(EDITOR’S NOTE: I thought of this 2014 post when I was sitting at an outside table yesterday, catching up over coffee with a friend. As the weather turns colder, some members of the family may be tempted to turn up the thermostat in our hermetically sealed houses. But in this year of the coronavirus, we have found out once again how much we need fresh air and good ventilation. We find we are often safer outdoors than inside where both fresh air and circulation may be minimal. We can benefit from, as Lloyd Alter calls it, the Dumb House. Unfortunately, Alter’s blog post was updated in 2018 to capture more of the newest technology, but in the process he lost some of the humor of the original, along with the great picture and line about Patti Page. But I still have them! So this post is slightly updated but more relevant than ever.)
I loved the original Treehugger post from 2014 entitled In Praise of the Dumb House.
In that post, Lloyd Alter talked about all the newfangled gadgets to keep your house temperature perfect — and environmentally correct. But he points out the problem with this line of thinking:
As Victor Olgyay noted exactly 50 years ago in his book Design with Climate, comfort is not determined by temperature alone, but by a combination of temperature, humidity and air movement. The Nest thermostat turns an air conditioner or furnace on or off, where you might be just as comfortable opening a window or turning on a fan. That’s what you would do in a dumb home. Instead, the Nest causes you to use energy to do what used to be free.
In his original post he went on to say:
There is also another problem with the smart thermostat: people no longer put on such smart sweater sets like Patti Page used to wear.
…because we are too lazy to put on a sweater or take off a jacket, we have let the thermostat and the mechanical engineer behind it change the way we make buildings.” A smart thermostat might actually increase the energy used, not because it drops the temperature when you are not home, but because it increases it while you are there, when you could in fact get just as comfortable by putting on a smart looking sweater.
This rang so true to me. Every day during the 2013 holiday break, a member of our family who shall go nameless but who had become acclimated to Southern California weather would come downstairs — often wearing pajama bottoms, a t-shirt, and standing barefoot — to exclaim, “I’m cold. Turn up the heat.” To which I — attired in my natty pullover or warm hoodie “repping” said family member’s college — would reply, “Put on a damn sweater.” Now I know I should have added, “like Patti Page!”
It was at this moment that I realized that I’ve turned into my father. This is exactly the type of thing he would say. For example, when I used to go around our offices at the Watergate and turn off lights in meeting rooms (that would later cut themselves off automatically), some folks would look at me quizzically. I usually responded by saying, “Sorry, but my father worked his entire career for the Tennessee Valley Authority. When we left a light on in a room, he would come in, flip the switch to off, and say ‘I work for the electric company, I don’t own it.’”
Yep, Daddy would definitely be in the “put on a sweater like Patti Page” camp.
More to come…
On Wednesday the 25th, I received the following comment via email. I am posting it here – without identifying the writer – simply in order to capture the thought:
“I greatly enjoyed this post. My drafty house is proving useful this year. While we have a sort of smart thermostat, my wife often wonders if we should get a Nest. I kind of ignore the conversation. And I can’t count the number of times I have told the kids to put some socks and/or slippers to ward off feeling cold. But the lights, that’s where I am adamant and I know it derives from my childhood where the lights were off unless one was in the room. I have relaxed a bit (probably because most of our lights are now LED), but I still walk around turning off lights and remember grumbling to my kids about the lights. I did relent on leaving lights on when the kids were coming home after we went to bed. I believe I did so because I remember all the times coming home to a very dark house. I grew up in a three bedroom ranch – it wasn’t that big, but the only light ever left on was a small night light in the kitchen. I distinctly remember coming in one night walking through the dining room towards my bedroom and faceplanting right into the wall (and I didn’t drink).
I hope you have a joyful and meaningful Thanksgiving in whatever form it takes. While I am not immune to sadness this year, we have much to be grateful for and a lot of hard work ahead.”