New lessons from Old Buildings


Over the last 60 years, architects and engineers forgot how to make buildings work without cheap energy. But many are learning the lessons from the past and applying them to the new

A hundred years ago, almost every house had a front porch; they served an important function in the world before air conditioning, when it provided a cooler place to sit. In the early 1980s, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk put front porches on the houses in Seaside, the iconic planned community that was the first big demonstration of New Urbanism (and where they filmed the Truman Show) They did it to reduce the need for air conditioning, but found other benefits as well, telling NPR:

“People would sit on the front porch instead of in the backyard because they could see people coming and going, say hello to their neighbors and have short conversations,” says Plater-Zyberk. “The bonds of community were being formed through that brief interaction.”

Credit: Steve Mouzon

Now front porches are almost common again, as New Urbanism spreads and people realize that they are nice, comfortable spaces. But that is only the most obvious of the lessons of the past that architects are learning, and applying to new buildings.


A hundred years ago, awnings were everywhere. It made sense; air conditioning did not exist, and awnings kept the heat from getting in. Now, we let the heat in and pay to use electricity to pump it out again. Dumb and expensive.

H&H Enterprises

But more and more, architects are installing louvres and sunscreens to take advantage of the way the sun is higher in the summer than in the winter. Have a look at this picture; the windows are almost completely in shade by the carefully designed and sized louvres. They make a dull facade look more interesting, too.


A hundred years ago, buildings were shaped like letters of the alphabet. Es, Os, Us and Ls. Nobody could be too far from a window; that is where the natural light and air was. Then the fans and ducts and air conditioners came in and windows became almost irrelevant. Floor plates became huge and fresh air inside just a memory.

Weber Thompson Architects

But architects are learning , once again, that buildings with fresh air and natural light are not only cheaper to operate but more pleasant to work in. Weber Thompson’s Terry Thomas Building in Seattle is an O building, with a big hole in the middle for air and light.


A hundred years ago if you had electricity it was expensive. People had all kinds of tricks to bring natural light deep into stores, my favourite being prism glass. When electric lighting came in, nobody needed it any more.


But as electricity becomes more expensive and people try to reduce their carbon footprint, and in Europe where building codes insist that workers have the benefit of natural light, all kinds of systems are being developed to bounce, pipe and reflect natural light deep into buildings. The Parans system shown here is based on fiber optics, but others are as simple as a skylight.


A hundred years ago, many buildings were covered in vines. They served a useful function; they can cut the heat gain on a wall by 50%, reduce temperatures and provide insect and bird habitats. They were really high tech, falling off as winter approached to let more warming sun in.


Today architects are once again integrating nature into their buildings. Edouard Francois clads his buildings in green facades, where plants grow to enclose and protect the buildings from the sun. They are also more lively; he says ‘Watch a tree. It has a thousand branches, it moves, grows, changes colour!’ and thinks buildings should too.

Those are just some of the ideas from old buildings that are being used in new ones.
Lloyd Alter

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