Your suburban home is probably terribly designed. Here’s why.

A recent call with my sister reminded me how much modern home design lets people down—and how good they could be.

high angle shot of suburban neighborhood

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_ On a recent phone call, my sister said her Georgia home was too hot.
_ I explained how modern home design can’t stay cool without A/C.
_ There’s a lot developers could do, but don’t, to make homes more comfortable.

by Danish Kurani

Not long ago, while I was in California, I called my sister in Georgia. It was 95 degrees that day, and the new house she bought in the suburb of Peachtree City only eight months prior was baking in the Georgia heat. 

She complained how the house was so hot, even with A/C. Especially in her home office upstairs. In fact, even when she’s downstairs she tends to run the A/C upstairs so the office is cool when she goes up there to work. 

She’s not alone. I know many people in the South, from Georgia to Texas, who do this. It’s obviously unsustainable, but no one seems to notice in this era of cheap energy. It’s just the cost of doing business to stay cool.

Then, I blew her mind. 

I told her “You know your house could be designed differently to keep you cool and comfortable even without A/C?” She had no idea that the design of the house could be different to keep her cooler. “What? How? I just figured it’s a brand-new house so it’s going to be energy efficient.” And she has a Ph.D. from Mayo Clinic!  

This ignorance is clearly not a problem of intelligence, but rather miseducation. My sister watches home renovation shows on TV, but none of them have taught her how to create a home design that is comfortable and healthy, because they’re too busy teaching her the latest style trends. 

“New houses are terrible,” I told her. “These developers just care about profits. They don’t care if you’re comfortable.” And then I shared a few ways that passive cooling strategies could keep her house way cooler. 

How to cool a house, no A/C required

For example, everyone thinks they need A/C. But people have been living in hot climates like the Middle East for thousands of years without it. I told her how a combination of “passive” design features could keep her house cooler. 

These include:

  • roof overhangs that shaded the facade
  • well-located windows that harnessed wind for cross-ventilation breeze
  • better insulated walls and roof that kept the inside more temperate and protected from the elements
  • operable louvers (shutters) that acted like blinds for the outside of the windows and prevented the sun from hitting the glass
  • painting the roof white so it reflected sunlight vs. dark shingles, which absorb heat
  • trees shading the south facade
  • recessed windows that are inset from the facade so they get less sun hitting the glass

The best part is that all of these home design strategies are time-tested over thousands of years, proven to work, and cheaper and easier to do than putting solar panels on your roof to power your air conditioning. 

But, the government isn’t lining up to give tax breaks for people who do these things. They’re more interested in funding flashy solutions like solar panels. 

“Yeah, but not everyone can hire an architect to design all this for their home,” my sister said. 

To which I replied that people shouldn’t have to; developers should already be doing this. The reason they’re not is they know that people care about walk-in closets and kitchen islands. If consumers were more educated and demanded these things, the developers would have to supply it because they want to create products (i.e. homes) that people buy.      

“But all of this would make the house more expensive,” was her next thought. 

As an architect, I know that’s not true. The houses in suburban Georgia already have shutters next to all the windows. But they’re glued shut. You can’t swing them closed to shade your windows on super hot days. 

It wouldn’t cost but a few dollars (literally) more to have them on a hinge versus nailing them to the facade. And having a different color for the roof wouldn’t cost more; it’s a simple color choice. 

Saving money left and right

Many passive strategies are free, in fact, if developers took the time at the start of the project to consider them. This includes locating windows in different spots and choosing to plant trees on the south side of the house instead of the north, where it doesn’t serve as much of a purpose for keeping the house cool. These strategies aren’t complicated. They simply require thought. 

And the best part is once you’ve done them, and your house is cooler, you’re also saving money on your electricity bill. 

“Man, as a consumer I just assumed that the appliances and everything in the house would be energy efficient. All I did was go on Zillow and Redfin to look for a house in the right location. I didn’t think beyond that,” she explained. 

“This is why I think those TV shows about home renovation suck. They never teach people anything useful. It’s all flash and style. Nothing about what makes you comfortable…or healthy or happy.” 

“Wait, if I closed the shutters outside my window, how would I get natural light?” she asked in a last ditch attempt to pressure test the passive strategies. 

“When you’re not using the office, you keep the shutters closed to keep the room cool. And when you go in there to work, open the shutters or rotate their blinds—just like you would to mini blinds inside the house—to let in light but still block some of the sun,” I explained, remembering that non-designers desperately need this basic education so they can buy better homes for themselves.