Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't ignore wisdom of builders of yore

HOW are you coping with the warm and humid nights these days?

Friends of mine who live on the upper floors of condo blocks were glad it rained over the past few evenings.

One chap, who stays on the top floor, confessed that he managed to get a good night's sleep because his air conditioner was on from dusk to dawn.

Of course, he also mentioned the nightmare that comes with his monthly electricity bill.

I suppose, if you are living in the city, air conditioner use is unavoidable. You need them just as much as you need your satellite television or Internet access.

On warm nights, I miss the cool comfort of the timber houses I grew up in when my family stayed in Kuala Terengganu in the 1970s.

Our house was built on cengal stilts and roofed with atap bata -- quarter-inch thick pentagon-shaped tiles made of sun-baked or fired clay.

Atap bata was preferable to atap nipah (palm frond roofing) because it needed less maintenance, was cleaner and did not harbour pests such as centipedes, scorpions and poisonous spiders. And, it kept the house cool most of the time.

But houses, in those days, did not depend entirely on clay-tile roofing to stay cool. Our house stood on stilts which kept it high above floodwaters during the monsoon season.

The raised construction also made the house airy and gave us a kolong (Malay term for the area beneath the house). It could be used as a garage, tool shed or drying area when it rained continuously.

The stilts were not planted into the ground but sat on foot-high granite blocks.

The builders did that to prevent moisture from weakening the hardwood and fend off termite attacks. White ant trails on granite could be spotted easily and removed.

The smaller houses in our village were also easy to move. It only took 50 or so adults to move house, literally.

If you have slept on mengkuang mats in a raised timber house, you would agree there is little need for air conditioners.

Cold air seeping through the timber floorboards is enough to get you to slumber land quickly, save for nights when rude awakenings came in the form of mosquitoes.

A friend who lived in a colonial-style brick house told me that the bricks kept his house as cool as a cave during the day. At night, the walls lost the heat built up during the day just as fast because the house had plenty of air vents.

The kitchen was airy and well-lit because its walls were made of vented bricks that provided ventilation and allowed natural light to come in.

Studying some of the features of old houses and buildings, one can't help but wonder if the builders of yesteryear knew their jobs better. If building technology was the yardstick, they certainly couldn't have been more skilled. Nor, did they have access to better materials.

Workplaces and homes may be more technologically equipped today but it usually doesn't take much more than switching off the electricity to leave us hot under the collar.

Perhaps we can look to the construction work of builders in the past and learn something from them, such as utilitarian commonsense.

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