In Belize, Central America, the American consulate was (and perhaps is, for all I know) encircled by porches. That was all that kept the consul sane.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the traditional time summer begins. In the tropics, people have to keep their cool, or end with French-fried brains. In some places, air conditioning is too expensive (as it becomes increasingly so here) or perhaps not available.
Over the years, the permanent residents have devised ways of turning the heat down, without electricity, gas, oil or dollars.In pre-air-conditioning days, people knew how to keep their cool through good design. Perhaps it's time to remember a few of the tricks.
The wide 10- or 12- foot porches on the consulate gave it a very grand air. I remember vividly our first evening after the Foreign Service had posted my husband to Belize. It seemed very romantic. There was a party at the consulate. We stood on the second floor porch, looked out at the bougainvillea wine and flamboyant tree, and breathed in the sweet scents of the night. We drank rum in coconuts, and thought ourselves well posted - until the dreadful sandflies, those horrible vampires so small that you can't see them, covered us with a million bites. have porches. In the southern United States, all porches should be screened - to keep ou the wildlife, and to give some measure of shade (see the Help column on this page). The north side is coolest in summer, but the south porch can be used in the spring and even on some winter days. In Washington, 2 1/2 feet of roof overhang will serve to shade the south side so the sun comes in during the winter but not during the summer.
On my grandmother's house in Valdosta, Ga., honeysuckle vines grew on strings from the balustrade to the roof on the porch.Behind that fragrant screen, you could sit all day, observe the passersby, and decide who you wanted to speak to and who you did not.
In the evenings, we'd often play cards on the porch. Sunday afternoon, after church, we'd sit there and drink iced tea with mint grown under the dripping spigot in the back yard. We had stolen from church the fans provided by the funeral parlor. We used them industriously. Sometimes, as a mark of affection, we fanned each other.
Washington, of course, has tropical temperatures in the summer. Though they have regrettably ceased the practice, the British used to issue shorts as uniforms to their military attaches assigned here.
George Washington understood that Washington is the subtropics. And so, when he built his house, he sited it for the best passive air conditioning. The house faces a major river, a moderating influence right there. On the river side, he built a great porch, two stories high, so that heat would not be trapped at ceiling line. The porch is wide, to shade both porch sitters and the house's furnishings from the summer sun,
Cities are hot places. The asphalt, the masonry, the fuel combustion make the city 10 or so degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside.
Thomas Jefferson built on the top of a hill, to catch every breeze. He surrounded himself with green pastures. And best of all, tall deciduous trees to shade his roof. He built tall porticos as well, both on the entrance and the garden sides of his house. On the south side, he glassed the porch in to raise flowers in the winter.
In his garden, he built a fish pond, not only to keep fish fresh to eat, but also so he'd have a place to go and hear them splash. He had an ice house too, as all prosperous folk did back then. During the winter, he would have blocks of ice cut from the streams, and then kept in the thickwalled ice house, buried in the ground.
His house was so cool and pleasant, that too many visitors came, and they ate him out of house and home and into bankruptcy.
Many old houses in Valdosta, where I was born, were built up off the ground, because the water table, like the cup, often overfloweth. Besides keeping the first floor dry, the space under the house served other purposes. Some houses were raised a full story. These made a cool play to play when I was small. The sides were laticed and planted with vines, so it was rather dark and mysterious. My family kept the bicycles, the gardening tools, the dog food, and such necessities stashed underneath. Mold was the only problem.
Not until we were stationed in Belize did I again encounter stilt architecture. Belize City was a foot over sea level - except during high tide, when it was a foot under. All house of any pretention were built on stilts, usually 8 or 10 feet high. Of course, when the hurricane came, many stilts didn't hold, and some houses were washed not only off their poles but out to sea.
Still, for most of the time, raising the house was very sensible. The air flowing under the house helped to cool it and reduce the moisture concentration that en couraged the ever-featured mold. It also kept the snakes, the blue crabs and the anteaters out. Under the house was the servants' shower, counted a great perk, because water was very scarce in Belize. Everybody took at least two showers a day and often three. Our cotton clothes fell apart after three months, because of the constant washing and the heat of the sun drying. Most houses had a cistern, to catch rain water. But in the dry spells, you had to chase the water truck around town to buy water.
All the old houses in Belize had ceiling fans, just as in Humphrey Bogart movies. Not only does the fan raise a constant breeze, but the hypnotic effect keeps you from dwelling on your discomfort. Such fans are now available again in Washington. Everybody should have on side porch, and perhaps another in the bedroom. In the winter, ceiling fans help to funnel down the hot air, which collects at the ceiling.
The hottest day I ever remember was the Sunday before the hurricane. We'd gone to a cocktail party after church, and then home to swelter. Even though we had a big air conditioner upstairs, the bedroom was 90 degrees.
Windows start high and go low in the tropics. In the best houses they are French doors. In some old houses in Washington, including the White House, some double-hung windows are so tall you can walk out through them. Tall windows catch more of the breeze.
In Guatemala, and many other Latin countries, all windows are protected with louvered shutters. Outside shutters can work with a pole system so they can be closed from the inside. Shutters are closed in the daytime, with the louvers adjusted to let in the breeze but keep out the heat. At night, they are opened to let in the cool.
Sliding glass walls can be designed so that half the house will open to the breezes, a trick architect Jerry Mumma used in his own house, as described in Living last Sunday. John Wiebenson used awning windows in his own house, so that the windows can stay open and shield the house during the rain. Richard Ridley often plans his houses with screened ventilation panels, top and bottom. The panels can be blocked in the winter opened in summer.
There are other ways to keep cool by design. You can keep your cool not by burning fuel and dollar bills, but with architecture and decoration. Of course, like everything else, there's an initial investment but the dividends are large enough to pay it back.
Here are some permanent improvements to make to your house to turn down the heat:
Plant a tree. Or two or 20. Deciduous trees on the south and east will block sunlight in the summer, allow heat to come in during the winter. On the west and north side of your house, think about evergreen trees. Evergreens on the north block cold winter winds. On the west, evergreens block the low west sun year around, keeping it from fading your furniture (wood fades too, you know) and your rugs. Trees with light, feathery leaves, such as mimosa, let through the cool breezes.
Dig a fish pond. The bigger the pond, the better. The water evaporation will help to cool things off. Most important, you'll feel cooler for looking at the fish splashing about.
Have an artist build you a fountain. Call the Corcoran School of Art. Go talk to an art gallery. Phone Artist's Equity. All can produce lists of artists who work in concrete, metal and ceramics suitable for fountain. A fountain running day and evening will block out street noises. Nothing is as deliciously cool as the sound of running water. Fountains recirculate water, so the sound is not of dollars swimming away.
Build an arbor. On the east, west and south, encircle your house with an arbor. Even you can build one from 2-by-4's. Sunset's Outdoor Building Book, available at Hechinger's among other places will tell you how. Plant the arbor with wisteria for spectacular May blooms. Or with grapes, so you can have your own chateau bottling. Or for sweet scented nights, climbing roses or jasmine, (but he warned that one southern garden essayist claims jasmine will drive southerners mad with lust).
Shield porches and summer houses with lattice work. Lattice work is sort of a vertical arbor. It makes cool shadows on the floor. You can plant all sorts of vines on lattice to trap the cool. In many tropical countries windows and verandas have grilles to shade.
Build a swimming pool. Make it as big as you can afford. Make it take up the whole back yard, if you can. That way you not only can splash about every day, but you don't have any grass to cut.
Plant more grass. But only if you can't afford to build a moat around your house. Grass isn't as cool as water, but it does keep heat from reflecting back into your house. Black paving around the sunny side of the house has the opposite effect. It collects heat all day and reflects it back to the house at night.
Resurface your roof with white. Light colored roofing will reflect the sun and help keep the house cool. In the winter, of course, the light color won't help you collect solar heat.
Use awnings over windows. Awnings shade the windows in the summer, and can be removed during the winter when you want the sun.
Hang ferns at the windows to help shade the inside.
Buy a hand fan.
Build a courtyard house. The central open court will have a chimney effect, to pull the hot air up and out.
Move north. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Looking for shade? Put a big fern in the window as Rene Carpenter did. Or plant trees like those around Verne Newton's broad porch.; Picture 3, In the summer, porchess and trees help cool this contemporary New York house designed by architects. Alan Buchsbaun and Howard Korensten. By Norman McGrath; Illustrations land 2, no caption, by Winslow Homer