In Houston we have a complex relationship with our home boundaries. We are not quite tropical enough to lose the walls, replacing them with grills covered with greenery, or porches and courtyards that are as much a part of inside as of outside. But for much of the year we are as comfortable outside as inside, at least in the evening. The challenge is to bring that evening air inside and keep it. Another challenge is to keep our warm, humid air moving, so it feels soft and loving rather than heavy as death.
The answer to comfort is a pair of fan types. One type nearly everyone has somewhere, the ceiling fan. We had brown Hunter fans in every room, and they stirred the air of our Houston home for two decades without fail, summer and winter, for once you get used to moving air it is hard to give up. We had the old kind that actually needed oil added every 5 years or so. As we turn our St. Louis home into a Houston home, fans were the first to be added, and we got Energy Star fans with circular fluorescent lights hidden in an old-timey glass. They need to be big, 52 inches or more, and they need to be down from the ceiling, not hugging it. They say 4 blades move more air than 5, but I haven’t explored that myself.
But a ceiling fan will not change the temperature of a room, just our perception of it, perhaps by 5 degrees or so. This isn’t much, but can make a big difference for much of the year. So, how do we actually change the temperature? Well, obviously, by air-conditioning, that energy-greedy often-breaking salvation of the Gulf coast.
There are also softer answers. Nestle your home under shading live oaks, water oaks, or pecans, and hope the next hurricane doesn’t have their name. Actually, biannual thinning, so the branches wave and don’t break in the hurricanes, solves this problem. Our recently-thinned water oak and live oak lost only leaves and twigs during Ike, and our roof was unscathed. But I digress.
There is another green way to change the temperature. They used to call them attic fans, and every home had one. You sometimes see them still, or see the louvers that cover them. They live in the ceiling and are large industrial-looking fans that pull the air from an entire house up into the attic, and out through the attic vents. Every home in Knollwood Village, between Stella Link and Lorrie south of South Braeswood, had one. These homes were built in the 1950s, maybe the attic fan peak.
These fans, quite simply, are amazing. They let you pull the cooling night air inside, cooling you, the walls, every eddie of air in your home. Just open two or three windows, or a window in every inhabited room, and run that fan all night long. In the morning, turn the fan off, shut the windows, and enjoy that night air all day long. If you do have to run the AC, it won’t be for more than a couple of afternoon hours.
OK, full disclosure, this doesn’t really work from mid June to mid September, when our nights don’t drop to 80. Then you need to give in to the metal AC beast unless your home is as carefully built as Rick and Therese’s. But that still leaves potentially steamy April, May, first half of June, second half of September, and October as prime attic fan months. We use it nearly all year long.
Why, why, oh why did they so go out of fashion? Was it the AC salesmen? Was it the days our city smells of the sulfurous ship channel industry, or the sewage plants along Braes Bayou? Was it laziness? Were our windows painted shut? Why? We put an attic fan in when we built a new home a couple decades ago, so they still exist. We had several models to choose from when we installed the attic fan in our St. Louis home. Be careful when you ask for an attic fan, because people confuse them with those twirling things on the roof that ventilate the attic. We call them whole house fans for clarity these days.
The perfect Houston home, modest or engorged, has a ceiling fan in every room and a frequently-used whole house fan. It is nestled under a live oak or a water oak. Maybe there is a palmetto in a wet spot in the yard, and a prehistoric looking magnolia for the kids to climb. If it is too hot to have friends over, you can always meet them at the ice-house picnic tables where you can have a beer, and a taco.
So, the perfect Houston home has moving air, inside by the ceiling fans, and outside-in by the whole-house fan.