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Housing for our changing climates

By Valerie Yule - posted Monday, 23 February 2009

Sceptics may think that climates are not changing permanently, but certainly we should be more prepared for extremes.

The immediate public response to a recent 47C heat-wave in Melbourne was to turn up the power on all air-conditioners. The result was that Victoria’s power system collapsed one hot January night.

The public’s response was to clamor for more power to be available for air-conditioning, and continued attempts to design “greener” air-conditioners which would have less adverse effects on emissions, pollution, power consumption and noise.


Certainly air-conditioning is a great boon of our times when indoor temperatures cannot otherwise be reduced below 26C, and can be life-saving for the sick, aged and infants. But when it is the only solution resorted to in hot weather, air-conditioning helps to increase the very climate changes we seek protection from.

Yet suburban housing that will be excessively reliant on air-conditioning is still being put up at a great rate. It is as if all the knowledge of centuries about keeping cool in hot weather has been relegated as unnecessary. Yet all over the world, from Morocco and Spain to East Asia, houses have been designed to have bearable temperatures in summer and winter.

So what strategies should at least be considered when building and retrofitting housing, especially at a time when we have a financial crisis and want to stimulate the economy?

Our whole strategy for putting up housing needs critical examination: for its wastefulness; its irretrievable theft of fertile farmland; the reliance on the building and property industries for State prosperity - and hence encouragement of population growth that may prove disastrous; and for the poor standards of livability that are being perpetrated.

Surely a housing development should be designed as a whole for utmost livability, not as a collection of individual boxes packed close but awkwardly, and wasting space unnecessarily. Surely government intervention is needed, so that “build for profit now, to heck with later” is replaced with “build for future needs, even if the future has to help pay for it”. A common excuse for low environmental standards, to cut labour costs, is surely out of place today.

Fashionable free-standing houses set in curly mazes of streets make for wasted space: their access wastes petrol and pedestrian time, and bus journeys are lengthened beyond most people’s patience. Yet there are world heritage examples to show how beautiful crescents are still possible with a basic grid plan, and of time-proven two-story terrace housing along them. These can allow higher resident density, and include garage-workshops, side-windows, clerestories, and common play areas that are safely inside a block of housing. Each individual home needs the overall design adapted to its orientation for optimum comfort in all weathers, while drought-resistant trees and back gardens help with the coolth, fresh air and beauty.


Before air-conditioning became the one cure for hot weather, people knew how to keep cooler in hot climates with eaves, attics, verandahs, high ceilings, and passages through which an evening breeze could blow. Rooms had doors that could be shut so that cooler rooms stay cool, and a cooling breeze refreshes as people move around the house.

Then if air-conditioning is needed when indoor temperatures soar above 27C, it can only cool where needed, and not unnecessary spaces.

Today we can also have better roof and wall insulation, see-through awnings, tightly woven screens and bamboo shades retractable in winter, and other coverings such as films to prevent glass windows heating up and double-glazing as an option.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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