I grew up on a small family dairy farm in Wisconsin. Although sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago, I’m always thankful for having had the opportunity to grow up in that environment. I developed a real appreciation for the Earth and learned firsthand how the weather, land, crops, and livestock all are interconnected. More importantly, I learned that, with all our technology and culture, we human beings are just as much a part of the system as the cows and corn. It’s something that’s stayed with me, no matter where I live or what I do.
Like most small farms in the area at the time, ours went back generations. While of course we used modern tools to get the job done, many of the techniques we used went back quite a few years. Many things that worked in my great-grandfather’s day still are relevant today.
Recently someone asked me why so many barns in Wisconsin are wood structures built on stone or concrete bases. I had never given it much thought, but my fiancée wondered aloud whether it had something to do with keeping the building warm in the winter.
Although I’m still not sure of the exact answer, that theory makes a lot of sense to me. We never used any kind of artificial heating in the barn, but even in the dead of winter (and anyone who’s been to Wisconsin knows those winters can be a tad chilly), it always was warm inside. I didn’t know this at age 10, but the body heat from all the livestock would have been stored in the thermally massive stone walls and radiated back inside. The barn also was built on a west/east orientation with large openings on either side so in the summer, the wind would blow through and help keep the interior cool.
With all the developments in things like renewable energy and high-tech automated interior climate-control systems, it’s worth noting that sometimes our great-grandparents had it right all along. They built structures that took into account the land, the climate, and the occupants.
As in the case of my old family farm, there’s something to be said about integrating new technology with traditional techniques. Things like orienting a building to best take advantage of the sun’s heat in the winter while minimizing exposure in the summer, or taking advantage of the thermal mass properties of materials like concrete, stone, and brick can make a huge difference in the performance of buildings of any kind; not just barns.
There is a lot to learn from our architectural past that applies very well to our architectural future. Our ancestors built with an eye to resource efficiency and natural heating and cooling because they had to. Today we have the opportunity to make similar decisions, not out of necessity, but out of choice.