I wanted to do a piece on the winter solstice- but I was not able to get myself organized enough at the time- with the onslaught of the holidays, afterwards I felt the opportunity had passed, along with the Christmas decorations being boxed up for another year’s wait. But the winter snow and ice storms that wreaked havoc on the entire eastern half of the country last week- caused me to think again of the seasons and, being squarely in the middle of winter- I reconsidered. I was in Phoenix (War Eagle) and trying to get back home, Atlanta’s airport was practically shut down and air traffic backed up everywhere, ended up making it to Minnesota which almost seemed like an accomplishment. Winter roared, and we all felt its power.
The winter solstice takes place every year on December 20th, (and on December 21st on leap years) for you folks keeping score at home. In simple terms it is the shortest day of the year, but also has all kinds of seasonal implications. The sun’s angle at our latitude is about 38 degrees above the horizon (in the northern hemisphere) and marks the lowest trajectory the sun takes across our sky over the entire year. This has been happening since the beginning of time, and you can set your clock by it, even the druids who built stonehenge understood these solar movements and the stone megalithic structure is in some ways a giant solar seasonal clock (and burial ground).
We are inside more, and outside less- in winter. Just that one fact of life puts more import on our built environment during this season. So how to deal with this, and create spaces and build places that encourage us- and help us make the most of our lives indoors between snow angels and jaunts to the grocery store? One of the best ways is to ensure we get plenty of sunlight into our spaces. Whats better than having lots of sunlight and a fire on a bleak Saturday morning? And let me recommend the Costa Rican coffee, promise you will love it. On a trip to central america I saw a bumper sticker that read “Juan Valdez drinks Costa Rican coffee!”- and it must be true. Back to the sunlight, remember that low sun angle? We can take advantage of it and, especially on southern exposures -actually allow more light and warmth inside than during the height of summer. Counter-intuitive isn’t it- but it couldn’t be a more welcome thing in the blah grey of January. On a previous post I mentioned the overhanging eaves and how they could be measured to provide shade in the summer yet allow sunlight’s lower winter angle to penetrate window openings. One of the things we have learned- working in diverse environments like Florida beaches or the mountains of North Carolina is how a building in Florida needs to generate SHADE to avoid the sun’s harsh rays- while in the mountains it is a craving for all the sun you can get. It gets a whole lot colder up there and also in many locations the topography shortens the hours of sunlight in the day- a great challenge to keep those people inside sunny.
Other ways I think are great ways to make winter more tolerable inside when it’s nasty outside are cozy spaces. I think actually these spaces are great any time- but it is especially wonderful to curl up with a book and a beverage in a small reading room or a nook and just hole up. Maybe its some primordial hibernation that is built into us, but in winter we need these. They can be off of larger rooms so we dont feel too constricted either, but are areas of refuge. They need WAY lower ceilings like seven feet even is not too low. Unless you play basketball for a living, then ok. I have a breakfast nook in my house that is off of the kitchen and it is the spot we eat most meals, it is not quite eight feet square and has a seven foot ceiling, but because you are seated (bench seats) it’s like the ceiling just followed you down to your seat. In the old days (like 100 years ago) an ingle-nook was a small box with built in seating- around the fireplace to contain FIRE and warmth. From these cozy spots you can eat, work on the laptop, play cards or read a book. And these spaces create experiences- that will help us survive the grey cold months and emerge in tact from our bunkers once the tulip poplars bloom, as the first trumpets of spring pull us outside to garden once again.