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Ancient Dwellings Provide Modern Lessons

Credits: ©2013 Robin Rogers / Solaripedia

People began green architecture - building houses - to shelter themselves at least 30,000 years ago. Construction materials used by our ancestors included natural materials such as wood, animal bone, turf, and boulders, and person-made adobe bricks or cut and shaped stone, and mortar. The assembled materials became pit houses, lake dwellings, cliff dwellings, tents and tipis, and pit dwellings.


Bandiagara Cliff Dwelling in Mali

The Bandiagara Escarpment is a sandstone cliff in the Dogon country of Mali that rises almost 500 meters (1,640 ft) from the sandy flats below. These cliffs are dotted with ancient cave homes originally carved by the Tellem people to house their dead, but inhabited since the 14th century by the Dogon people. Structures include granaries, houses, altars and community spaces. ©2013 ZRIM

In my architecture thesis, I cited Olivier Marc. He had asked the question: why did humans leave earth homes such as caves and grottoes for a more precarious habitation? An evolutionary demand, an inner compulsion, he says. In his ruminations on the matter, he arrives at what he considers the threshold of creativity — where the ancient humans were confronted with a challenge for which there was no external model and so began to find a correlation to an image within. From here, he extrapolates, humans sought to create a replica of their own mother’s womb and, so, house was born into existence.

In a slightly different approach to the question of “house,” architects Charles Moore, Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon in their book The Place of Houses ask “Did nature provide the conceptual model for the hut before the necessity of shelter forced men to build themselves huts?” They in part respond by quoting Sir William Chambers’ writings on primitive architecture: “at first, they (primitive peoples) most likely retired to caverns, formed by nature, in rock, to hollow trunks of trees, or to holes dug by themselves in the earth. But soon, disgusted with the damp and darkness of these habitations, they began to search after more wholesome and convertible dwellings. Animal creation pointed out both materials and methods of construction; swallows, rooks, bees and storks were the first builders. Man observed their instinctive operations. He admired, he imitated, and, being endowed with reasoning faculties and a structure suited to mechanical purposes, he soon outdid his masters in the builder’s art.”

So, while nature apparently provided the model for both Marc’s and Chambers’ scenarios of primitive peoples’ move from original earth shelters to houses, one seems to have been extrinsic and the other from an intrinsic source.

Whichever inference we understand to be true, it seems undeniable that the homes of the early builders were “part of a harmonious whole... land, man and dwelling were indissolubly bound together,” as Marc writes. “There existed then a secret contrivance between our ancestors and their environment which made it possible for them to play with the elements, to grasp the sun at the right moment, to send the wind away in winter, to canalize subtly the summer breeze, to tame light and shadow. They were firmly fixed to the place and were part of a whole composed of subtle harmonies.”

In this agreement between the primitive architect and the environment, there was little margin for error in coping with natural forces: gravity, heat, cold, wind, snow, rain, and flood, according to James Marston Fitch in Shelter: Modes of Native Ingenuity. “The primitive architect works in an economy of scarcity — his resources in materials and energy are severely restricted.” Perhaps because of this implicit order of lifestyle “(primitive architecture) reveals a precise and detailed knowledge of local climatic conditions on the one hand and, on the other, a remarkable understanding of the performance characteristics of the materials locally available,” he adds.