Climate Control: Design a Green Home in any Region

Whether you’re remodeling, buying or building a home, understanding your climate will save energy, improve your health and restore your relationship with natural cycles.

| May/June 2010

  • In this Wisconsin home on Lake Michigan, deep walls allow for extra insulation and in-floor radiant heat helps keep residents warm.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Light-colored walls and conscientious overhangs reduce heat gain.
    Photo By Daniel Nadelbach
  • In addition to expanding living space, courtyards provide shading and thermal mass to aid in natural cooling.
    Photo By Daniel Nadelbach
  • In cold northern states, insulation is the top concern.
    Photo By Rich Legg
  • In the South, vernacular building styles often include large overhangs.
    Photo By Eddie Cazayoux
  • In the hot, humid South, shaded porches help keep homes comfortable.
    Photo By Philip Gould
  • A Florida Keys home uses vertical design for natural cooling and sturdy concrete and steel to protect against ocean storms and hurricanes.
    Photo By Bill Sanders
  • In the Midwest, building strategies must address hot summers and cold winters.
    Photo By Elena Elisseeva
  • In the hot Southwest, thick adobe walls help keep heat out.
    Photo By Alloy Photography
  • This Kansas prairie home includes operable windows set high on the north side for natural ventilation. Southern windows are protected from hot summer sun by continuous louvers. A sod roof helps insulate.
    Photo By Michael Shopenn

The first time I flew into Honolulu, I was surprised to find buildings that could have been air-lifted from Los Angeles built on distinctly Hawaiian beaches and volcanoes. Only at tourist attractions did I see replicas of native tropical homes—raised above the ground on posts with deep overhanging roofs and air-permeable walls—designed to maximize the cooling effects of shade and breezes. Honolulu isn’t unusual. Nationwide, we’ve divorced ourselves from the specifics of climate and place through massive consumption of fossil fuels. Furnaces and air conditioners keep us warm or cool as we forget the energy-saving role of building design itself.

Before the industrial era, people built with local materials in response to local climate, topography, vegetation and culture. They looked to the sun for heat and light, augmenting it with fire. For cooling, they used shade, breezes and evaporation. This gave rise to regional styles as distinct as the Southwest’s adobe pueblos, the New England saltbox, the Southern dogtrot home and the Nebraska sod house.

“Design in response to local climate is the most powerful thing you can do to save energy and restore a sense of place,” says John S. Reynolds, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Oregon.

Climate regions 



Climate is defined by the combination of sun, wind, water and topography in a given area. In broad terms, the continental United States has four basic climate regions: cold, hot dry, hot humid, and temperate mixed.

A climate region is named for its most challenging season—for example, “hot dry” to describe the Southwestern desert. The Southwest also has cold and wet seasons, and the cold northern Midwest has hot summers. If you design to meet the greatest climatic challenge, it will take less energy to address other challenges.



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