More Lessons From Grandma on Green Building and House Design

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beale house

Aymar Embury II/Public Domain

Some commenters were not impressed with the post Lessons Green Builders Can Learn From Michael Pollan, where I modified Michael Pollan's Food Rules to green building. In particular, the rule Don't eat build with anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food a building material started a big debate about whether Grandma knew best.

Martin Holladay of Green Building Advisor was particularly critical, noting that his grandma's house was very green but not very nice:

Old houses are charming and have many virtues. My grandmother grew up in a sod house in South Dakota; it was very, very green. Every winter, her job was to bank the walls with fresh manure, in hopes that the feeble heat of the composting manure would reduce some of the chill that the occupants faced when the prairie winds entered through the window cracks.

I can see his point, but much depends on the Grandmother. I can't show my grandmother's house, as it was knocked down to build this gorgeous Stephen Teeple number, but it was rather nice. Etta R. Speyer was one of the first woman real estate agents in Canada and knew how to pick them, and my mom, an interior decorator, did a very contemporary renovation and addition, turning it into a duplex. I grew up there, and learned a lot about both traditional and mid-century modern design from it. Martin's comments made me wonder what else we could learn about house design from Grandma and her contemporaries, beside from using manure as insulation.

I have my mom's copy of Architect Aymar Embury II's "The Livable House: Its Plan and Design" from 1917. (He later became Robert Moses's architect of choice and supervised over six hundred public projects in New York City) In it, he describes what he called houses "built by people of moderate incomes, who cannot afford to build houses of great size, or of extravagant materials." Nonetheless they were houses for professional people who could afford architects, unlike most houses at the time that were built by carpenters or contractors. Embury wrote:

A competent architect can get a little more room out of the same space than the carpenter or untrained house builder. He can so arrange the rooms that housekeeping is a little easier, and he can see that the materials employed are durable and sound.

So how did they arrange the rooms? I looked into Embury's book to see what he considered to be good houses of the day, and what they included. These are not working class houses; they are for the 1% of the time, who could afford to buy empty lots and hire architects. Yet they are very different from the houses of today.

Bremer plan

Aymar Embury II/Public Domain

Perhaps most surprising is how tight and efficient they are. Heating was very expensive, so one didn't waste a lot of space. According to Embury, the most modern heating at the time was ducted air, but it wasn't forced air like it is today, they had huge ducts and relied on convection for circulation. Larger houses would have hot water or steam radiators, which was much more expensive. There were living rooms and dining rooms but few dens and no family rooms; you lived in the living and ate in the dining. Period. There was not a lot of space devoted to expansive two storey halls and breakfast rooms and all those things that fill up so much space in a modern house.

Main floor toilets were rare, but everyone in this class had servants, and servant stairs were almost universal, as were kitchen pantries. Even in my own Toronto house, built on a 30' lot in a streetcar suburb of Toronto 90 years ago, there was a servant's stair that ran from near the kitchen to mid-landing so that the help wouldn't be seen in the front hall, horror of horrors. The previous owners ripped it out and put in a powder room.

On the second floor, many of the homes had two bathrooms, but closets are tiny. Today, I believe the rule is that that closet should be as big as the bedroom. Yet somehow they managed; perhaps the help took it all away for storage somewhere else. Every bedroom had at least two windows to provide natural cross-ventilation, the bathrooms had opening windows, never over the tub where you couldn't reach it. The hall had natural light as well; electricity was expensive and unreliable.


Aymar Embury II/Public Domain

As the houses got bigger and jazzier, they got some of the things that we expect today, like ground floor powder rooms and even ground floor dens, but look at the sizes; the dining room is 14' by 14' and the den is 8' x 11', barely the size of a closet by today's standards. There's only one bathroom on the second floor, but it is generous. There is also a sleeping porch for hot summer nights. But generally, it is smaller, tighter and more efficient than anything anyone would build today.

beale house

Aymar Embury II/Public Domain

The exteriors are as interesting as the plans. Note the projecting second floor and the trellises shading the windows, the deciduous trees planted to shade the house, the big casement windows to allow the breezes in.


Aymar Embury II/Public Domain

Or note the amazing pergola running round the Calvert House here, creating lovely outdoor space and shading the house in summer.


Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

In the end, what have we done with all that wonderful insulation and air conditioning and green tech developed since Grandma's day? We've eaten up much of the energy savings by having house size get out of control. We've complicated our designs as if we wanted to maximize jogs and surface areas. We've introduced double height spaces and media rooms and family rooms and breakfast rooms and ensuite bathrooms for every bedroom. We have forgotten about orientation and cross-ventilation because we can just turn on the air conditioning. We get rid of asbestos and lead in paint and don't question brominated flame retardants and phthalates.

I'm sorry, but we still have a lot to learn from Grandma and her architect.