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 4

4) Green Technology, the 2030 plan and Original Green – There are several new city plans including PLANYC (2030 plan) and the Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan that talk at length about a city with intelligently designed transit, water, electrical, communications and other building infrastructure. They also heavily emphasize sustainability goals. I believe the concepts behind the plan are relevant to the city of the future in the extreme. Conservation of resources is not just important environmentally, it is fiscally intelligent as well. The enthusiasm for green technology will continue to drive improvements in the real estate products that can be provided, and I have done my best to stay on top of the subject. I am a LEED Accredited Professional, attended the annual GREENbuild conference and the Congress for the New Urbanism this year and have been exploring a much deeper level of the movement.

I think the USGBC and other rating organizations like it (BREEAM, CASBEE, CaGBC, GreenGlobes, etc.) are achieving meaningful results through the use of standards which (for better or worse) are increasingly becoming law across the globe. International real estate investors need to understand the principles and goals behind these systems as they become increasingly popular in the marketplace and in regulation.

I also believe that the more fundamental solution to our environmental problems comes from a historical understanding of transportation, planning and architecture. Before the US and British industrial revolutions, all energy was expensive. There are literally thousands of years of building tradition in cities from all types of climates all around the world. These traditions incorporate the best practices from generations of master builders and end users. I am very much in favor of technologically modern buildings that make financial sense in the current economy, but I am also very interested learning as much as possible from our ancestors.

This leads to a concept called the Original Green, which discusses the more fundamental issues I’m referring to. As architect and author Steve Mouzon puts it, “If a building cannot be loved, it will not last. And its carbon footprint is absolutely meaningless once its parts have been hauled off to the landfill.” In a nutshell he argues the following:

  1. We must first build sustainable places before it is meaningful to even discuss sustainable buildings.
  2. Sustainable places should be nourishing, accessible, serviceable, and secure.
  3. Sustainable buildings should be lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal.

These tenants encompass the entire green movement and are the universal principals Abu Dhabi 2030 seems to be based on. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is an organization I have been involved with for the past five years. My membership in this organization has provided inspiration and perspective for most of my ideas on environmentalism in the real estate industry. The CNU works to create compact, walkable and diverse places that are inherently sustainable and enjoyable to live in. The Original Green concepts derive from many of the principles discovered by the CNU.