Any discussion of Louisiana’s rich and colourful history, culture and architecture must necessarily start by establishing meaning for the terminology and unique language that is much a part of the Louisiana vernacular. In the 2004 publication,
A Creole Lexicon: Architecture, Landscape, People, “Creolization refers to a series of processes of transformation of traditional European cultural forms under the special conditions of colonization.” 1 Similarly, Creole Architecture generally is defined as “non-indigenous, nativized, tropical, colonial architecture and its descendants.”
While there are differing versions on the exact origins of “Creoles,” and “Creolization,” it is universally accepted that as a result of colonization and the confluence of people of indigenous European, African, Caribbean descent, and other lineages migrating to Louisiana during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, that a unique genre of people emerged on the Gulf Coast, set on survival.
So, just as the Creolization of people in Louisiana and elsewhere on the planet has, and continues to take place, so too is the development and evolution of that architecture. Creole Architecture, as presented in this article, is a wonderful perspective on how housing structures, de-signed for a more northern, (European) colder climate, were adapted and transformed into houses suitable for a hot and humid south Louisiana climate.
Designs from France to Bayou Country
The early architectural building designs found in Louisiana were replicated versions of well-developed, provincial architectural solutions for rural France. (Figure 1, Photo A). This transplanted version of home construction from France to the hot and humid coastal bayou country of south Louisiana was known as colombage, meaning “half-timbered” and referred to the house frame. This colombage was constructed of cypress.
The French called cypress wood “eternal” because of its ability to weather, as it would not rot, and was not conducive to termite destruction prevalent to the area. In France this colombage frame would have been in-filled with brick, stone, earth or slate; and it would have sat on top of a short stone wall. Because there was no stone or slate in south Louisiana, early settlers began using what the Native Americans (first people to settle in this area) were using for their wattle and daub structures, that is, a mixture of mud and retted (cured), locally abundant, Spanish Moss, called bousillage. Rungs or barreauxs were placed in the colombage frame, spaced about 7”apart. Then, torchis would have been made in the shape of loaves from the wet bousillage, hung over the rungs and compressed in place. This construction method was used consistently until the creation of brick in the colony. It was not uncommon to find both brick and bousillage in the same structure; bousillage on the exterior walls and briquette-entre-poteaux (between post & brick) for the interior walls, both providing insulation or mass that worked to stabilize temperatures for the structure. The wood frame originally sat directly on the ground.
It was not long before the French realized that the mass wall design did not work very well for human comfort in these sub-tropics. So, while the heavy mass design was retained, it necessarily required modification for this climate. Typically, heavy mass structures worked better in climates where there is a larger daily temperature swing or variation from day to night and a longer winter season. The mass would cool off at night and warm up during the day. A good fireplace served to keep the mass warm during the winter. But here in south Louisiana, where large temperature fluctuations in a day did not occur and more typically the nights in the summer were warm and muggy, the heavy mass design collected more heat than necessary during the day making the interior uncomfortably warmer at night. Consequently, the colonial construction process went through a metamorphosis, adapting to a region prone to heat, humidity, seasonal flooding and hurricanes.
Adaptations for a Louisiana Climate
One of the important and functional solutions in adapting the mass wall design construction was to build a porch around the structure. (Figure 2, Photo B). The steep pavilion roof of the original house structure took on a lean-to roof for the porch. This double pitch or “witch-hat” roof could be found in all of the French colonies in the sub-tropical areas around the world.
In south Louisiana, however, it did not last long be-cause of the amount of rain in the area – some 56 inches per year. The adaption of shading was and still is a most important and cost effective technique to prevent the effect of heat gain in this climate. Raised ceilings provided another method of putting distance between the inevitable heat and the human occupants living in the structures.
Additionally, the effect of ventilation was another key factor used to dissipate the heat. More windows were added and transoms were installed above the doors that helped to vent the heat to the outside of the structure.
Because of seasonal flooding and a high water table, buildings were raised off the ground on piers (cypress blocks were utilized at first). The higher the structure was placed off the ground, the better the ventilation as air could move completely around the structure for added heat removal. Eventually the colombage frame was placed on top of what was considered a raised basement of brick construction, effectively raising the structure one story. (Figure 3, Photo C). This masonry of brick was thermally grounded to the earth which provided some of the coolest temperatures imaginable. The cooler earth temperature wicked up into the brick in the form of moisture that functioned to keep the brick cool as the moisture evaporated.
As the family grew, rooms called cabinets were added or enclosed under the porch roof. Because the lower slope of the roof covering the porch was not steep enough to shed the rain, it would periodically leak. A leaky porch was acceptable now and then, but when the leak occurred in the interior of the house, this leaky roof condition was ot acceptable. The better solution was to extend the main pavilion roof to the edge of the porch and that design was coined the Louisiana Raised Cottage. (Figure 4, Photo D). This classic and unique structure is also referred to as the following: Louisiana Plantation House, Creole Cottage, Louisiana Planter Raised Cottage, Louisiana Raised French Planter, Louisiana French Colonial, Colonial French Planter, West In-dies Planter, West Indies French Planter, and French Louisiana Planter.
Contemporary Construction, Sustainability & Nature
Notably, today, the neighbourhoods of south Louisiana exhibit many homes that replicate the look of those originating from Louisiana’s colourful architectural history as detailed in this interpretation. However, most do just that – replicate the look and only the look. The original climatic adaptation of these structures was for improved human comfort. Today, with the availability of air conditioning, just one of the many comforts of modern life, those strategic adaptations are no longer critical since a mechanical system can provide whatever climate is desired in the home. However, the cost of running these systems continues to climb in this day of rising energy costs brought about in part by global warming. Also the simple fact that the natural environment is not given consideration in the design of these structures makes them even more dependent upon the ever more costly mechanical system – Ce n’est pas bon!
As the reality of sustainability is more and more front and centre, there are those who design with the idea of adapting to the natural environment. The rich experiences of the ancestors are well worth paying attention to. A house designed with nature in mind is more comfortable and costs much less to operate if a mechanical system is needed at all. These structures do not have to look like the Louisiana Raised Cottage to perform well. They can be almost any style, but the elements of nature and the environment must be taken into consideration; hot air rises and cool air falls.
The human body responds better to radiant energy, or radiant temperature, than it does to air temperature. In south Louisiana, the prevailing breezes come from the southeast, and the constant ground temperature is 70°F. The sun movement in the sky is different in the summer than it is in the winter. Also there are the more contemporary inventions like radiant barriers, insulation, and the ability to seal the structure for controlled air and guard against leakage.
Such is the south Louisiana house of the author of this article. (Photo E). The structure is designed to ventilate and shade itself. It is thermally grounded to the temperatures of the earth with an under floor plenum (air space) that moves air to all areas of the house. The air is moved from the top of the house in winter to capture all the heat from the house and fireplace to the under floor plenum at the centre of the house and this air moves to the exterior walls transferring that heat to the concrete floor. Thus the floor provides radiant heating in the winter. During the spring and fall, the house is opened up to the natural environment with lots of windows and porches for shading.
The cupola is designed to draw air out of the house (humorously referred to by the author as “suckulation” as opposed to “ventilation”) from the leeward side of the prevailing breezes. If the wind is not active, the stack effect allows hot air to rise and exit the structure at the peak. During the summer, air is returned from the plenum and supplied high to let the cool air fall back to the floor grates at the exterior walls, thus keeping the floor cool to enable radiant cooling. (Photo F).
Daylight plays an important role in the design of this south Louisiana home structure. The copula (a smaller structure set on top of a roof) acts as a lantern to bring light down from above along with many windows at floor level. The porch allows the occupant to spend time outside with a closer relationship to the environment. One of the best experiences is to be on the porch in a thunder storm – you are in the rain but well protected from it.
Not only is this south Louisiana environmentally-responsive structure that we call home more sustainable, but it also provides a stage that allows its occupants to dance to the rhythms of Louisiana’s changing seasons. It is a dance that can make life rich. In Louisiana one might say, “Never pass up the opportunity to dance,” and as Henry David Thoreau would say: …“and not when you come to die, discover that you had not lived.”2
- Jay Dearborn Edwards and Nicolas Kariouk Pecquet du Bellay de Verton: A Creole Lexicon: Architecture, Landscape, People, LSU Press, 2004; xxi
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods