The Alpine Guru blog’s newest contributor James Ferguson runs Swiss and UK companies specialising in control diagnostics for sophisticated buildings. Generally clients are of rather larger buildings (The Tower of London, for example) but as your home is your castle do drop into his blog and you will find a warm welcome. Over to you James…
As I sit down to write this this on Saturday 17th December 2011, the first snows have arrived in Niederried, in the Bernese Oberland where I aimed to live ever since as a boy I saw ABBA performing at a “Snowtime Special” for the BBC in Leysin. That was during my first school skiing trip and that was, as you may imagine, a few years back.
So I grew up and learned a trade – environmental control of buildings, little knowing that it would soon become important to my first love, the Alps, and even permit me to fulfil that childhood ambition.
Having seen the Rhône gletscher retreat over thirty years, I do worry for the snow – but like “Arnie” I am quite sure it will be back one day.
How much better though if we can stop it going altogether. Alpine Guru kindly asked me to write a little about sustainability in the context of Alpine buildings as many of you are quite passionate on the subject (sustainability rather than buildings I assume). So while nobody wants to read a textbook during a vacation, we can surely confess that after a Raclette or a good Fondue, it’s not a bad thing to be armed with some knowing tidbits to exchange in friendly banter over the brandy or perhaps a schoggie baetzli (Hot chocolate with home-distilled pear schnapps – yum). So here I am to offer what I am able…
Disclaimer: I was once advised in Tignes that one should prefer to debate subjects during holidays where one enjoys little or no real knowledge, the better to forge the mettle of ones’ rhetoric – Translating, a skiing holiday is a license to shade the hue – from true blue that looked red, to darkest black. In exactly that spirit I trust you leave this foray into the sustainable design of Alpine buildings as over-confident as a holiday skier discussing skiing this couloir, that sadly “I just didn’t have time for.”
So all, rather surprisingly, boils down to a little etymology – in England we build buildings, whereas in the Alps they construct chalets. What’s a chalet? – “a wooden shelter with a gently sloping roof and widely overhanging lateral eaves, generally south facing that is common in Switzerland and other Alpine regions.”
Key to that mouthful is the Indo-European root of chalet – “cala” that which means shelter.
If chalets are inherently Alpine; what then is an alp? My neighbour informed me in rather exquisite English that an alp is, and I quote, “the summer mountain residence of a cow”. So where Bergkäse is simply mountain cheese (milk from the alp processed into cheese in the valley), a genuine Alpkäse is cheese made by the traditional senner on the alp (think Heidi, Grandfather and Peter the goatherd perhaps) So, Alpkase is worth paying a little extra if you care for the beauty of rural alpine traditions.
To return to my thread, a chalet is a shelter, of wood, with a gently sloping roof on an alp. And an alp is infamously cold or it might otherwise be the winter mountain residence of a cow. So lets break down some aspects of efficient design regarding sustainability.
Now your acquisition rate of snippets of extra-ordinary knowledge can accelarate like a skier taking air off the Hundschopf (9.82 meters per second squared or 1g – it’s what we have all fallen for)
Insulation is naturally key to sustainable building and is measured in the poetically named units of Meter-squared-Kelvin per-Watt-inches or the R-value: In short it stops heat flowing. The best insulation I can think of is the SIGG vacuum flask (used for keeping hot-toddy hot). It is about five times better than the ski-jacket – Thinsulate, but we can see how these stack up. With building materials, thinsulate is about another five times better than the best possible building material.
It is probably hard, and rather expensive, to build a chalet of Thinsulate or SIGG flasks great products though they are – so what are the best building materials of all? – Ask an Inuit if you cannot interpret the chart below.
As far as both sustainability and good looks are concerned we really must ask what not to build with – in short as we see that both glass and concrete suck hard – and although my Granny (bless her) thought otherwise – “suckhard” is not how you pronounce a famous Swiss chocolate brand and anyway my wife prefers Ballenberg chocolate.
So, if budget is available build with bulk hardwood with high tech insulative lining, followed by softwood and miles down the line thereafter – modern bulk materials.
Another aspect of a gently sloping roof is that heat does not “pool” in the eaves – where it escapes faster, rather it is spread across the roof area near head height so it is appreciated and circulates as it cools down over the walls, to the floor where believe it or not we humans tolerate cold better.
Southern, facing with wide eaves, why ? Firstly the sun, and the wide eaves means that sun, that is low on the horizon in winter sees much of the front facade, and is partly trapped by the eaves, and in summer, the high sun provides welcome shade to the warmest point of the house the southern high points. More obviously Dach-lavinen (roof avalanches) are prevented from shooting to the front of the house, and the path is sheltered from snowfall for ease of access.
What about internal temperature settings. Colder than you are used to at home particulalry at night – for several reasons, with exercise you sleep more deeply (and your body temperature drops). Why does it drop ? You are less active, you lie flat so you lose heat less rapidly, you have cosier clothes, and there are sources of humidity which in the warmth means mugginess and potentially mold. However, a roaring fire is de-rigeur, there are expert services that can check its efficiency, but one of the single greatest sources of heat loss is an unclosed chimney. Most alpine chimneys have vent flaps of one sort or another, and they make a huge difference.
Mark Twain recommended the German oven – and I do too, though the maintenance cost is not insignificant it is a ceramic source of joy which we use in our house, heating only from wood we cut ourselves. Mr Twain exaggerates a little in this wonderfully partisan account from ‘Europe and Elsewhere’: -
“Take the German stove, for instance … where can you find it outside of German countries? I am sure I have never seen it where German was not the language of the region. Yet it is by long odds the best stove and the most convenient and economical that has yet been invented.
To the uninstructed stranger it promises nothing; but he will soon find that it is a masterly performer, for all that. It has a little bit of a door which seems foolishly out of proportion to the rest of the edifice; yet the door is right; for it is not necessary that bulky fuel shall enter it. Small-sized fuel is used, and marvelously little at that. The door opens into a tiny cavern which would not hold more fuel that a baby could fetch in its arms. The process of firing is quick and simple. At half past seven on a cold morning the servant brings a small basketful of slender pine sticks – say a modified armful – and puts half these in, lights them with a match, and closes the door. They burn out in ten or twelve minutes. He then puts in the rest and locks the door, and carries off the key. The work is done. He will not come again until the next morning.
All day long and until past midnight all parts of the room will be delightfully warm and comfortable, and there will be no headaches and no sense of closeness or oppression. In an American room, whether heated by steam, hot water, or open fires, the neighborhood of the register or the fireplace is warmest – the heat is not equally diffused throughout the room; but in a German room one is as comfortable in one part of it as in another. Nothing is gained or lost by being near the stove. Its surface is not hot; you can put your hand on it anywhere and not get burnt.
Consider these things. One firing is enough for the day; the cost is next to nothing; the heat produced is the same all day, instead of too hot and too cold by turns; one may absorb himself in his business and peace; he does not need to feel any anxieties or solicitudes about his fire; his whole day is a realized dream of bodily comfort.
America could adopt this stove, but does America do it? The American wood stove, of whatsoever breed, it is a terror. There can be no tranquility of mind where it is. It requires more attention than a baby. It has to be fed every little while, it has to be watched all the time; and for all reward you are roasted half your time and frozen the other half. It warms no part of the room but its own part; it breeds headaches and suffocation, and makes one’s skin feel dry and feverish; and when your wood bill comes in you thin you have been supporting a volcano.
We have in America many and many a breed of coal stove also – fiendish things, everyone of them. The base burner sort are heady and require but little attention, but none of them distributes its heat uniformly through the room, or keeps it at an unwavering temperature, or fails to take the life out of the atmosphere and leave it stuffy and smothery and stupefying.
Build naturally, build locally & build to last. Traditions work, poor goatherds avoided unnecessary labour. Combined with Alpine charm, and newer technologies as appropriate, your alpine home should be a joy. And if you really care, forget the heli-skiing, try instead skinning from hut-to-hut with a guide. It offers joys, warmth and a traditional cosiness that you will never forget, rounded off with lashings of tall-tales, virgin powder and a glow on your cheeks that comes from the heart.