Home, Kiss House, Passivhaus, Wellbeing in the home | 25 August 2021
The weather indoors.
The internal climate is an interesting concept brilliantly explored in “The weather indoors.”
I loved listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme by Alexandra Harris, and drew lots of interesting parallels with our work at Kiss House, particularly in relation to Passivhaus and the quality of interior living environments.
The programme was the first in a 6-part series in which Harris tells the story of how the history and cultural life of Britain have been shaped by the weather.
My series highlights included Harris’s explanation of how 8th 9th and 10th century literature used Winter wisdom as a device to explore undeniable human truths. I also loved her description of the winter of 1608-09 when it was so cold that the “great highway of London was at a halt” as the Thames had completely frozen over. Harris explains how all of life took to the icy river saying, “an alternative world was forming on the river, improvised and ungoverned.” Whilst her description of the 1608-09 freeze was beguiling in episode 2, it was her consideration of “the weather indoors” in episode 1 that resonated most.
“At Kiss House we regularly find ourselves trying to express the sensory living experience.”
The weather indoors is a concept that has special resonance for us at Kiss House because we regularly find ourselves trying to express the sensory living experience and what it’s like to live in a Passivhaus. Invariably we find ourselves talking about the sense of calm and the feeling that everything is just right; the constant ambient temperature without cold and damp spots; the lack of cold surfaces and the elimination of the fear of poking a toe out of bed on a cold morning and freezing! Thus, our description relates in no small part to the weather indoors or internal climate.
Expressing the living experience is not easy, so when I first heard Harris talking about the weather indoors, I was struck by how beautifully she conveys the realities of different internal climates and how they affect a building’s occupants. It’s a concept everyone has experienced but perhaps have not thought about. Think about it — every time you gravitate to a cosy nook, heated by the sun, or avoid a cold corridor, you are interacting with your internal climate. I had pneumonia a couple of years ago and couldn’t set foot in my kitchen. It has always been the coldest place in the house, and I couldn’t bear the shock of the cold floor and the slight feeling of moisture in the air (needless to say, I don’t live in a Kiss House, yet!).
The weather indoors provides a fascinating social history, with lively excerpts from writers and examples from Harris’s experience. She deftly plots a timeline from the Romans, through the medieval period and early modern era into the 18th and 19th centuries up to the present day! All the while shedding light on what our internal climate was like and how we lived as a result.
“Ten minutes of the 12th century is about as much as I can take.”
Harris describes centuries of smoke-filled halls, and huts with chimneyless fires. Saying that having experienced these polluted conditions first-hand at early medieval, Singleton Hall in Sussex, “ten minutes of the 12th century is about as much as I can take.”
Having analysed the weather in the home historically, Harris explains that there are clear climatic distinctions in different parts of buildings as we move from room to room. In monasteries of the 16th century there was an acute awareness of the warm and cold parts of the building. It was known that stone cloisters and corridors made for cold, damp, humid spaces — more chill than the outside; inhospitable and often mouldy. However, there was one room where monks would cluster to keep warm. This room was known as the calefactory, where a communal fire was kept where monks could keep warm after long hours of study in the cold cloister. She ponders, “what was it like then to enter the calefactory, skin prickling with the change, muscles relaxing, feeling returning to the fingers, expansiveness returning to the cold cramped mind. Knowing that it was only for a short interval.”
“Every kind of person from labourer to aristocrat knew the longed-for comfort of the fire, and so they went on knowing it through every century until our own.”
In another example she describes how the Romans, still famed for their advances in central heating primarily due to their invention of “hypocausts,” aka Roman underfloor heating, didn’t have it quite as sussed as you may think. The reality was that the vast majority of rooms even in the most opulent villas were not heated. Where floors were heated, fires were lit below that were so scorching occupants would burn their feet!
Harris describes bygone eras where “every kind of person from labourer to aristocrat knew the longed-for comfort of the fire, and so they went on knowing it through every century until our own.” She explains that the “chimney centuries” of the 16th century onwards were better than the chimneyless ones before, but of course the cold was nonetheless ever present for everyone. Think of the poor impoverished souls without the means to heat their humble huts and families huddled in tenements around a tiny patch of warmth — this was life for most people, no heat, no running water (and of course it remains what life is like for many still). How must it have felt to come home from the cold, wet and damp world, to feel the respite of being inside but to not have the means to ever properly thaw out?
“In English literature the most ecstatic descriptions of firelit rooms are anticipatory. ”
Harris punctuates her narrative beautifully with literary quotes to illustrate how people have loved and longed for a warm hearth and a fire burning bright. We’ve all felt the draw — the primal urge to sit by a fire and stare into the flames. She explains that “in English literature the most ecstatic descriptions of firelit rooms are anticipatory. They savour most of all, the moments of dusk when the curtains are closed. When a dreary space in fading light, with not much to recommend it, can be brought to sparkling animation by the flare of kindling in a grate.” They are concerned with coming in from the cold and thawing frozen limbs, rest and respite from the elements.
“The fire makes people long to go to bed and yet they fear it because of course, everything beyond the parlour is cold.”
A fire is (and was) no panacea and whilst Harris explores the lure of the fire, she also refers to the concept of exhausted air. She says, “I’m amazed that people stayed awake so long by their fires… after a few hours the room was close, and the oxygen depleted.” In the nineteenth century they called it “exhausted air” as it was conducive mostly to sleep! The essayist Leigh Hunt said “the fire makes people long to go to bed and yet they fear it because of course, everything beyond the parlour is cold. The bed is coldest of all, the sharp change will be enough to wake them up completely, so they stay and snooze a bit longer, all those people by their fire preparing themselves for bed.”
“Once the perfect state is achieved it’s very hard to, come the morning, give it up”
“The morning crisis,” a term coined by Hunt, relates to the unique microclimate of bed. “Once the perfect state is achieved it’s very hard to come the morning, give it up. There you are in a temperate cocoon perfectly adjusted and you must break it open, throw off the blankets like a door flung wide to frost and gale. A small struggle we go through day in and day out and so it’s been for centuries,” explains Harris.
Ultimately the pleasure of the room is founded on the weather it is keeping out. 18th century novelist Thomas DeQuincy called for “as proper a winter as can be had in Cumbrian mountains. A Canadian or a Russian winter, the better to heighten the contrast between indoors and the world beyond.”
Harris says WH Auden described his love of a “womb like room” where all seasons could be felt in a day. He liked the house to have small windows, small rooms, and thick walls. He liked, even in broad daylight, to manufacture evening by drawing curtains and piling blankets onto his bed… to divide his day into seasonal sections with an extended Winter in the morning and autumn setting in after tea. “How could one speak of my radiator,” exclaimed Auden when expressing his dislike of the unromantic first age of central heating!
“At all times in human history before the 20th century, there have been pronounced distinctions between the different parts of a building, and each room has had its own weather. ”
Harris explains that at all times in human history before the 20th century, there have been pronounced distinctions between the different parts of a building, and each room has had its own weather. She explains what worked well and what didn’t and how it affected the way people lived, and how it is still doing so today.
“Harris describes how windows and plans changed as engineers and architects solved the problems of the weather getting in. ”
Bringing her exploration up to the 20th Century Harris describes how windows and plans changed as engineers and architects solved the problems of the weather getting in. Climate control evolved over the centuries and advances in weather technology had significant influence on architecture. This took off when American, Willis Carrier, created a blueprint of a machine that generated mist in a controlled way to circulate residue dry air to cool a factory all summer, in 1902. Adverts went out for “manmade weather” and thus a crude form of air conditioning was born.
“Enter French Architect, Le Corbusier who paved the way for change when he shared his all-encompassing, ambitious vision for modern homes in 1927.”
It was clear that to accommodate new weather technologies, different kinds of architecture would be required. Enter French Architect, Le Corbusier who paved the way for change when he shared his all-encompassing, ambitious vision in 1927. He lay out his plans for a new kind of house with “respiration exacte,” a house “whose breathing / airy circulation would be precisely controlled with switches.” This wasn’t restricted to cooling the air in a heatwave, it was about providing a constant temperature year-round. It seemed obvious to Le Corbusier that humans functioned better at some temperatures than others. He believed that in the age of technology, you should be unaffected by the elements when inside your home.
“His revolutionary idea was that interiors of the future would be 18 degrees wherever you were in the world.”
His revolutionary idea was that interiors of the future would be 18 degrees wherever you were in the world, and it included the invention of the first double glazing. This revolutionised house design and embodied the spirit of modern architecture.
“The vision was that we would see the weather, but we would not feel it.”
The vision was that we would see the weather, but we would not feel it — since the same conditions prevailed from the bottom to the top floor there would be no need to keep one space separate from another. “Double windows” enabled windows to get bigger. Warmer interior conditions meant that dividing walls could come down, and radiators made it possible to live in open plan. The air flowed and light poured into the interiors of the 20th century — grey cloud light, fleeting storm light, sunlight and moonlight says Harris.
Certainly, interior conditions and internal climates were dramatically improved in the 20th Century — architect designed and built homes at either end were vastly different and living conditions vastly improved. Harris describes the opening up of space with the additions of double glazing and central heating as an entirely new era in which the outside was no longer felt inside. However, it cannot be said that all problems were solved — far from it.
“We have all experienced the imperfections and less than ideal comfort inherent in modern built homes. ”
We have all experienced the imperfections and less than ideal comfort inherent in modern built homes. In homes built post world-war two to the present day that are too cold when it’s cold and which overheat when it’s hot. Homes that require the central heating system to be cranked and left on for them to stay warm. Homes in which we can’t cool down when the sun shines, and which are impossible to sleep in on hot nights.
Even today, in most houses built now we still have the “morning crisis” — wake up before the heating has taken the edge off and you know the desire to linger in a warm bed rather than brave the cold bedroom beyond. At the other end of the day, we’ve all felt the reluctance to get undressed and ready for bed because of a draughty room in which the heating has gone off. Many of us still experience the exhausted air in a room in which we’ve lit a fire to make it more hospitable. Why? Because we still live in badly detailed, draughty houses that do not retain heat, instead they leak it!
“Ultimately the problem with most houses is that they are entirely reliant on central heating when it is cold. ”
Ultimately the problem with most houses is that they are entirely reliant on central heating when it is cold. Central heating is expensive to run and requires us to burn fossil fuels. It is a blunt instrument that is difficult to control to create “ideal conditions” across the living environment and it results in a stuffy environment with stale air! When we throw our windows open to get relief and circulate air, we lurch from one extreme to another and lose all of our heat (effectively heating the outdoors). We also bring in all the noise and airborne particulate relative to our location.
“Don’t be fooled by the architect designed modernist homes with predominantly glass elevations! ”
Similar problems are encountered when our homes over-heat — we have less than ideal conditions that we can’t control, no air flow, we can’t cool down and opening windows brings in noise and airborne particulate. Don’t be fooled by the architect designed modernist homes with predominantly glass elevations! They may look beautiful, sleek, and modern but they invariably overheat to the point where they are thoroughly uninhabitable on sunny days.
In a design audit of new housing developments in the UK since 2007, The Bartlett Report found: 75% of new housing development should not have gone ahead due to “mediocre” or “poor” design. 20% of developments should have been rejected outright by planning authorities. Significant numbers of schemes fall below minimum energy efficiency requirements. Developments also fail to deliver on a green or bio-diverse environment. Things could be about to get even worse as the proposed recovery plan of “Build! Build! Build!” could result in: Up to 45,000 new homes being built without raising efficiency standards. With 1m new homes built previously requiring expensive renovation to meet the target of net zero emissions by 2050. This is according to the Committee on Climate Change.
“Badly detailed leaky housing is letting inhabitants down and is destroying the environment. ”
Badly detailed leaky housing is letting inhabitants down and is destroying the environment. According to Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK: “Without any explicit rules insisting they meet zero-carbon standards, the eagerness to build, build, build will only add to the escalating climate crisis and burden new home-owners with high heating bills and expensive retrofitting costs in years to come.”
“Truth is it is so different, so subtle, and yet so profound that it is almost impossible to explain. ”
Sadly, due to the severe lack of diversity in the housing stock most of us not only don’t have any choice but to put up with badly detailed, leaky homes that are expensive to run; but we also don’t even realise how bad they are because we don’t have a comparator. This brings us full circle to the question of “how do you describe what it is like to live in a Passivhaus.” Truth is it is so different, so subtle, and yet so profound that it is almost impossible to explain.
“You are not hit by stark difference; you are cocooned in a sense of everything just being right”
You are not hit by stark difference; you are cocooned in a sense of everything just being right. Quietly nurtured by the sense of calm and quiet provided by brilliant acoustic separation. Soothed by the fresh pure filtered air that circulates effortlessly and imperceptibly. Calmed by the lack of shock to the system because your skin is not making contact with the usual cold surfaces — the cold zone as you approach windows (even good double glazing) the cold floors, and the draughts and cold spots that catch you unawares, but which have a significant impact on how you feel. You are reassured by the constant ambient temperature, which due to the elimination of cold and damp spots and overheating means you always feel comforted and comfortable.
Comfort directly impacts our emotional and physical well-being yet it is rarely given enough priority and consideration in house design. It is interesting to note the regular questions we receive asking “can you open the windows in a Passivhaus and can we have a fire?” It makes sense that we’re asked these questions, because they are asked by people who live in traditionally built (even if “modern” homes), who don’t know what it’s like to live in a Passivhaus. Like you and I, they are people used to seeking thermal comfort by throwing windows open to circulate air / let out exhausted air, and to cool an overheated home down. People who like you and I rely on the comfort of lighting an open fire or stove on chilly winter days. Like you and I, they also experience the negative outcomes of trying to find comfort in these ways — heating the outside, letting in airborne particulate, filling their rooms with a fine layer of fire dust and depleting their oxygen.
“Relieved of the need to make yourself more comfortable, you have more space to focus on other things. ”
Relieved of the need to make yourself more comfortable, you have more space to focus on other things. This is one reason that living in a Passivhaus creates a sense of calm and peace; simply put they are easier and more relaxing to live in. As Alexandra Harris explains above, we gravitate to a fire because it has been hard wired into us to seek its warmth and sense of security. Living in a Passivhaus doesn’t exclude you from accessing the sense of pleasure and nourishment you found previously at the fireside, you just find it in a different place. You don’t need a fire in your home for comfort — which let’s face it would usually have you firmly rooted to the spot, so instead you can try other things and stay curious.
“Passivhaus is an evolution in housing. ”
Passivhaus is an evolution in housing. We have chosen it for Kiss House because it offers an unrivalled living experience because Passivhaus homes are so comfortable to live in. At Kiss House our goal is to combine all that Passivhaus offers in terms of a beautiful living experience (due to the care and consideration that goes into the detailing), and to combine this with great design. To pick up the baton from Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and others and to carry it forward. To combine great design with new technologies and the great performance that Passivhaus enables us to achieve. To put people at the heart of design decisions to create homes that truly support their occupants. To create homes for today and tomorrow of which people can be proud, and in which people can express the fullness of their lives.
Thank you for reading,
Listen “The weather indoors” programme on BBC Sounds: here
For more on Passivhaus read Lloyd Alter on TreeHugger
Read about how Passivhaus buildings stay cool in summer: here