Few properties are perfectly adaptable to all local climatic conditions that it experiences. A house that is just the right temperature in both summer and winter, not too humid or to dry is a rare thing. Typically, to combat uncomfortable conditions in a house, the inhabitants will use appliances. However, the majority of these appliances use fossil fuel energy – be they central heating systems or air conditioning units. As permaculturists we are always looking for ways to reduce our consumption of energy that contributes to global warming by burning fossil fuels. As such, rather than turning on an appliance, we look at less energy-intensive means to ameliorate our environments. Fortunately, techniques and principles within permaculture enable us to tackle common problems within houses in a more sustainable manner.
If the air inside a house gets too dry it can cause those living with to have irritated skin and sinus problems. Over time the low levels of moisture in the air can cause the membranes of the respiratory system to dry out and so leave it more likely to become infected by cold and flu germs. The best way to add humidity to a room is to place plants within it. The transpiration of moisture that occurs during photosynthesis means that water vapour is released into the room from the underside of the plants’ leaves. This can also aid the air quality of the room in general, as the plants give off oxygen. Because water evaporates from the surface of bodies of water, an indoor pond can help add to the humidity (although it is best to only build one that can be supplied with harvested rainwater, rather than the municipal system). You can also hand a load of wet laundry in the room to harvest the water that evaporates from the clothes as they dry. Another consideration to raise humidity is to channel air from an adjacent greenhouse into the room. Greenhouses have humid atmospheres as they encourage high rates of transpiration in the plants inside, so using ducts to transfer this air to a less humid location can make a significant difference.
If your house is too humid – it has too much water vapour in the air – it is prone to fungal growth and molds. The first remedy to try is opening the windows. This allows air to circulate around the room, displacing the humid air and mixing it with drier air. It is a particularly effective technique if you have windows at either ends of a room, allowing for cross ventilation. However, sometimes, particularly in the colder winter months, aerating the room in this manner is not ideal. You could consider a fan to circulate the air in the room, although it should ideally be a solar powered model to avoid using electricity from the mains.
Too Hot in Summer
If your property experiences high temperatures during the summer months, this is an important factor to take into account when making your initial permaculture design, as you can use planting techniques to reduce the effect on the house. Adding pergolas and vines to the exterior of the house can help to reduce the temperature inside by absorbing energy from the sun hitting the house. Planting one or more deciduous trees provides shade – and when they shed their leaves in the winter, allows the winter sun to reach the property and so help prevent it becoming too cold. As with humidity, if there is a breeze blowing outside, opening the windows to allow air to circulate in the room can help to lower temperatures, although if the air temperature is very high it may have no discernable effect. A fan can also help, but again it should ideally be solar powered. If you are designing a new property sited in area that experiences hit summers, consider including breezeways and corridors that encourage the movement of air around the house in the design.
Too Cold in Winter
A house that experiences cold temperatures in winter should be insulated. This is the most efficient way of reducing energy consumption, as any heat that is added to the house is contained within it for much longer, meaning appliances can be used less frequently or at a low temperature. Double-glazing also substantially reduces energy consumption. You might also consider siting your greenhouse or even your chicken coop adjacent to the property as the heat from the glasshouse or the birds can warm the home. If designing a new property consider creating large windows or predominantly glass walls on the sides that receive the most sunlight, while in established properties, use heavy curtains over the windows during the night to preserve heat inside the house. Another reason houses get cold is that they experience strong winds. Consider planting windbreaks to divert the worst of the wind.
Pollutants in the house can be a problem, particularly for those living in urban areas, where proximity to other buildings and to traffic can mean lower air quality. This effect can be made worse if, for instance, a member of the household smokes. A good way to reduce pollutants (and the odours that often accompany them) is to place a lot of dense, fine-leafed plants in the home. Not only do these, like all plants, increase the air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and other polluting gases like methane and emitting oxygen, their leaves can help filter out pollutant particles from the air. If the odours from pollutants in the home are persistent they can cling to clothes. Switching to natural fibres rather than manmade fabrics reduces the odour, as manmade fibres tend to absorb more pollutants.
Another common problem in urban areas is noise. Excessive noise from neighbouring properties can usually be sorted out by discussing it with the parties involved (or with the authorities if no agreement can be reached), but noise is often intrusive simply from elements such as traffic or construction. Fences are one way to block noise, as are tall trees. Adding double-glazing to the windows will dramatically reduce sound passing into the house.