Of Elephants and Humans

Deep Ecological Urbanism | Unit 1: Human vs. Nature | Reading Review

Elephants are bent upon creating diversity!

Elephants are bent upon creating diversity! [Disclaimer: this is not my art! It’s been saved to my computer since I found it online some time ago. I never knew the artist. If you know who created this piece, I’d love to know!]

Now amid the second week of the course- which I have titled Deep Ecological Urbanism: Ecology, Efficiency, & Ethics in Urban Design I am drawing a close to the first unit. I wanted to begin by studying the dichotomy between town and country, with hopes of better understanding the history and fundamentals of urban development as it relates to nature. I was impressed with a few of my reading choices, which ended up being ridiculously appropriate despite being selected solely based on their title and my judgement of the first few lines of text. For example, the first book I opened….

Ecological Design | Van der Ryn, Sim, & Cowan, Stuart. (1996). Ecological Design. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowen, really got to the heart of one of my main concerns prior to the course. I really wanted to investigate the term “sustainable,” which has become a buzzword of sorts, especially in environmentally friendly worlds, yet it is only partially concerned with the environment (the three legs of the sustainability stool being: economy, society, and the environment). I thought a better word to use would be “ecological” (I am naively ignoring the fact that “ecological” is becoming a buzzword of my own). “Sustainability and Design,” the first chapter of this book, immediately dove into this concept and cited David Orr’s differentiation between technological sustainability and ecological sustainability. Aha! There it was, the answer to my problem: just put the word ecological in front of sustainable and that’s the concept I’ve been after! Orr’s comparison is a great start. While technological sustainability can be described as the remedy, ecological sustainability is the preventative measure. I enjoy the medical implications of these terms, as it completely relates to my own approach towards personal health. I would much rather prevent the disease, than to be prescribed harsh drugs which are often more like a means to mask the symptoms, than they are a remedy. Still, while I do like Orr’s definitions, I recognize that I want to either find or develop a concept that is much more intricate, and I hope to build upon what I’ve gathered here. In addition to immediately addressing one of my primary considerations, the same chapter in Van der Ryn and Cowen’s book, hinted at another concept I’ve been contemplating: biomimicry. Although the 1996 book didn’t outright mention the term in this book, it did suggest value in that science which studies nature as a model- a concept which gained much popularity the following year with the publication of Janine Benyus’ book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

Nature is more than a bank of resources to draw on: it is the best model we have for all the design problems we fact [Van der Ryn and Cowen, p.7].

The next reading I began was actually the next chapter, titled, “An Introduction to Ecological Design.” Yet another great foundation was set for the coming course, presenting an understanding of where ecological design has originated- going into a brief review of some key figures and advancements. I really appreciated how this chapter emphasized the importance of cross-discipline cooperation, urging for an understanding an integration of ideas. The reading suggested that no single-sided decision would be able to produce truly ecological design without the rich complexities that develop out of a whole systems approach. Here, again, I am reminded of medicine, and the idea of holistic health. Perceiving the city as one organism (another analogy that gets me really excited- the city AS nature!), allows for a broad approach which can simultaneously address multiple urban concerns. I have to find time to go back to this chapter, for it had a great list of books and authors, and a terrific chart comparing conventional design solutions with the ecological alternatives. While touching on many different approaches, this chapter encouraged me to begin asking the right questions if I ever hope to produce the right results.

Ecology in Ancient Civilizations | Hughes, J. Donald. (1975). Ecology in Ancient Civilizations. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

I then went on to read what was a last minute selection I picked up from the school library: Ecology in Ancient Civilizations by J. Donald Hughes. Chapter one, “Environment and Civilization,” was a very brief (5 pages!) but provocative read! Beginning by evaluating the relationship between human civilization- particularly of ancient cultures- and the natural environment. Ancient cultures understood and honored the value of nature; yet, clearly, and I don’t think many would argue this, we had been quite destructive of it. Hughes began to hint at a feedback, noting that nature had possibly had her revenge. I skipped ahead to chapter 11, “Ecology and the Fall of Rome,” and Hughes really developed upon the previous inclination that nature fought back. This chapter provided great insight, but I began to see that this book wouldn’t be providing me too much usable information. Explaining that the Fall of the Roman Empire could largely be attributed to anthropogenic impacts, Hughes illustration subtly foreshadows modern civilization (at least I interpreted it as doing so much). Interestingly, proving my misconceptions, Hughes explained how the Romans often prevented technological advancement, either because the present slave availability was sufficient, or for fear of economic impact. At times, some of the disregarded technologies might have conserved their natural resources. Conversely, in today’s culture, we advance technology so that we no longer recognize the limitations of our natural resources, nor our continued dependence upon them. I enjoyed reading Hughes’ book, but for the purpose of this study, I feel it acted purely as a warning.

Ecocities | Register, Richard. (2006). Ecocities: Rebuilding cities in balance with nature. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

After these two books, I felt I was off to a pretty decent start. I had begun to clarify the differences between a sustainable city and an ecological city, I had learned a bit about some of the various alternative approaches, and I went back to review some of our historic relationships between man and nature. My next goal was to review the concept of city IN nature, for which I turned to Ecocities, by Richard Register. Re-reading “The City in Nature,” chapter 3 of this influential book, reminded me of how much I appreciate Richard Register’s writings. Speaking with such simplicity, Register makes our society’s failure to build in ecologically friendly manners so clear. Yet, I’ve come to see how naive, or utopian, his ideas sometimes are. Though an absolutely brilliant person, Register sometimes separates his vision from reality. This chapter illustrated that towards the end, when he mentioned the builder’s sequence. This sequence suggests that success will only be achieved when starting from the ground up. Perhaps I’m taking this too literally, perhaps he is suggesting that sustainable design practices must first infiltrate the most basic levels of society… But I just keep repeating the saying in my head: the greenest building is the one you don’t tear down. The greatest ecocities, according to this old saying, could potentially be the ones which have already been developed. Now, I know for a fact that Register does a lot of greyfield/infill development. Still, I would appreciate it if the problem-solving conversations were more often framed in an existing city context, and not the utopian ideal. That critique aside, this chapter made some great points: cities are more sustainable than suburbs (a concept I intend to explore in more detail down the line), ancient cultures used to know what they were doing, and that we as humans have much to learn by observing nature.

This reading also reminded me of a great analogy which I’ve recently adopted as an inspiration: that of the elephant. Consider the elephant at work. The elephant, just going about its business, happens to be a tremendous steward for biodiversity. Register exclaims*, it “seems like they’re bent upon creating biodiversity” (Register, p. 52). The elephant clears paths, finds water, creates more accessible shelter and food…and does all this coincidentally, while it simply tries to meet its own needs. As you can see, it impacts the environment in its efforts to thrive; yet, the impacts actually contribute to the health of the ecosystem, rather than the detriment. Like elephants, human civilization can selfishly explore ways to meet its own needs, but can do so while benefiting the environment! (More on this idea in another reading I’ll review)

Environmental Ethics | Light, Andrew, & Rolston, Holmes, III. (Eds.). (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Five different readings across 3 books and I was only half finished (I may break these posts up a bit in the future?). I went on to read from the anthology, Environmental Ethics. By jumping into this book, I think I got a bit ahead of myself, but the topics were still something I intended to review early in the semester. The introductory chapter, “What is Environmental Ethics?” by Clare Palmer, was a great gateway for the subject, but it went into a bit more detail about the philosophies and theories than I really wanted to review. However, there were still some terrific foundational concepts which worked well for the opening unit- such as the very basic question of what is nature (and does the concept of nature change over time?), or the debate over what role humans play in the environment. The key, I think, is to fully grasp the considerations of value, utility, or worth and apply them to development. I must say that I most agreed with what was written about the opinions of J. Baird Callicott and his ideas of holistic environmentalism. And while I already knew that I appreciated the writings and teachings of Aldo Leopold, I was reminded of how congruent my beliefs are with his land ethic. I think there were some great ideas here which framed a better way to view the city: as part of a much larger whole.

Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? | Campbell, Scott. (1996). Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development. In Scott Campbell, & Susan S. Fainstein (Eds.). (2003). Readings in Planning Theory (2nd Ed.) (pp.435-458). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

I was quite pleased with the first reading to kick-off my study. And while I appreciated each of the other readings I had chosen for this unit, I was pleasantly surprised with how appropriate was the text of Scott Campbell’s “Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development” in the Readings in Planning Theory anthology. I think my selection of this essay was spot on; but again, completely by chance. But I was so pleased with the way this text framed the concept of sustainability in a planning concept (I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s a Planning anthology!). I just think that, for me, this essay really touched home. I truly appreciated its ability to make me see how naive I have been about this romanticized view of an eco-future, as well as about my “ecotopian” belief that our ancient cultures were living so harmoniously with nature, or that their ways were not so socially destructive . The piece really emphasized the importance of all three systems of sustainability (economic, social, and environmental), urging for a collaboration among them. I am fond of the way this text argued against the “man vs. environment” spectrum, citing that it were much more complex than we often perceive it to be. Drawing attention to the ever growing popularity of the “sustainability” buzzword, and the implications of such a growing popularity, the essay tries to better define this fuzzy and vague term. From this search for a definition, the conversation develops to consider how sustainability might be met, measured, or even known. Suggesting a few strategies and approaches, the reading concludes by repeating, once more, the significance of all three systems.  I most appreciated this reading for smacking me down and off my cloud. The human-nature divide is intense but cannot be seen as two opposite realms against the other. Though I’ve always recognized this, knowing that environmentalism is not so separate from other social or economic concerns, I still continue to focus on nature a bit more than the other legs of the stool. I do still plan to focus this course on environmental issues (ecology being a primary interest in this study), but I think I have been a bit ideal in the past, perhaps a bit too ecocentric. Of course, this same argument reiterated and or proved true my thought that sustainable is clearly something different from ecological. Sustainability, like I already knew and wanted to investigate more, as was reaffirmed in the Van der Ryn and Cowen reading, is a three-legged stool and a balance of environmental, ecological, and social concerns. But what’s important is that this reading gave considerable thought to environmental justice, a leg that has been less resolved than economic and social sustainability, for which various policies and procedures already exist.

City Form and Natural Process | Hough, Michael. (1989). City Form and Natural Process. New York, NY: Routeledge.

The last reading I want to review is from the book, City Form and Natural Process, by Michael Hughes. I picked this book up in my school’s planning studio last night and it ended up being a perfect fit. It took me entirely too long to read, though, because I found myself jotting down notes every few sentences. However, I loved it for how it really flipped the scenario to have a positive outlook on nature in cities; constantly reminding the reader that city and nature, or town and country, are not so different. In fact, this misunderstanding, which has been developing ever since the Industrial Revolution, is what inhibits our ability as a society to determine better solutions for design. One of the primary issues we ought to address is our view of urban open space: we now think of parks as places solely for our recreation and relaxation. Urban open space, however, has historically served some other functional purpose; providing spaces for crops, livestock, orchards, etc.  The reading encourages you to rethink the now universal schema of an urban landscape and its open spaces, and to consider more localized alternatives which have greater value and utility. Very critical of our adoption of a one-way system of energy and resource usage, Hough suggests a more cyclical system- replicating energy and nutrient flows of a natural ecosystem. Countering the conservationists theory that humans are inherently destructive, the reading suggests that humans have great potential as agents for positive change in our world (think elephants!).

Which do you think offers more value to the ecological community? The billiard-style lawn of Central Park, or the wildflower patch on these vacant lots of Baltimore?

Which do you think offers more value to the ecological community? The billiard-style lawn of Central Park, or the wildflower patch on these vacant lots of Baltimore?


These are very brief and subjective reviews of the readings, but I at least hope I’ve done as good a job of framing the underlying concepts as these great authors and theorists have. I’m sorry I can’t share the full texts with you, but I’m sure these or similar readings are available from your local library. And if you’re in Baltimore, I am more than willing to let you borrow them! I feel I have a sturdy base upon which to build the rest of this semester. And throughout the remainder of my study, these common themes shall act as guiding principles:

  • A fundamental dilemma is that of how nature is valued and viewed. Viewing it as separate, or inferior, will delay progress on any ecologically sustainable front.
  • Town and County, are not so different from one another. In fact, until we can recognize how nature is involved in our urban environments, we shall never be able to appropriately address ecological sustainability concerns. Furthermore, viewing one as sacred and the other as a deception will prevent any progress from being made.
  • Sustainable and ecological, though at times related, are different concepts. Sustainability is a very vague and far-reaching term. Moreover, it has become clear that society has made much larger strides when dealing with economic or social sustainability than they have with environmental sustainability. For this reason, I find it ever more important to emphasize the importance of ecological sustainability, and wish to further study David Orr’s writings on the subject.
  • Maintaining the conversation across all three systems and across many disciplines will lead to a more comprehensive and effective solution.
  • Humans, though at times able to cause great damage to the environment, are not inherently destructive. Quite the opposite, we have the potential to be agents of positive change- much like the elephant!

I am also now super psyched to begin my other units. As I’ve already begun to investigate the concept of deep ecology and environmental ethics, I’m eager to read more. And there have already been hints in a few of the readings that our society has been losing touch with nature- a concept I’ll be reviewing when I read about Nature Deficit Disorder. Can’t wait to show you more!

For the syllabus and a reading list, check out my post introducing the course.
*Forgive me if this quote might be a bit off, I couldn’t quite read my own handwriting and I don’t have the book directly in front of me.

Deep Ecological Urbanism

As some of my readers may know, I am currently a Masters student in Baltimore pursuing my degree in City and Regional Planning. With intentions to specialize in sustainable urban design, I have sadly discovered that the course selections offered on this topic are limited, if present at all. Hoping to fill the void, I proposed to my chair that I immerse myself in an independent study this Spring. Much to my surprise (an independent study is something that my undergraduate program would have never allowed!), he approved my the idea. And so, here we are.

Empty tree pit on Howard Street, filled with "weeds" and trash

Empty tree pit on Howard Street, filled with “weeds” and trash

Over the winter “break” (Hah! what break, I was busier than I had been during the actual semester!), I composed a sort of syllabus (and actually, since it’s student-created, it’s technically a work plan) for my course. I wanted to set out my goals for the course, as well as my plans for making the most of the opportunity. I decided what topics I wanted to investigate more closely, and chose readings which I felt were applicable. Some are from books that I own but have yet to read (only a few short readings are from one book that I’ve read but would like to review once more- Ecocities by Richard Register. This is actually the book that encouraged me to pursue urban planning and focus my studies on sustainability issues in the first place),while some readings are from books held in the University Library.  I also noted various podcasts, documentaries, and websites to enjoy, and set out a schedule of classes explaining how I plan to progress through the 10 units over the weeks of the semester.

For anyone who is interested, I am very open to others following along during my study! My very long and intense syllabus can be found here: Deep Ecological Urbanism Syllabus

I am unfortunately unable to share my reading materials, nor are (m)any of them available online. However, if a fellow Morgan State student is interested, I have a list of library materials that I think should be great resources. I’ll just trust that whatever books I have planned for a unit will still be in the library when the time comes! Check out my list of suggested readings!

Keep in mind, a huge part of this course is fully immersing oneself in the ecological on-goings of the community. The last page of my syllabus has a calendar including various “green” or “sustainable” events taking place in my city, Baltimore. If someone residing elsewhere in the city wants to do the same thing, the internet is a great resource!

And finally, if anyone is interested in following along without doing the work, I will be posting my unit work weekly! Expect the first posts- a review of the first readings and some quick exercises- to be posted in the next few days!

Floating Wetland, Annapolis Meeting

I was recently given the pleasure of an invitation to a meeting regarding the Floating Wetlands project (see: An Intriguing New Concept in Water Quality Remediation: Floating Wetlands)  in the Baltimore Harbor. Held in the  Environmental Matters Committee room of the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis, those in attendance included Delegate Hammen; Delegate McIntosh, Chair of the Environmental Matters Committee; Phil Lee, presenter and project manager from Moffatt & Nichol; Dan Naor, owner of the Baltimore Marine Centers (BMC) site; Baltimore City Planning Department Planning Director, Tom Stosur, and planner, Jill Lemke; Jay Sakai, MDE Water Management Director; Scott Raymond of Living Classrooms; a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers; as well as representatives from Moffatt & Nichol, the Baltimore Aquarium, and Baltimore Marine Centers, among many others.

It was a terrific experience for me, and the first time I’ve attended any truly official legislative meeting regarding a proposal of this scale. The meeting was intended to present the project at its current stage, and discuss the next steps. The Harborview Floating Wetland proposal has been held up for some time now. Conceiving the idea in 2010, after a few local organizations launched small scale floating wetlands, Dan Naor has been working with Phil Lee and a team of individuals pushing for the approval of a 1.6 acre floating wetland to be constructed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s been caught up in the bureaucracy of development- issues mostly concerned with the proposed piers and platforms. To learn more about the struggles, you can see a portion of my 15 page report on Baltimore water quality describing the BMC Wetlands in my December 31st post.

The conversations I overheard this afternoon reflect that the platforms continue to be the primary concern, but that a few additional steps will ensure the project moves forward shortly. The officials, who make decisions based on existing regulations, have determined the platforms, in this case, to be non water-dependent (for their educational and recreational potential, I personally find them to serve purely water-dependent uses!).  In his presentation, Lee brought up a great and very interesting point: across the Harbor, between piers 3 and 4 (one of the most tourist-y spots in the Inner Harbor), you’ll find a total of 3 floating platforms. Their use? Restaurant seating. Now how is restaurant seating water dependent? Those tables could very well be located on land; it’s not like the water is needed below in order for the food to be served or consumed. Using Google Earth to estimate the size of each, I would guess the three are covering approximately 8,700 square feet of water. Yet, the piers and platforms proposed in the BMC Wetland, which is without a doubt more water-dependent than restaurant seating, is getting so much grief! To an outside individual, it seems absurd that something so trivial would be debated; and even more frustrating is the matter when you learn that the site owner could just as easily abandon the wetland project and get approval to put in an additional 50 slips.

To be fair, some good arguments were made by those who originally questioned the platform elements. Representatives who spoke on behalf of the Baltimore City Department of Planning, MDE, and the Army Corps of Engineers had all expressed their support for this project. Some went so far as to say that, although their job is to remain neutral- neither an opponent mor proponent- they were actually quite “excited” about this proposal. The issue, alas, is the bureaucracy of it all. Every project has to go through the hoops, meeting all the requirements, with absolutely everything checking out.  The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, have to recognize that the site is within navigable waters, and the project must thus undergo a number of analyses before it can be approved. I thought it was a smart statement (although still just an excuse for all the red tape) that the representative made when he justified all the minor annoying details of the process by saying the end result would be a plan or permit that was “bulletproof.” It takes a while, but when all’s said and done, the proposal cannot be knocked down.

The fact, right now, is that neither the Corps nor MDE have seen the numbers and figures which justify the proposed size and square footage of the platforms and piers. Should they receive these numbers soon, the representative of the Corps suggested this proposal could be nearing the end of its process in the next 1 to 2 weeks. The end is in sight!?

Now, as it turns out, the definition of “water-dependent” is also set by regulatory standards, or so I understand. I’m guessing (rather cynically, I suppose) that these standards must define “water-dependent” uses as those which generate some form of measurable revenue- including touristy restaurants? If only we could prove how revenue will increase as a result of this project. Well, actually, the team was awaiting assistance from Tom Noonan of Baltimore’s Office of Tourism to help produce foot traffic numbers. Perhaps Noonan might also help to project the future economic impact…

Everyone promised the project team that the three restaurant platforms, which popped up of the course of a few years, went through the same processes. I’m curious to know, however, if it took them as long?  Again, I’m being cynical. To sum it all up, though, I think great arguments were made by both sides. For whatever reason, the figures used to determine the platform sizes never made it into the Corps hands- in addition to a few other documents, actually. Until this missing information is shared, the project can’t progress. On the other hand, I think Phil Lee used brilliant analogies and comparisons to make his point. You wouldn’t put a wall up around a park, and you shouldn’t restrict the educational element of this wetland to the shore (where a pedestrian promenade would actually not allow that from happening in the first place). For every issue, Lee and the team had an appropriate response. It appears all the necessary studies have been conducted, and the missing results are all that’s preventing this proposal from finally getting through.

I learned a few other interesting things during the meeting. First, I found out about a large floating wetland in Singapore which opened in 2010, the Senkang Floating Wetland. To be honest, I haven’t done much floating wetland research outside of Baltimore. Actually, I’ve done none! But this project is a great comparison, and as you can see from the image below, it shows what a great educational resource a floating wetland can be! You can click on the photo to be directed to a short description of the wetland. And lastly, I learned of a Maryland company- Maryland Aquatic Nurseries- working on a floating wetland product! A representative was present, and I predict they’ll be involved in the BMC Wetland project down the road.

But what was the most important thing I took away from this afternoon’s meeting? The future of floating wetlands in Baltimore looks quite promising, and not too far away on the horizon!

Senkang Floating Wetland

Ditch the Air Conditioning

Today, I want to discuss a few options for living comfortably without A/C. Whether it’s a choice you’ve made to reduce your environmental impact (or save money), or because you live in a home without the luxury, ditching A/C doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.

Now, those of you living in the Northern Hemisphere may be wondering why I’d post on this topic in January. Odd, isn’t it? Well, first off, who doesn’t want to entertain thoughts about the sweltering heat when preparing for the cold winter months ahead (mind over matter, my dear, this same theory may come in handy in other seasons, too!)? But actually, a family member is interested in buying a house without air conditioning and would like to know her options as she’d actually prefer to keep the house that way. When my aunt first asked for my advice, I had a few thoughts come to mind- some more realistic than others. I did a bit more research on the subject and came up with the following energy efficient, or “green”, suggestions for living comfortably without A/C.

History of Natural Cooling

Sun angle diagram [Source: ecowho.com]

There are a few free modifications that can be made, but first, it’s key to understand the location and sitting of your home.  Traditional vernacular architecture was constructed using regional materials and designed to accommodate the local climate. For example, the pitch of a roof would vary by climate zones, with steeper pitches in regions with higher rainfall. Homes also didn’t need air conditioning as they were built with thermal comfort in mind. It was precisely because luxuries such as air conditioning did not exist that homes simply had to respond to climate. Natural ventilation through strategic openings and thoughtful building orientation helped to create comfortable homes.

A Vernacular style farmhouse in Carroll County, MD [Source: National Register of Historic Places flickr]

Today, this construction method is referred to as passive solar building design, and it certainly has strong ties to our ancestors’ buildings. The location of the sun, the direction of the wind, and regional humidity levels are all factors that come into play in new passive construction. The same should also be considered when cooling an existing home without A/C. In the Northern Hemisphere, the southern facing walls receive the most heat. Passive design orients homes so the longest wall faces south and thus receives greater solar benefits. It’s true that this wall is receiving the most heat and light (for this reason, locating rooms in need of good lighting along the southern wall can be a good idea), but this wall can also easily be shaded in warmer months. With a few minor changes, the sun’s energy and warmth can be used to our advantage.

What Can Be Done About the Heat?

I’ll go over each suggestion in detail at the end, but since this post turned out being rather long, you can find a basic outline of my recommendations below:

Behavior Adjustments

  1. Work with windows
  2. Use fans strategically
  3. Reduce heat generation indoors
  4. Reduce daytime humidity
  5. Keep yourself cool

Upgrades and Rehabilitation

  1. Inexpensive Upgrades: CFLs, Appliance performace, & Energy Star appliances
  2. Windows: film, treatments, shading, & energy efficient windows
  3. Insulation and Weatherization: Energy Audit, caulking, and weatherstripping.
  4. Attic: radiant foil barrier, Fans and vents
  5. Roof: material, color, green roof
  6. Landscaping


Let’s review our options, starting with the least expensive and effortless changes and ending with the more costly investments and modifications. Forming new habits are free, but with persistence these small changes can have a big impact.

Working With Windows

Knowing that the southern windows are letting in the most heat, be sure to keep their blinds closed and drapes pulled. Opening windows in the evening, after the sun has set, will cool the house after a warm day. But unless it’s a very cool and breezy day, windows should be kept shut throughout the daytime, especially along the southern and western (sunny/windy) walls. Wind is key here. In much of the US, winds generally blow from the west. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, windows along the windy walls should be kept shut.  You may think it’s a good idea to invite those western winds indoors, but keep in mind that they bring warmer air in that may not be able to find its way outdoors again. Instead, opening windows along the cooler  walls (in our case, often at the East or North facades) will actually change the air pressure in your house, forcing warm air out and allowing cooler air from the shady side of the house to enter.

Use Fans Strategically

Another tip is to strategically use fans. Only use fans in enclosed rooms when someone is present to feel its breeze. In reality, a fan’s motor actually generates heat. Fans cannot change the temperature of the air in a room, and only work to move air- either across your skin or throughout the home.

Reduce Heat Generation Indoors

We have little control over the temperature outside of our home, but complete power over heat generation indoors. After we’ve made so many other changes to keep the heat out, we’d be fools to allow heat to develop right under our noses. When not in use, turn off lights (especially those with incandescent bulbs) and heat generating appliances or electronics. Furthermore, avoid overworking certain appliances. For example, as tempting as the refrigerator’s cold oasis may seem, keep its doors closed as much as possible.

Reduce Daytime Humidity

Humidity levels can make even a moderate temperature seem uncomfortably high. And like appliances which radiate warmth, certain indoor activities can also increase humidity. Showering, washing dishes or clothes, and even cooking can produce humidity. Avoid these steamy activities during the day, and reserve them for early morning or late evening.

Keep Yourself Cool

In between focusing our attention on cooling the house, it’s always important to remember how to keep your own body cool. Drink plenty of water, dress appropriately, eat foods that will cool you off or are hot enough make you sweat, and locate rooms that are most often occupied or require heat-generating appliances in cooler rooms or on lower levels (this is coming from someone who has their office and computer in the loft, trust me on this one). There’s a feng shui to thermal decorating, I’m sure. I’ll investigate that one day. Lastly, cover all soft surfaces in the house with smooth white fabrics. “Light-colored fabrics will reflect heat instead of absorbing it, and the smooth texture will give you an impression of coolness” (mind over matter!) [WikiHow, How to Cool Yourself Without Air Conditioning]. Other things, like keeping a wet rag on pressure points (neck or wrists), or misting yourself with a scented water (like in “olden days”!), also work very well.


Now, we’ve considered the free options, but there are a range of additional upgrades and physical changes (also with a range of price points) that can be made.

Inexpensive Upgrades

It’s hard to tell someone NOT to cook, clean, or use their appliances. Sometimes, we kind of need them, which is why some brilliant folks have invented alternatives. For example, instead of the warm incandescent light bulbs, use CFLs (compact flourescent lamps) which save energy and don’t get hot. CFLs are much cheaper today than they once were, but can still be an investment if you switch all at once. Start by replacing bulbs in the most used spaces, and then slowly replace bulbs as they burn out. Be sure to properly dispose of CFLs at the end of their lifespan.

You’ve also already been warned about water-dependent appliances. You can avoid certain activities, or make these chores more bearable during the day by investing a few pennies to ensure that the gasket seals on your oven, washer, and dishwasher are in good shape, and make sure pot lids are snug. Similarly, switching to Energy Star appliances is also recommended. Although this wont always reduce heat generation (some appliances will), it’s pretty much guaranteed to save you money on your utility bills


We already considered opening and closing windows and window dressings. But the windows themselves could be made more efficient. For a low cost enhancement, you can apply an inexpensive (around 80 cents a square foot), heat-reflecting film or coating on those windows which face the sun. 3M™ brand offers window film products which can prevent up to 71% of the solar heat entering the home.

For a few more dollars, you can invest in better window treatments, of which there are many options. Shades can be one of the simplest and most effective window treatments for thermal control. While blinds offer great flexibility in the summer (according to energy.gov, “when completely closed and lowered on a sunny window, highly reflective blinds can reduce heat gain by around 45%”), but are terrible when it comes to preventing winter heat loss. Thick drapes, on the other hand, can reduce heat gain by up to 33% as well as prevent up to 10% heat loss in the winter. Drapes and curtains can also be specially made using highly thermal fabrics. Energy. gov suggests that all draperies be closed at night during the winter, as well as draperies that don’t receive sunlight during the day. For more examples, as well as specific instructions for proper installation, check out the Energy.gov page on energy efficient window treatments.

Indoor window treatments prevent heat from getting too far beyond the window. Outdoor treatments, on the other hand, prevent the heat from reaching the window in the first place. Some homes are constructed with a larger overhang along the southern wall which prevents the high summer sun from reaching the window, but still offers daylight to the interior. Awnings can easily be mounted above windows for the same effect. Similarly, alternatives like light shelves (interior or exterior- these features protrude from a point below the top of the window to allow sun light to enter the top without hitting the floor of the interior. See image below), a Brise Soleil (fancy word for sun shade), exterior louvers, trellises, etc. offer a range of attractive styles to suit any home.

Diagram demonstrating how light shelves work. [Source: Autodesk]

Whichever style is chosen, be sure that size is adequate enough to block the high-angled summer sun, yet installed properly to allow light from the low winter sun to enter. If you want something more, go all out and install a porch- shaded by a vine-covered trellis or retractable awning- along the southern wall. This, too, should allow the winter sun to reach the house.

Examples of a trellis or louvered patio cover

Going one step further, you can plant now to provide shade in the future. Shade the southern sides of the home with deciduous trees, which will still allow sunlight to reach the house during cooler months. Also, use landscaping to shade any paved or stone surfaces around your house.

However, the most effective, albeit pricey investment is to completely upgrade the windows- at least those windows along the sunniest walls- to more modern, energy-efficient models. When shopping for a window upgrade, look for low (.30 or below) U-factors and solar heat gain co-efficients.

Insulation and Weatherization

Now, windows are also a gateway for sneaky air trying to enter and escape. It’s important to have your home undergo a good energy audit to assesses air leaks, indoor-air quality, insulation, combustion safety, and the durability of your home’s building components. The audit should detect air leaks and identify points of infiltration, which helps to determine where your first improvements should be made. Weatherize your home by caulking and applying weatherstripping to cut back on the transfer of air around windows and doors. If your home has ducts, be sure that they are sealed and insulated.

And don’t forget that many local government and utility programs offer grants or financing options for homeowners who wish to upgrade and weatherize their home. These are sometimes only available for a short amount of time after purchasing a home, so be sure to do your research.


The attic is another sneaky space that should be insulated. Treatment with a foil radiant barrier can block as much as 97% of radiant heat trying to enter your home. We all learned in grade school how hot air rises, for that reason, trapping air in the attic is risky. If you have the option, installing an attic fan (or an attic vent or ridge vent) allows the hot air to escape as it reaches the top of your house.


Lastly, we address the roof itself. Now, from my understanding,  the home my aunt is considering has a metal roof. Metal gets hot, right? True, hot to the touch (which might suggest that a foil radiant barrier in the attic is so much more important in a house with a metal roof), but reflective metal roofs can actually prevent the house from heating. I’m not sure the type of metal roof this house in question has, but all roof materials play an important role in house temperature. Allow me to explain.

[Source: Metal Roofing Alliance]

[Source: Metal Roofing Alliance]

Albedo is the measure, generally speaking, of a material’s reflectiveness. This value ranges from 0 to 1, where a material with an albedo of 0 has the reflecting power of a perfectly black surface- that is, none. Remember how mom always warned against wearing a black tee on a sunny summer afternoon? Exactly. Ever walked barefoot across blacktop? You get the point.

As you might have guessed, a white roof reflects a good amount of solar energy, thus preventing a house from warming as much as it would with an asphalt roof. In the city, many roofs which are hidden from the street are simply painted white. Color plays an important part, of course, but is not everything. The dark leaves of trees, though themselves having a low albedo, actually work to cool the atmosphere through evapotranspiration of rainwater. Furthermore, a black roof might be made of a highly reflective material.

An existing roof can be made reflective by applying a solar reflective coating to its surface. Aluminum roof coatings, for example, start at around $20 a gallon.

Knowing my aunt and her style, I imagine removing the metal roof is out of the question; and it would be for me as well- so much character and much more efficient than I previously knew! But, in most other cases, I rather prefer another option: the green roof. Costly at first, and not feasible for all (okay, most) existing roofs, the green roof provides a thick insulating barrier while preventing solar heating. Low maintenance plants thrive on the roof, which is protected by a special membrane, and provide a cool blanket for the house as they absorb rainwater.


Green roofs are cool (in more ways than one), but not always practical. Still, in general, increasing the amount of green on your property is a good thing. Use native ground-cover in lieu of turf that requires mowing and has little cooling effect. Enviroscaping, Naturescaping, and Xeriscaping are all concepts of natural landscaping and managing temperature on your property. These are all great ideas which I plan to discuss in more detail in future blog posts. But for now, I think I’ve left you with enough to keep the wheels turning for some time.

Cooling a house without A/C doesn’t have to be a nightmare, nor must it cost a fortune. There are plenty of alternative modifications to suit any budget and any style. Those before us managed to live without HVAC systems, as can we!

For more information, check out some of these websites which were of particular use during my research of this subject: