The Roman Domus as a Caribbean Urban Housing Solution

A two thousand year old solution to passive cooling and rainwater collection in warm climates.

I’ve been on a bit of a kick right now learning about the Roman Domus; an ancient urban housing solution from about 2000 years ago. It all started with a simple question. Why do they have a pool of water (impluvium) in the center of the living room (atrium) like that?Well, it turns out that the impluvium is a much more functional feature than I realized. It’s actually a remarkable rainwater collection, storage and home cooling device all rolled into one. If you’re looking for the best sustainability solutions, and I think we all should be, it makes a lot of sense to look to the past. To a time when fossil fuels were still locked in their original state and people had to make every day human life work without them. Once we’ve scoured the past for amazing resource saving ideas, then by all means fire up your gas oven or take a flight halfway around the world. Let’s use our resources to their highest and best purpose. 

In this post I’ll address timeless issues, like rainwater collection, greywater systems, passive cooling, sustainable finance, and suggest some modern layout improvements to the domus for use in our lives today.

In short, ancient Romans collected rainwater from their roofs, filtered it through a sand filter and stored it in a subterranean cistern for later use in home cooling and cleaning. All for free. Let’s look at how we might reap some of the same benefits from clever design today. According to this handy Reddit thread: 

Households usually collected their own rainwater from the roof to supplement aqueduct supply. The first rains would be allowed to run off the roof into a basin (impluvium) in the atrium of the house, and out through a drain into the street. Once the rain had washed the roof clean, the drain to the street was stopped-up, and another hole in the impluvium basin was opened to allow clean rainwater to fill the cistern. Usually the cistern mouth had a sediment trap on it as well, so that only clean rainwater would get into the holding tank.

Like so:

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Direction of the Industry: Part 2

2) BIMBuilding Information Modeling is possibly the most revolutionary technology in the history of design and real estate project finance. It is still a technological toddler, but the first developer, investment group or architect to properly use it will reap huge rewards. The principle is simple. Instead of creating a voluminous set of drawings and construction specifications, create a precise computer model of the building or renovation. The ideal software will generate the construction documents, error and omission free.

Because the model has every component that the physical construction will have, it should be easy for the software to count quantities and compare them to online directories of cost data. This gives owners, investors and architects the ability to price proposed changes in real time. It also has the potential to calculate schedule changes, zoning or code compliance and several other major hiccups common in the building process due to proposed changes.

AutoCAD Revit software is a popular choice, but several systems exist. Some examples of successful projects using the technology can be found on the AIA’s website here.

Using BIM, will open developers and investors up to a much more flexible design environment. In my time working for Bovis Lend Lease on several of Extell Development’s projects, I realized that one of the things Extell does very well, is work hard to please it’s clients (the condo buyer) through customization. Extell was on the cutting edge in NYC of customizable new construction. While at BLL, I oversaw several major unit combinations, partition modifications and finish changes, and every single one of them was a construction coordination nightmare. The cost of modifications to a building as it is being built is astronomical primarily because the design is static. The construction documents have to be manually adjusted with each change, and when something is inevitably missed, it costs the builder and the owner money. Until BIM, there was no conceivable way a design team could effectively find every drawing and specification that each change affects and make the required notations in the middle of the project cycle. That is all starting to change.

The the potential value of predictable changes to investors, developers and buyers is enormous. Soon homes, apartments and offices will be as easy to customize as tennis shoes, and the developer most capable of doing it will reap serious financial rewards.