“Domestic life in the past was smelly, cold, dirty and uncomfortable, but we have much to learn from it … When the oil runs out, I think our houses will become much more like those of our low-tech, pre-industrial ancestors.”

Lucy Worsely, in the Guardian Weeklywrites:

Domestic life in the past was smelly, cold, dirty and uncomfortable, but we have much to learn from it … When the oil runs out, I think our houses will become much more like those of our low-tech, pre-industrial ancestors.

architectural features from the past will start to reappear. The chimney disappeared in the 20th century, but it’s coming back, as solid fuel-burning stoves make a return. In terms of fuel conservation the sun is becoming important again too: once upon a time people selected sites with good “air”; now well thought-out houses are situated to minimise solar gain in summer and maximise it in winter. Most future houses will need to face south, a challenge to conventional street layout.

The return of the chimney also serves to allow natural ventilation — even where there aren’t fireplaces — lifting stale air out of the house. Mechanical air conditioning uses valuable energy, and will soon be simply unaffordable.

Walls are getting thicker too, again like those in the medieval era. Buildings then had thick walls because they were easier to build — but also because they provided good insulation. Windows will grow smaller again and houses will contain much less glass — not only because of the high energy costs of glass but because it's thermally inefficient.

The return of the shutter is also likely: it’s the best way of keeping heat out of a house. And with a hotter climate we’ll probably experience water shortages. Our daily water consumption is about 160 litres; the government expects us to get down to 80 — the equivalent of a deep bath — by the end of this decade. We’ll eventually need to grow as water-thrifty as the Victorians, with an average use of 20 litres a day. The Victorian cook was also a terrific recycler of food; the earth or “midden” toilet has already been revived in the form of the ecologically sound composting loo.

There's also a revival in the use of natural building materials, substances with small environmental footprints like wood, wool insulation and lime mortar. In the last decade timber-framed houses have started to sprout up across Britain.


The dwindling of natural resources will force us to change. But that need not frighten us: the pleasures of domesticity are perennial. As Dr Johnson put it, “to be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition”.

Well, I thought it was interesting, and lovely, too. Perhaps because I, myself, am trying to recycle the Kiwi equivalent: a c1890 settler’s cottage.

Chat amongst yourselves; go on, I dare you. Try it. Or just promise me you'll think about it, anyway ...

Comments (14)

by Claire Browning on April 28, 2011
Claire Browning

Hello Claire. Great post - totally nailed it, and I like how you hardly wrote any of it, too.

Now, where was I? Oh yes ... I suppose it shows, doesn't it, that there's more than one way of doing things: newer ain't always smarter, although, I am looking out my window at the Meridian building, which is supposed to be quite clever. 

Does anyone think CERA might be interested?

by Greg Dawson on April 28, 2011
Greg Dawson

There was a reason we moved away from solid fuel burning stoves in every house.

I'm curious how we're going to reconcile efficient solar power and increasing smog from sold fuels - or is this just another case of "abandon all tech ye who enter here" on the strength of a few aspects of the past that seem rosy?

by Claire Browning on April 28, 2011
Claire Browning

is this just another case of "abandon all tech ye who enter here" on the strength of a few aspects of the past that seem rosy?


There was a reason we moved away from solid fuel burning stoves in every house.

Did we?

by Antoine on April 28, 2011


Do you think domestic electricity will get much more expensive (say double the present price) in New Zealand any time soon?

I would guess not.

So I would expect people will still be able to go on heating their houses using heat pumps. And then there's wood pellet fires, and solar water heating, and etc etc.

So I don't see the need for dwellings to be built on the assumption that there will be no heating or cooling available.

And do we really think we're going to run out of drinking water, steel and concrete as well?


P.S. But I'm sure your 1890s cottage is nice

by on April 28, 2011

Hi Claire

I read the same article and it made me pretty happy as I have been harping on about this for a while (and not just cause I am the proud owner of a 1920s bach!). The UK in particular has gone a bit techno-fix crazy in the past with their 'sustainable' housing policies... Their new buildings stuffed with, and reliant on, high-tech electronics are going to be very dated very quickly. 

The issue is not that electricity prices will rise to impossible levels in the short-term, nor that we'll run out of nice, energy-efficient heatpumps and 'clean' log burners any time soon - in fact, I hope that these technologies will be available for a long time to come. The real issue is that housing is built to last at least 50, more likely over 100 (the one my grandmother was born in in Austria was an alpine peasant house over 300 years old) years, and that we WILL undoubtedly run out of resources to heat the idiotic, badly designed and flimsy boxes we are currently building.

It's all about smart building design and location, we have known this stuff for centuries but for some reason have decided to forget it and build giant McMansions that face the wrong way, are under-insulated, over-reliant on technology and filled with moisture, allergens and toxic substances, including from appliances and furniture that are off-gassing into badly-ventilated spaces that make us and our families sick.

I believe we can combine the best of the old and the new and build truly 'sustainable', healthy and comfortable homes that don't lack any of the services that we're used to, they just derive them from renewable and less polluting sources and smarter design.

Heatpumps, PVs and 'smart home' technologies are all made from finite resources, thinking that we're just going to upgrade our bad housing stock and fill it with these technologies is not a workable long-term solution.

by Claire Browning on April 28, 2011
Claire Browning


If you must know the sad truth about what was actually going on in my head this morning, it was that I got a bit seduced by Dr Johnson's last sentence, and it was all on after that.

However, there was also some method in it!

No, I don't support the "assumption [entirely your own, btw] that there will be no heating or cooling available", or any of your other dread propositions.

If Sea hadn't already defended so adequately, I would've been happy to, as follows:

  1. It's not about "running out of" steel, concrete, heat pumps, etc, it's their resource-intensiveness - pausing for a minute, to ask, could we do this smarter, cost-free, including externalised costs?
  2. Re: electricity, my interest in minimising its use has stuff all to do with its price, domestically, as opposed to environmentally. Every generation method costs, be it a river, a marine environment, a pristine ridgeline, or whatever. Every tech solution ditto.
by Draco T Bastard on April 28, 2011
Draco T Bastard

a c1890 settler’s cottage.

No thanx, I've lived in some of those. Cold and draughty would be the best thing you could say about them.Although, they were warmer than the 1970s designed house I'm living in now.

There are better ways to build homes than the flimsy and cold methods that we use today that have been brought about by cost cutting and housing standard minimums that don't push the boundaries of knowledge. Building with thick, well insulated walls and double or triple glazing. Use of natural heating and cooling combined with small but efficient heat pumps to keep a house at a comfortable temperature.

There's much that we can do to make better houses but the government seems to be more listening to the corporations that want to build cheap houses that are expensive to run (which pushes up prices and profits) rather than the more rational expensive to build but cheap to run houses.

by Claire Browning on April 28, 2011
Claire Browning
Nonsense, Draco. Snug as the proverbial. Holds warmth 24 hours, only half insulated (wool, double layer, ceiling). Catches sun, all day. Possibly helps that the woodburner is ex-house three times larger ...
by Antoine on April 28, 2011

> pausing for a minute

You mentioned CERA. I don't see a lot of "pausing for a minute" in Christchurch - from here it looks more like a rush to get some new housing in the ground.

What are they doing down there to build good (comfortable, energy-efficient, sustainable) solutions? Or what should they be doing?


P.S. Johnson also said "A peasant has not the capacity for having equal happiness with a philosopher."

by Antoine on April 28, 2011

... Ha! Your quote was misleading! Johnson didn't think people should stay home in the evening, he wanted them to go to the PUB.

"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn."

by Claire Browning on April 29, 2011
Claire Browning
Hm, well you've got me there ... but I still think he sounds like a dude, possibly even more so.
by tussock on May 01, 2011
Ah, the future. Expect death, taxes, and extinction long before the sun grows large and boils the oceans. Also: fuel shortages, water rationing, food stamps, and the great men of the world fighting wars at a thousand times the cost of whatever it is they're fighting over (which will turn out to be not at all important any more once they're finished). Read about post-callapse Russia yet? Dmitri Orlov? Interesting times when the government waves the white flag and leaves y'all to it. Good luck.
by Antoine on May 01, 2011

More on Orlov here:


When the crunch comes, it hits hard, and you don't even see it coming. Interesting times.


by danniel on March 07, 2013

I doubt we'll ever get back to those days, once the society has progressed that far it won't turn back to what it was. Today decorating your home has became so easy, I don't think we have anything to worry about, we'll find solutions.

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