For architects and engineers who want energy-efficient buildings, it's natural to be interested in how buildings were heated, cooled, and lit before modern times. I've taught a class about this myself. Steven Mouzon, author of The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability (2010), writes on his website:
“Originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we built and buildings we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, starve to death, or other really bad things would happen to them.”
Mouzon's point is true, in a sense, but its truth depends on the word "green" being tied to a modern conception of energy use.
Reyner Banham had a different point of view, which took account of broader issues. In this quotation he castigated educators who romanticized the low energy use in buildings before (what Mouzon calls) the Thermostat Age:
"It might also be a good idea to fire anybody, but especially historians, who pretends that vernacular or pre-modern architecture was ever conspicuously less wasteful of available energy than is modern architecture. As penance they might be condemned to spend two semesters in a vernacular structure in some part of the world that does not have a freakish-benign climate (i.e., not New Mexico) carrying up wood and water, breaking ice, carrying out ordures, chasing flies off rotting food, etc. The fact that no energy-consuming equipment is marked on the plans of such structures does not mean that no energy was consumed in them—ask any eighteenth century serving wench about Georgian houses!"*
Though Banham clearly was not politically-correct (and pointlessly gender-specific, since a lot of Georgian domestic workers were men), his comment raises the important issue of labor and class. Pre-modern comfort depended on cheap labor and an underclass. (It seems to me there is very little literature about this issue; perhaps it comes up in older British sources Banham would have read.) Banham believed in "applied power": The Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class, and the development of modern comfort were directly interrelated, all contributing to the standard of living we enjoy.
My view? There may be techniques and mindsets to be usefully appropriated from pre-modern building practices (especially, it seems to me, in daylighting), but it's not helpful to be naive about the standards of living in past eras, including issues of labor and class.
Your view? (Comments welcome!)
*"Educators Roundtable," Journal of Architectural Education, February 1977.
The "Surprisingly Sophisticated" Fallacy