Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Anti-Sacramental House

This morning I opened the door, took a nose-cracking sniff at the 0 degree air, and shut myself back in the snug house. Our power grid, optimized for winter performance, is working as it ought, and the water flows both hot and cold. We are not chilly, but if we were, we have winter coats and snow pants and boots for almost everyone. But we shiver in impotent sympathy for our friends in Texas, whose houses are build to shed heat, not retain it, whose heating relies on electricity from a grid never designed to withstand temperatures this low. 

A friend in the Dallas area recently built a house which included a fireplace. The fireplace, which is completely enclosed, runs on gas, with an electric starter. She asked the builders if she could pay extra to get a wood burning fireplace. No can do, she was told. You could put a wood burning fireplace outside, where burning wood belongs, but it was not allowed to include the safety hazard of a fire area designed to heat while safely venting smoke outside. Why would anyone even want such a thing, in Texas?

This week people are dying from carbon monoxide poisoning from trying to heat their homes with fire without an area specifically designed to safely vent smoke outside.

I said that Texas houses were built to shed heat, and that's true in a sense, but let me tell you about the suburban box we lived in, north of Austin. Nowhere, in this house built in a region where there are routinely weeks above 100 degrees in the summer, were there windows on opposite walls to promote a cross-breeze. The house was not designed for air circulation. It was designed for air conditioning. Without electricity, the house barely functioned. The windows neither ventilated nor let in much light; the fireplace (gas, but we never had a gas log and so burned wood for a scenic blaze) was mostly for show, built into a tall open space where any heat it might generate quickly dispersed. Vestigial features, for plugged-in humans.

Such boxes are cheap to build, which is why they're built. They're not unique to Texas, of course; that's just where I lived in one. I don't know what we would have done in a historic cold snap, because we never had one in the seven years we lived there. I do know that if we'd had to heat our house for days on end without electricity, we could have burned every stick of furniture in the house without generating enough warmth to heat beyond the hearth, because the fireplace wasn't made to be functional. It was included in the house mainly to add a bullet point to the real estate list. It was anti-sacramental -- it effected the opposite of what it signified.

I don't know what changes will be made once Texas regains power and takes stock. People are suffering, and the immediate alleviation of that suffering is the first step. But maybe, this and other disasters will cause a rethinking of the very concept of house as aiding survival, not actively working against it.

Please, please pray for Texas, and all without power, water, heat, and food.


Michael said...

Your rumination on fireplace—'heart' and 'hearth' do sound so much alike—reminds me of Christopher Alexander's work. Neither buildings nor anything else ought be tossed in to satisfy a marketing checklist; rather each feature has sort of life and vital criteria, which if not satisfied makes the thing dead and useless, like a porch no one ever sits on.

We use our fireplace occasionally for ambiance, but have to open a window for it to draft properly. Heat from the fire cannot be felt beyond the room it is in anyway. I had to look it up, but am not surprised the record minimum temperature for my city is 25°F. My sympathies for Texas.

mandamum said...

We had a fireplace in our old house (in south-central WA, which should have known better) that made the house colder, even without having to open a window - it radiated next to no heat, and pulled the cold air in anyhow (not a sealed house). But the pellet stove in the basement would heat the whole house with fair ambiance long as it had electricity to run the little doodads.

My parents have a woodstove in place of a fireplace, and when circumstances forced a re-do, they got a very efficient one that you feed wood, but whose heat runs its own little fan to send the heat out into the room. It keeps that part of the house toasty and firelit (and the lack of heat elsewhere keeps people in the public rooms enjoying the heat and glow).

I remember your comments about new box-houses having no cross-ventilation. You can sort of tell when houses were built, I think, by whether they allow this. I have friends here in the Mojave desert who can keep their older ranch house quite comfortable in the summer on swamp cooler alone, because the house is so structured that in the evenings one can allow the cooler air to blow through the entire house, and in the morning one can shut up the back bedrooms to hold the cool, while the swamp cooler keeps the main area liveable. The visitor center at Zion Nat'l Park was designed with serious thought toward passive heating and cooling - if you pull air from low, it will be cooler, if you shine sun on a black wall that can radiate into the room, it will warm,, etc - very fascinating. Green and also self-sustaining, even when the power is down.

We are praying for those suffering in Texas.

MrsDarwin said...

Michael, I'm beyond thrilled that you should make the connection with Christopher Alexander. I read A Pattern Language like a devotional -- a page here, a page there, and then meditate.

Mandamum, our house does let air circulate, and indeed, we had no air conditioning until four years ago -- on all but the hottest days, it was quite liveable. It's remarkable how much air conditioning does to improve our mood on those worst days, though. Just a few degrees makes all the difference.

mandamum said...

Agreed re mood - I notice that about both cold and heat here. Most winter days are fine just with sunlight, but some days I feel like curling into the couch with my tea and not moving, sort of paralyzed in the face of my list, and then I realized it's 59 inside, and I turn on the heat and we all relax and go on with our work.