The Best-Shaped House For Every Climate in the U.S. and Tips For Optimizing Sustainability

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By Kate Reggev / Published by Dwell
Climate is one of the biggest factors of human physical comfort and sustainability, and it's one of the most important considerations in the design of a home, especially in terms of its siting and form.

In the United States, we have four basic climate types that demonstrate the typical characteristics of precipitation, humidity, and temperature in specific regions. These four main groups are hot-arid (think desert-like areas like Arizona), hot-humid (places like Miami and the southeastern United States), temperate (Washington, DC and much of the Mid-Atlantic region), and cold (imagine northern Michigan or Alaska). 

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However, the overall climate isn’t the only thing to consider: the microclimate of the immediate area is also critical to determine the best form or shape for a house. Microclimate is a local set of conditions that are different from the regional climate, either in a major or minor way. This can be due to the location in a city, the proximity to water, or a placement at the very top of a mountain. 

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Therefore, these two factors—the macroclimate and microclimate—can have a huge effect on determining the design of a home, from the way it's oriented for optimization-prevailing winds, to designing the size and shape of the home in a way that will minimize or maximize sun exposure and precipitation. 

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For example, in hot, dry climates, it’s best to try and minimize sun exposure and maximize opportunities to create shade, so smaller windows and openings are ideal. In fact, creating shade is always a good idea, either by creating deep overhangs or clustering buildings together so that they can shade each other—which is commonly found in villages in southern Spain, Greece, or the American Southwest.

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Another important strategy in desert-like climates is the creation of small, compact forms rather than long, wandering shapes. The more compact a space, the less sun it absorbs and the cooler it stays. So, a carefully designed, cube-shaped home is going to hold up to the heat better than a sprawling, multi-wing home.

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In hot-humid climates, maximizing natural ventilation is the way to go. Spaces with high ceilings, large windows, and cross-ventilation work best in tropical regions, but because big windows mean lots of sunlight, it’s best to shade the windows with trees, awnings, shutters, or louvers.

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In terms of the shape of a building in a hot and humid climate, raising the first floor can further capture cooling winds, especially when the home is oriented to take advantage of prevailing wind directions. Shaded exterior porches can also act as a buffer between inside and outside, shielding exterior walls from the sun and providing a shady spot outside.

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In temperate climates, designs should take advantage of solar gain in the winter, but minimize it in the summer. So, buildings should be rectangular and oriented along the east-west axis to avoid the strong eastern summer sun, but take advantage of southern sunshine in the winter.

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At the same time, it's important to address summer heat with natural ventilation, high ceilings, and shading. A rectangular building ensures that the home is narrower in one direction than the other, so air can easily move from one side of the house to another through windows or openings on both sides of the house.

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Finally, in cold climates, houses should be small and compact, with small window openings for minimal heat loss. Because glass is not a good insulator and loses heat faster than most other building materials, any large windows should be facing south so that they capture winter sunlight. 

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Finally, homes that are exposed to heavy snowfalls should have sloped roofs that easily shed snow and rain. This can mean a whole range of roof shapes from gabled to shed roofs, but flat roofs are not ideal for cold regions. Ceilings in general should be relatively low, so that spaces are smaller and don’t need to be heated as much—but this doesn't have to show on the exterior of a home. To learn more about different roof types, read our guide on some of the main ones here.