a long time winterproofing has meant the ability to build a fire inside, and airtightness has been a decidedly bad idea. I think zero-carbon buildings in temperate climates have a very short history as window technology is critical. 

This really is the beginning of a new age.