If walls could talk: Lucy Worsley on what we can learn from the past

Lucy Worsley
© Lucy Worsley

I do go on about learning from old buildings, noting that they are not relics from the past but are templates for the future. I also often quote Steve Mouzon and his Original Green, about “The sustainability that all our ancestors knew by heart.” But few people know old buildings like Lucy Worsley, “by day Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and by night a writer of history books.” In 2011 she did a BBC television series If the walls could talk: The history of the home and wrote a book to accompany it, which I recently finished. It is terrific on the history, but the very last chapter, What we can learn from the past, is a remarkable bit of insight. (videos are excerpts from the show)

Worsley notes that as our oil runs out we might need to learn some lessons from the low-technology, pre-industrial past. Such as flexibility in design; in Tudor times people didn’t have separate specialized rooms; everyone shared one big one which served multiple functions. ( I have written about this in With Transformer Furniture, You Can Party Like It’s 1499) Worsley writes about how our houses will have to become more flexible again, to adapt to all those aging boomers:

The living room must have space for a double bed in case its owner becomes incapacitated and can’t climb upstairs to bed. There must be room downstairs to install a lift to reach the bathroom if necessary. The age of specialised rooms, which reached its height in the nineteenth century, is long since over, and adaptability is returning to prominence.

Noting that the only truly sustainable sources of energy are the wind, the sun and wood, we will start designing houses again with orientation in mind. Walls will get thick again and windows will change:

Upon the medieval model, walls are getting thicker, for insulation – to keep warmth in – an, increasingly important, to keep heat out in a warming world. Windows will grow smaller once again, and houses will contain much less glass: not only because of the intrinsically high energy cost of the glass itself, but because it’s such a thermally inefficient material.

Then there are other simple architectural features we have discussed on TreeHugger, like the shutter, “the best way to keep heat out of a house.” (I have always considered them to be the most sophisticated device, giving security, ventilation, privacy protection from storms and solar control all in one simple technology) And as for toilets and water:

The simple earth or midden toilet has already been revived in the form of the ecologically … The reuse of ‘grey water’ (slightly dirty water) for jobs like flushing toilets will become standard, and water will become a much more valuable resource, just as it once was when you had to carry every drop into your house by hand. We’ll be growing as water-thrifty as the Victorians were with their average use of twenty litres a day.

(See my History of the Bathroom series here)

She gets embodied energy and durability:

Buildings today are seen almost as disposable and are not built to last. In the future much more importance will rightly be attached to the materials and energy invested in them.

Growing interest in traditional materials:

There has already been a revival in the natural building materials of the past, … with low environmental footprints, like wood, wool insulation and lime mortar.

She even anticipates the changes in our homes that will come as a result of the loss of our antibiotics, noting that “more time and effort will be spent on getting and keeping them clean.”

Finally, Worsley looks at how our cities and communities are designed and the whole point of the new urbanism, walkability and density.

Today’s builders and town planners are also interested in the notion that people don’t just inhabit houses, they live in ‘places’. Tudor towns were perfect examples of what planners seek: densely populated, walkable communities, in which rich rich and poor live in close proximity. In their markets local, seasonal food was available, just as it is in the phenomenon of the farmer’s market today.

Really I got so excited by reading this book that I totally forgot that I had written about it when her book was excerpted in the Guardian in 2011. But it is totally worth repeating, it has just got better in the intervening years.

See all the videos here (all worth watching)

If walls could talk: Lucy Worsley on what we can learn from the past
The curator and historian applies what she has learned about the past to describe what might be the future of housing.

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