03 Nov Sustainable Interior Design is Not New
As you know, sustainability is something we care deeply about here at down2earth Interior Design. When our wonderful design consultant Stephanie returned from a trip with all sorts of interesting facts about ancient civilizations employing sustainable building techniques, we had to share.
Recently, I took a trip to Greece with my family and got to wander the narrow streets of Santorini. The largest island in the Cyclades archipelago, Santorini is a popular tourist destination known for its iconic, whitewashed buildings that scatter the coastline. If you are expecting Santorini to be a lush island with lots of greenery, you’ll be disappointed. Around 1600 BCE, the island of Santorini was devasted by a volcanic eruption. It is thought to have been one of the largest volcanic events in human history. As a result, the island was covered in a thick layer of lava and ash. In addition to the volcanic conditions of the island, Santorini experiences strong winds and lots of sun. You are probably thinking, what does this have to do with interior design and sustainability? There are a few ways that Santorini’s natural environment shaped the way early inhabitants built their cities and, although at the time this was out of necessity, implemented some sustainable practices that we see today.
Due to the steep coastline of the island, they created a compact, vertical urban layout. The streets are narrow and no space is left unused. Many times, the roof of one building is the veranda for another building. The people building houses worked with the natural structure of the island and nestled their homes into the cliffs and one another, which in turn helped protect them from the harsh natural conditions like like, the sun, wind, and earthquakes. This technique also allowed the builders of Santorini to fit more in a smaller amount of space. Compact cities are one of the most sustainable ways we can build cities today as the practice allows for better access to public transportation and greater energy efficiency.
The interior design of most buildings features a narrow, but deep layout, as the builders were able to carve into the soft rock of the cliffside. This created a cave-like design that helped regulate the temperature inside homes. Both the building material and way the buildings are constructed help to keep the interiors cool in the summer and trap in the heat during the winter.
The volcanic soil does not support the growth of vegetation like trees, and getting lumber to the island was difficult and expensive, so early inhabitants sought to locally source building materials. What was abundant on the island was lava stone and ash. They used lava stone covered in plaster as the main structure and used volcanic ash as mortar for reinforcement. Thus, creating solid, thick masonry walls. Because lava stone is a porous material, it does not transfer heat well. So, in the summer it efficiently keeps the heat out and, in the winter, traps the heat in. A small side note about lava stone is that it can be a wonderful and sustainable option for kitchen countertops.
These building materials also influenced how the buildings were constructed. Unlike the wood-frame construction of our homes now, the materials on Santorini island work well with construction methods that focused on compression, thus you see buildings featuring iconic domes and arched vaults incorporated into the interior design.
This construction also gave much smaller openings for windows, another way energy efficiency was achieved. Not only did the smaller openings help reduce the loss of interior heat during the winter, it also helped harness the strong winds of Santorini and provide ventilation during the summer. You’ll also find a lot of courtyards and streets with raised walls which help to protect outdoor spaces from the wind and give a reprieve from the sun’s heat. Since solar radiation is intense, especially in the summer, whitewashing the exteriors help to reduce the solar load on the exterior and interior design.
For thousands of years, the locals in Santorini had been using the materials and conditions from the island to shape how they built their homes. It is a great example of how the environment can influence our design choices from what materials we use, how we layout our communities, and also how we can create beautiful spaces while we work towards a more sustainable future.