Sustainability Efforts Of Ancient Rome On Display In Ruins Of Pompeii

By Scott Kriner, Green Metal Consulting

During my summer vacation this year my wife and I spent nine days in the southern region of Italy. For those who have never been to Italy it is beautiful in many ways. Some is natural beauty in the mountainous areas and some is man-made with buildings stacked vertically in the Amalfi coast and elsewhere in other areas.

In addition to soaking in the breathtaking scenery, ports, orchards of olive trees, and lemons, and tomatoes we ventured to the area of Naples to visit the Pompei ruins.

The city of Pompeii was founded in the 6th-7th century BC as a sophisticated Roman city in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. In 79 AD Vesuvius erupted to bury the city of Pompeii in ash and rock and released toxic gas to kill most everyone in the city. To this day Vesuvius is still listed as being active. The most recent eruption took place in 1944.

Today, tours of the active archaeology dig in Pompei reveal incredible technical features of the typical homes of the residents, the upper strata and the slaves.  The techniques were used by the Romans but they were often inspired by the Greeks. I was quickly reminded that the first century builders used sustainable products and techniques for specific buildings of that time.

The climate in that region of Italy is hot and normally dry. The soil is rich in volcanic nutrients and is able to hold moisture for long periods of time. This climate is perfect for vineyards and olives. As in today’s buildings that use many sustainable techniques for indoor comfort with air flow and optimum light, the ruins in Pompeii show stone and brick houses with holes strategically located to allow cross breezes for comfort in the hot climate. With no windows on most of the homes,(some of the higher quality homes had sliding doors) light was based on re-directing sunlight. So the first sky-lights were created with a hole in the top of the house. To maximize the amount of light, some homes used mosaic floors with embedded marble pieces that have high reflectance of natural light.

In today’s sustainable roof technology we minimize heat moving into the indoor space. The Romans changed the Greek-influenced flat roofs to sloped roofs and chose light colors to use the roof to lower heat build-up and capture the rainwater for uses within the house. The systems were such that any excess rainwater was directed to the streets. The Roman system of streets were sloped to allow open sewage to flow in the streets by gravity. Blocks within the streets were several inches taller than the street so that one could get from one side of the street to the other without stepping into the flowing sewage. Perhaps this was all the forerunner for zero waste and zero water where everything is used for a purpose.

Today we see architecture where buildings are designed with a connection to nature with open space with greens, flowers, water fountains; The Roman houses had three primary sections- namely the entrance, the vestibule and the garden within view from inside. The connection to the outdoors was as important then as it is today.

Of course the technology brought to the higher elite was displayed in the bath houses. These structures used condensing water to cool the water that fell on those in the baths. The striated ceiling face was designed to allow the cool water to drip on certain parts of the body – never on their heads. After the bodies were cooled one would move to the hot bath area where hot steam was used to warm the area. Hot steam between the inner and outer surface of the walls allowed for the steam to rise to the ceiling of the room where it would cool and flow to the cooling chamber.

Despite these sustainable techniques to improve their living conditions, the average life span at that time was only 35 years. The likely reason for the short life probably has to do with the use of water pipes made from lead and paint made from mercury. Apparently, there were no Red Lists at that time!   Of course the generally risky sexual practices and questionable hygiene of the Romans also contributed to their short lifespan.

It is interesting to see how so many sustainable techniques that we use today have their roots in ancient civilizations. Since Mt. Vesuvius remains active, we can only imagine what the next generations will think of our civilization and how we used technology to improve our buildings, roads and infrastructure. Experts predict that if Mt. Vesuvius would erupt today with the same power and magnitude as the AD79 blast up to 3 million would be killed. We hope that archaeologists in in the future will be impressed by the use of sustainable techniques used in our century.

Scott Kriner is the president and founder of Green Metal Consulting Inc. He is a LEED Accredited Professional who began his career in the metal construction industry in 1981. His company is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the California Association of Building Energy Consultants and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

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