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

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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