We don’t like coal today, but it certainly transformed Victorian-era architecture:
“It is the biggest transition in the history of our species, with the possible exception of starting to use fire at all in the first place,” says Barnabas Calder, author of the groundbreaking study “Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency.” Fireplaces had to be redesigned for coal, smaller, and more efficient, and could now be distributed throughout the house, warming a sequence of smaller rooms that contained heat more efficiently. Brick, which also requires substantial amounts of energy to produce, became affordable. And glass, too, was accessible to ordinary people. “Coal affects the way you can achieve comfort conditions in a building, and it is a very affordable way of producing a significant amount of warmth, which allows for bigger windows. Even more significant is that it opens up a series of new building materials.”
But as new technologies transformed how we thought about it architecture, they also transformed how we thought about climate. Buildings used to have to be carefully “tuned” to their local environment. You had to think about where the sun was coming in, how you were going to trap it during the winter months, and how you were going to release it during the summer months, among many other things.
Eventually though, this stopped mattering.
We had building systems that could take care of these matters, which then meant that we were free to aspire to build the exact same architecture in Phoenix as in London. But we now know that that this doesn’t make much sense. And this recent architectural tour from the Washington Post, which starts in 16th century England, is a good reminder that the lessons learned many centuries ago are in fact still relevant today.
Maybe even more so.