Monday, 31 August 2009

home sweet home

Ethno-centrism seems to imply a kind of nationalism when reading the definition on wikipedia:

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that one's own race or ethnic group is centrally important, and that all other ethnic groups are measured in relation to one's own
but personally I tend to think more in terms of it being the (perhaps unconscious) basis of all comparisons with "other" places. One's initial frame of reference. But traveling and living abroad these last 10 years has fairly much stripped me of a 'context'. I feel that I can understand Japanese things from a Japanese, Korean things from the perspective of Koreans and to some extent Indian things from that perspective. I tend to be critical of how things are in Australia (the things which I believe we could do better) and want to work towards making where I live a better place.

Well, right now I live in Finland. After observing things here for some years I've started to see things which could be done better here and to understand the ways of doing things here and why they do what they do.

But that doesn't mean that there is nothing that I'd love to change.

The reason for this article is being confronted one time too many by (someone who should have had a better idea cos they've lived over seas) a Finn who just couldn't get it and laughed smugly to me that English Australians and Asians make flimsy houses compared to the fine examples of home making that Finland has. Heck we can't even build a decent wall the right thickness according to this guy.

The guy had lived in England (so I understand why he thinks more insulation is needed) but despite my descriptions of the differences in environment between Australia and Finland he just couldn't get past his Suomi-centrism.

So I thought that the best approach might be to take off my objectiveness, put on my Australian centric glasses and write about this from an outsiders perspective.

So to the guy on the train, if you're reading this, here is my version of you take this bit of iron wire .... yep, this one's for you so read on.

Out of Finland (rather than Africa, that'd be Meryl Streep)

When I was living in Japan I was asked by people "why do westerners live in closed boxes trying to exclude the environment?" ... as I come from Queensland in Australia where we don't live in houses like that (although I now know well that the Finnish do) I was never really sure how to respond to this, our houses are usually airy, wooden and built along lines like this.

? or this ?

The reasons for our architecture are:
- that its warm or hot most of the time,
- we want to capture and utilize breezes and
- keep the heat of the sun away.

Now you need to keep in mind that Finns need to cater for a winter which can get down to -20° C (like more north and east) and in some places -40° C If you put on your engineering hat for a moment that's about 60° C in differential temperature. Rather different to Finland our winter (in the coldest areas of Queensland) drops to something like 0 ° C over night minimums with day temperatures of 15° C or so. A little further north its warmer still with overnight minimums of something like 15°C. At most we need to keep a 20 degree difference in temperature, and to be honest 10 is more like it.

Even if we totally fail and live outside in the cold its really not so bad anyway as winter only is cold for about 2 months of the year. Heck Finnish summer has colder days than our winter is.

So we mostly focus on keeping heat out and letting breeze in. Verandas help this by making the roof overhang from the walls and keep the wall from being heated up by the sun during the day.

Japan (much like Australia) certainly gets its fair share of warm weather (though they do have a chilly winter to contend with) and (for one reason or another) tend to build homes which are more open and openable. You can sit on the veranda and just sit back and enjoy the environment from the comfort of your own home.

Now, Finland has rather a different environment to Australia or Japan, its not really ever hot (though the Finns seem to think differently) and if you happen to have a nice place in the countryside (the so called "summer cottage") then in the warm weather times its a full on mosquito fest out side.

Generally speaking many countryside Finnish houses look more like this:

with almost no roof overhang (looks strange to me) and often a cubic design. Makes sence logically but has all the aesthetic appeal of the Borg.

Some things to note in this picture:

* the front entry is much like a spaceship air lock. It allows you to open the door to go in and out, without releasing any air from the house.

* next to no roof overhang (lucky there is little wind here so the walls don't get wet from the rain)

* not much in the way of guttering (well, it doesn't really rain here, and for quite some period of the year the water is not in a liquid form anyway)

* windows are typically double or triple glazed and may not be practically openable, although there is usually a small slit window on the side that can be opened.

Its worth noting that the chimney is in the middle of the house, as the fireplace is intelligently located in the middle of the house. Quite a good design idea as the "fireplace" is normally a large brick oven. This has of course considerable thermal mass and not only works as an oven, but does a really good job of keeping the house warm in winter. Since traditional Finnish food revolves around slow stewing of everything in the oven (usually without anything such as spices or flavour) it handily works to keep cooking odors out of the house as they mainly go up the chimney. This is something you'll become acutely aware of if you try to cook something other than "Finnish food" ... kitchens (and the houses are by and large small sealed boxes, which quickly fill with steam, cooking smells and what ever when you start to do a stir fry or a curry. If that doesn't put you off cooking like you're used to then the the most common electric stoves here will. (I have no idea why fancy "Jamie Oliver" cookware is so popular here when cooking is the way it is here ... but that's another blog page)

This is of course another downside , as using the oven in the summer makes the house uncomfortably hot and stuffy (leading Finns to think it gets hot here). Woe be tide if temperatures rise more ... it'll be aircon or stew inside.

Which brings me to my next point ... why hasn't anyone in this country discovered mosquito screens on windows? Its not for the shortage of mosquitoes in the summer time I have to tell you (locally know as the Finnish Air Force). Its quite pathetic really, Finns get dealt up rubbish by importers and shafted as much as possible on imported goods. I have no idea if this is to rip them off or foster the local religion of only buy Finnish (... oh gosh, but that's yet another blog page).

Back to houses ...

This is a kind of typical interior to a home. While windows are not on all walls, they typically have some facing the south to catch as much light as possible if they can get it.

Remember that Finland is really really north, so the sun rarely gets up high in the sky, certainly not in winter. So it makes sence to use as much of the light as possible.

You have to balance things though as windows (even triple glazed) let cold through into the house (read let heat out of the house), so you can't really pepper all your walls with windows. Now, if you look carefully you can just make out a heater which runs along the base of the window there. That's a really common feature in newer buildings up here, and the warmth from them neatly counters the cold air falling off the windows. They are of course electric in this instance, but some places make use of heated water radiators.

Looking more closely at the walls we don't see them being significantly thicker than ones we'd see in many countries.

Perhaps its a left-over perception from old wooden box houses (built with the locally gown pine soft woods grown here, which to my hardwood experienced eyes seems like packing crate rubbish) where wooden beams were cut thicker and insulation was done with other less efficient materials.

So, yes, Finnish houses may be better insulated against the cold than Australian ones, but compared to our places they are stuffy to live in, dreadful to try to cook in and isolate you from the outside. I always need to check the temperature before going out to know what to wear. This is something totally foreign to me, as in any other part of the world I feel more connected with the outside world. Why does it always have to be 23°C all the time?

To my mind Finns have lost touch with the evolution of their houses, as the older homes are much nicer, actually get cool in the winter and open up more in the summer. The only good thing about modern Finnish houses is they make it possible to wear undies all year round in such a cold place.

Given the problems that they are discovering with molds and fungus growing in the cavity in the walls (and the increasing problems with allergy reactions to the synthetics used in their insulations and other building materials), I think that the Queenslander style houses are better all round homes to live in our environment than these places are for this environment. So if you want to compare houses without thinking of the environment I think that makes our houses better.

Say ... looking at the cube desing again perhaps we could compare Finnish homes to a foam beer esky? Similar properties in many ways ... say I think I'm on to something. (Perhaps its because Finns think that its always cold is the reason that beer is always warm in the fridge of my local supermarket, but again I digress...)

The really strange thing is that in Canada they have just as cold a climate but manage to have warm houses and ventilation too.


and so it comes down to how we do things and understanding why we do things. I think that here again Finns fail to grasp the world outside of Finland in their critique of things.

Looking at the old town in Sydney it was clear that the English settlers constructed things out of habit too, even though they moved to a totally different continent.,They didn't change their construction habits and built houses just like they did in England. So perhaps the Finns are like the English (well in all of Europe from what I can tell) to sledge other countries as being inferior and inadequate.

Well sorry guys but living in Finland shows me that the homes are just as thoughtlessly assembled following "traditional" patterns when making apartment (even though we don't have a stove with a chimney to get rid of cooking fumes) as the English whom Finns so quickly ridicule.

The apartments are miserably ventilated with one small aperture in the kitchen to exchange atmosphere (and nothing much to let it in so it can't escape) that people often resort to poking fans onto them in an attempt to clear the air. It works so poorly that I can hold a candle to the vent and not get any air flow even when I open windows. Now, if I want to clear the air from my apartment out, I open my front door (into the stair way) open the down stairs doors (into the apartment building) and then open my balcony door ... man then its like a torrent!

The roof extraction vent sections are so poorly designed that any attempt to force air into these vents just results in pumping air into other peoples apartments (and yes I've even seen newspaper articles explaining why you shouldn't do that so people must be trying it). So we're just suppoed to sit in our little sealed box and not breath or cook.

1 comment:

  1. So, you spend your whole summer sitting inside?