Domestic life in the past was smelly, cold, dirty and uncomfortable, but we have much to learn from it. I spend much of my time working as a curator in Britain’s historic royal palaces. But recently, for a television series, I’ve visited a lot of normal homes dating from the Norman period to the present day, and I’ve concluded that the houses of the past have a huge amount to teach us about the future. When the oil runs out, I think our houses will become much more like those of our low-tech, pre-industrial ancestors.
The first point is that the age of specialised rooms is over. Now, legislation governing the design of new houses contains echoes of the past: it insists that once again rooms should multi-task. The living room, for instance, must have space for a bed in case the occupant becomes incapacitated; medieval people, for instance, lived, ate and slept in one room – as I do, in my open-plan flat.
Next, 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.
Speaking as someone who saves a lot of her energy by living sort of like a medieval person (or like a Colonial American), it isn’t that uncomfortable. The house is a lot cooler than a conventional home – but then again, we wear warm wooly clothes and hang out together by the stove in the winter. The composting toilet doesn’t smell. The very non-medieval closed stove is a big old improvement on the open fireplace, and we manage to keep a large, rambling farmhouse, some portions of it distinctly under insulated (we’re working on it, it is an expensive process) warm on less than 3 cords of wood per year. We don’t have shutters, we have window pop-ins and insulated curtains – although shutters would be cool. Frankly, I’m grateful for some post-medieval appropriate technology inventions, but the larger point stands.
Old houses have a lot to teach us. Think about the merits of small spaces when the big ones are cold. We’ve seen a drastic rise in per-person space over the last 70 years – in 1950 the average person had 250 square feet per person in their home (and that was a lot compared to much of the past), now we have more than 850. Or consider the culture of a house where everyone centers around the fire and the active kitchen, where domestic work is done.
My 125 year old American house isn’t in a British medieval village – it is out in the countryside – but we know from American history that given the necessity of the limits of feet, horses and bicycles, our tiny area would develop the small shop, the pub, the other community necessities, as villages somehow always do. After all, everything old is new again!