Schvitzing in a Winter Wonderland

It’s winter…

The view from inside.

…in Israel.

Winter in Israel means wind.
Winter in Israel means rain.
Winter in Israel means hail.
Winter in Israel means cold.
Winter in Israel means galoshes and mittens.
Winter in Israel means down coats and wool-lined boots.

But, above all else, winter in Israel means bundling up … before you go inside!

Winter in Israel is one of those unnatural wonders of the world. It’s the time of year when average temperature outside hovers around 9°, while average indoor temperature is inconveniently a significant 5° less. During the day, the sun often beats done mercilessly forcing us to peel off our morning winter apparel layer by layer. By evening, the chill sets in again. But, no matter the time of day, most buildings are freezing cold. So while winter in Israel is indeed wind and rain and hail and cold and galoshes and mittens and coats and wool-lined boots, there is so much more…

Winter in Israel means cold feet and colder fingers

… inside.

Winter in Israel means fewer showers

… because the house is freezing.

Winter in Israel means uneven heating

… so your left side freezes while your right side is drenched in sweat.

Winter in Israel means frigid walls and frozen floors

… that make jumping into the freezer sound tempting.

Winter in Israel mean t-shirts outside and down coats inside.

Enough said.

The situation is inconceivable! But it could be different.

Let’s first understand how the buildings got that way. We could start pre-Crusaders, but for that we have Wikipedia. For our purposes, we’ll start with 1948. The War of Independence. Israel is flooded with immigrants. New housing is needed. And fast. But Israel is a little short on traditional building materials such is wood. So, in Brutalist architectural style, they begin to raise veritable tenements, which, in effect, consist of angular concrete slabs with holes for windows and little character to boot.

Fast forward to the last few minutes of 2010. And we’re still using concrete slabs. Why? Are they really that suitable for the Israeli climate? Last I checked, winter is unbearable and summer is no better! Wikipedia tells us that concrete is a composite construction material composed of cement and other cementitious materials such as fly ash and slag cement, aggregate (generally a coarse aggregate made of gravels or crushed rocks such as limestone, or granite, plus a fine aggregate such as sand), water, and chemical admixtures. Chemicals. That’s nice. Even if they say that concrete has thermal mass properties that insulate buildings to maintain a steady indoor temperature during daily temperature fluctuations, I can tell you with great confidence and anecdotal certainty that concrete drains heat from buildings during the winter, turning a medium of self-protection into a bona fide igloo. And I don’t like chemicals.

In my opinion, concrete, a man-made material, does not make the cut.

So what are the alternatives?

Believe it or not, houses weren’t always made of concrete as we know it. Ancient cultures used other aggregates to construct edifices to protect them from the elements. Initially, STRAW BALE was used by builders in Paleolithic Africa, and then made a comeback in the 19th century. The problem with straw is that it is not particularly rain-resistant or suitable to humid climates. As such, the structure must be built on a raised platform, and a large overhanging roof is needed to protect against the rain. As a further precaution, the walls may be coated with clay, plaster, cement, or stucco, which also increases thermal mass.

Straw is nice. If you live in the driest place on earth. So let’s look at another possible building material: COB. Cob makes use of straw bale, but combines it with clay, earth, sand, and water. The ingredients are kneaded together by stomping on them and then constructed into two foot thick walls. Cob has a good thermal mass, but is not a good insulator. Nevertheless, it handles temperature fluctuations well, but requires increased insulation for consistently cold climates.

Cob, perhaps in addition to straw insulation, is an improvement. But let’s give it one more go: RAMMED EARTH HOUSES. Rammed earth walls range in thickness, but start at about 1 foot thick. Want an example? How about the Great Wall of China for starters! The method is similar to cob in that it’s a mixture of clay, sand, and gravel. But with rammed earth, composition is key. Rammed earth houses are more suitable to wet and humid climates, and are agreeable with colder weather if appropriate insulation is used. A company I came across in a Googling spree constructs rammed earth houses by sandwiching 4 inches of rigid insulation between two rammed earth walls. They claim that rammed earth on its own is not a good insulator, but, combined with the insulation, keeps dwellers warm and toasty during the dark winter months.

At the end of the day, if we build our homes out of plastic garbage bags, it’s bound to keep us nice and hot, though I can’t guarantee that it would be ideal for summer. Anywhere. But the point of exploring alternative housing materials is to bring us back to earth. Literally. Let’s reconnect with the planet and start building peaceful homes that work for us while working with the land.

One day, I will live in a home that provides comfortable temperature regulation while being kind to the earth.

And how about you? Would you live in a house of straw?

Leave your comments below.

Stay Warm!

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