Personal Entombment

"I keep my temperature at 74 when I'm at the crib
And 79 in the winter time, that's just how I live"

Tech N9ne

In winter, the local ectotherms, snakes and lizards, are torpid. Their blood temperature has cooled and they are, quite literally, chilling. Holed up in a burrow, under a rock or rotting tree trunk their metabolisms have slowed to the point where they no longer need to forage for food. I still tread carefully through the chaparral but I haven't seen a snake for months; but today is warm and the lizards have stirred - one is skittering on the terrace as I write. Ectotherms are animals that warm their bodies by absorbing heat from their surroundings. We endotherms work the other way round. We give warmth to our environment - and this winter, at the house, one of our donors is missing. Griffin, our youngest son, left for art college last fall.

Our linear house is binary in respect to southern glazing - repetitive sixteen foot bays are either fully glazed to the south or not. Griffin's room and my office (two bays) are not and have shaded glazing to the west and east respectively and eight foot ceilings beneath an attic space packed with an air handler, ducting, a photo-voltaic inverter and solar panel piping (carrying glycol) to the hot water tank heat exchanger below. While they do not have the advantage of solar gain the rooms also suffer little or no solar loss at night. They represent the warm heart of the house.

Solar gain is convected to these spaces from both ends of the house and there it is trapped under the low ceiling providing a temperature of five or six degrees warmer than the more glassy ends. Griffin and his machines - TV, computer and powered speakers - added to the warmth of his room and he was pretty snug. "79 in the winter time that's just how I live" had some reality in his life.

Michelle Addington, a systems engineer and materials scientist at the Yale School of Architecture, makes the point that the energy consuming devices, primarily lighting, heating and cooling (HVAC) that exist in a building are all intended to serve the comfort of the human body: but conventional systems attempt to do this by servicing the building rather than the body - we heat and cool entire volumes; we provide standard lighting levels throughout a room. Only when we are sleeping do we focus intently on the body rather than the room because the space we occupy is rigidly prescribed - twin, double, Queen or King.

As homes have become larger, smaller and smaller percentages of the systems that treat the entire space actually impinge on the inhabitants. She notes that, "the body’s heat exchanges occur within a zone of a few centimeters around it, and the eye intercepts only a tiny fraction of the light in a room. Our conventional systems provide ambient conditions in a building—a steady seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit or a constant forty foot-candles".

Everything that exists in a building has a thermal boundary layer - a thin, tight sphere of thermal influence that is then transmitted through convection currents. Griffin managed his boundary layer quite efficiently. He stayed in his room (mostly) and was never known to turn off an electronic appliance - their boundary layers convected to his and all was right with his thermal world. I conducted a long and in the end losing battle with him trying to have him not eat in his room - given his druthers he would have had a toaster oven and micro-fridge in his room so that he could simulate the dorm living that he had so enjoyed in his sophomore year at Besant Hill School.

His room has two 50 w MR-16's down-lights on dimmers and he used a single task light with a compact flourescent when drawing. He lived in about 250 square feet (including his bathroom) and it was we who insisted that he share his meals with us in the larger high ceilinged spaces of the house - otherwise he was ready willing and able to conduct all of his life processes in his man-cave.

Sadly Griffin no longer contributes his warmth to the center of the house. I notice when I go into my home-office first thing in the morning, before dawn, that sometimes the ducts are pumping warm air into the spaces making up for his endothermic contribution. (Yes, we do miss him in other ways....)

Our children live in a world explicated both through real-world visual, aural, tactile and kinetic inputs and social interaction and their electronically simulated equivalents. The latter constitute their primary home or crib connections. While there is a clear separation between the real and the imaged (or texted), the electronic stimulus is convincing enough to demand an architectural container which supports the verisimilitude of these connections. Shadowy light levels, tightly contained space that amplifies the resonance of powered speakers and, in winter, the fug of electric resistance in appliances all contribute to a profoundly energy efficient environment where space is personal.

Buildings continue to be treated as autonomous entities that we almost incidentally inhabit. Thus the house is net-zero-energy, or sustainable or green (whatever) on a stand alone basis rather than as an intimate wrapper to our particular activities. Griffin treated his space as a personal enabler of his relationships with his body (primarily its need for rest, thermal comfort, aural and intellectual stimulation and, kinetic stimulation (video-games): localized lighting and an intimate relationship with the thermal boundary layers of small appliances served these personal interactions.

It is his model that represents the future of energy efficient design. The new social and entertainment media have expanded our 'at-home' worlds. Our need for theatrical space where the kinetic experience of volume and visually stimulating effects - like a view - are paramount has been replaced by the 52" HD screen and the i-pad. This virtual experiential expansion can now reasonably be housed (or shrink-wrapped) in a smaller, better fitting architectural expression where energy inputs are carefully calibrated to the convection currents of the persons and appliances that inhabit the spaces.

In short, to be truly energy efficient, we need to act more like teenagers (or ectotherms), absorbing energy from our (electronic) environment and savoring the shadowy spaces of personal entombment.