Shelton:If You Can’t Stand the Heat. . . | View to the West
by Peter Shelton
Jun 18, 2007 | 553 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Saturday was the first hot day of summer. I don’t know exactly how hot because our thermometer exaggerates in the afternoon this time of year. It was in the nineties, though. Hot enough.

Mind you, after our relatively cool wet spring, I’m not complaining. To have made it this far into the high-sun season without a real heat wave is a blessing, and I’m grateful. But now that it’s here, Ellen and I have to react quickly. We have to shift into hot-weather mode, closing down and opening up the house with precision timing in order to keep the indoor temperature livable.

We have no air conditioning, you see. We didn’t want it, and we didn’t think we’d need it here, just a dozen miles downriver from – and only about 300 vertical feet lower than – Ridgway, where we lived AC-free for 19 summers. We thought we understood Colona’s climate, but we miscalculated.

We designed our new house to strike a balance, we thought, between winter and summer demands. We tucked it into its little ridge, and took full advantage of the light and the views, especially the oceanic horizon line that is the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west. We knew we wanted lots of windows on the south side to warm the place in winter. And we knew we wanted lots of mass to store that solar gain. So, we poured concrete slab floors and filled most of the walls with concrete, too.

In the winter – and in fact for a good nine to ten months a year – it works like a dream. Our furnace sips propane like Emily Post at a tea party. All that mass changes temperature very slowly; we can leave the thermostats in the lower sixties (in some zones completely off), and the indoor temperature remains pleasant night and day. 

But, it turned out, we designed better for winter than we did for summer. Maybe it was because we knew winter better, after so many years in the high country. We had a healthy fear of cold. What we didn’t appreciate as fully was the way in which all that beautiful glass and all that thermal mass might turn against us.

We might have paid more attention to the old farm houses around here. The old timers designed almost exclusively for summer; they erred on the side of shade. (If it got cold in winter, just toss another lump of coal in the stove.) The important thing was to divert some ditch water and grow huge cottonwood trees around the place, especially on the brutal west side.

We have almost no shade. The ancient, gnarled pinions that are so sculptural in the snow – so nearly human in scale – block only the horizontal sunlight. And on our adobe hill we have no ditch water with which to grow super-thirsty shade trees.

We thought we’d compensate by digging a portion of the house down into the earth and by having all that slow-fluctuating mass to keep us cool. And, with the addition of shades in the windows, it does work. Most of the time. When it doesn’t, fear of frying becomes palpable. Unlike the cold, there’s not much you can do about it short of lying around on the floor without any…oh, never mind.

Here’s the hot-weather drill. When the temps dip around sunset, fling open every window and door with a screen on it to let the night air drag as much heat out of the slab as possible. In the a.m., close the windows and drop the shades on the east side as soon as the sun peaks up above Waterdog. When the outside temp crosses over – that is, becomes higher than the temp inside – it’s time to close down all the windows, to keep the cool air in and the hot air out. Move slowly, drink lots of water and pray for clouds.

I visited a spec house last week that may have solved the winter/summer conundrum. Ridgway’s Tyler VanArsdale is building it in our Beaton Creek neighborhood. His lot has the same shade deficiency ours has, but it’s flatter, so he was able to earth-berm the entire north wall. He was also smart enough to lay the long axis of the house east-west, giving him plenty of south-facing glass and almost none looking east or west. Careful mass and overhang calculations should keep it warm in winter and cool in summer.

Giving me the tour the other day, Tyler said, “Feels air-conditioned, doesn’t it. It isn’t.” It’ll be the perfect house for a forward-thinking, lower-my-carbon-footprint, Prius-driving family looking to get a little ways out of town.

Meanwhile, as we slip sweating into global warming, Ellen and I can only hope for a well-timed cold front. You see, the drill works less and less well as the hot days pile up. Each afternoon the slab gets a little warmer, and each night the slab fails to cool down quite as much. Indoor high temps creep up a little each day, and we don’t dare look at our spectacular western view except before breakfast.

We’re fine for now. But if this heat keeps up into next week, I’m going to Plan B. Ellen found a Chinese military parachute online, and I’m going to hang it off the west-side gable hoping to create a billowing white facsimile of a cottonwood tree.

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