The energy story of architecture


Barnabas Calder on architecture from prehistory to climate emergency

Life with less energy

This is an excerpt from the book, Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency, by Barnabas Calder and published by Penguin Books. Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency can be bought here for £20.

Amid the colourless landscape of ice, snow and rock, the buildings would have stood out with shocking vividness. Visible from a distance on their raised ground, the nearer you got the more striking they would have become. Each structure was brightly coloured and bristled with protruding shapes like coral. Some were over six metres across; all were tall enough to stand up in. As you got closer, you might have recognized vast, curling tusks and gigantic bones. The structures were not just decorated with large pieces of skeleton, but made of them.1

Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency, by Barnabas Calder, Penguin Books, London, 2021

At the base of each of the handful of buildings, a circle of twenty or so hefty mammoth skulls was partially buried in the earth. The natural openings of the skulls were used as sockets to hold thick, heavy leg bones, also from mammoths, which leaned in towards each other as they rose like the poles of a tepee. Animal hide was probably stretched over each robust structure to provide a weatherproof shelter, and then further bones were added for strength and decoration. Some or all of the bones were painted. In better weather, smoke might have drifted from vents at the top of the roof, but in colder times it probably only seeped out at the seams between hides.

Throughout most of history, smoky interiors were normal in cold climates; hypothermia kills far faster than lung disease. Going inside, the air might well have been acrid with an intense smell like burning hair: remains seem to suggest that in this treeless landscape bones were burned as fuel.2 Through the soot and darkness you might have made out by the firelight that the mammoth bones of the interior had been carved with chevrons and other recurrent patterns. The people who lived in these structures were modern humans in biological terms, but, as this was around 14,500 years ago, they had no knowledge of farming, no experience of cities, no metal tools, no pottery, no glass. As their homes showed clearly, they lived by hunting mammoths, the three-metre-high, woolly, ginger elephant cousins of the Ice Age north, and other animals that herded on these cold grasslands.


Right back fourteen and a half millennia ago, with the earliest buildings to leave substantial remnants, we can see energy shaping architecture with a clarity sometimes obscured by the complexity of later societies

All that we know about these houses has been reconstructed by archaeologists from collapsed bones and other buried leftovers. A few such groups of remains have been found, mostly from around the same period, across a band of Ukraine and Russia. They are among the earliest buildings anywhere on earth to have left substantial evidence of their form and materials, their remains surviving better in the soil than those of less robust building materials.

Right back fourteen and a half millennia ago, with the earliest buildings to leave substantial remnants, we can see energy shaping architecture with a clarity sometimes obscured by the complexity of later societies. These houses were tools to allow humans to hunt the rich game of the icy northern grasslands. The houses were built to control energy, keeping in the fire’s warmth. They were made of food energy by-products, and kept people warm as the bones left over after meat, fat and hide had gone were burned. Building the houses cost the residents energy directly – hard work moving big bones and stretching hides over them. Construction work also had an opportunity cost: time spent on construction was unavailable for hunting, fire-making, cooking or other activities that contributed to the useful energy of the group.

These are the essentials of architecture now as then: it costs us energy to build and to run, but in return it keeps us warm or cool, and houses many of our activities. In low-energy societies all or most indoor activities took place in the house, whereas with our vast fossil fuel energy wealth we have a bewildering range of specialist buildings for everything from medical treatment to industrial production to administration of our complex, populous world. Our range of well-housed leisure facilities might seem utterly bizarre to our low-energy ancestors, from airports processing millions of purely recreational travellers to indoor refrigerated snow slopes for skiing in warm countries. What would these ancient people, so expert in harvesting and conserving their precious supplies of energy, make of modern people driving to artificially lit and ventilated gyms to try and burn the too-easy calories of our heavily processed food on exercise bikes which themselves require energy input from the electricity grid?

Despite the gulf between our energy experiences and theirs, we can recognize architecture’s tendency to go beyond the basics of its function. Even from the broken-down remnants of the mammoth huts, aesthetic handling seems detectable in the powerful regular zigzags of stacked jaw bones. Houses next door to each other use the same structural principles but have very different details: the mammoth-skull foundations are buried the other way up; tusks are sometimes removed to use the sockets to hold structural bones and are sometimes turned proudly outward to dramatize the exterior.3 Our ancestors, even living in what we would see as threatening and marginal conditions, exhibited the same instinct for displaying their individuality that is shown in contemporary rich-world suburbs by house owners painting their walls and doors, growing distinctive plants or marking their own artistic identity with anything from plastic gnomes to modern sculpture.


Author bio


[1] Lioudmila Iakovleva, ‘The Architecture of Mammoth Bone Circular Dwellings of the Upper Palaeolithic Settlements in Central and Eastern Europe and Their Socio-Symbolic Meanings’, Quaternary International, Vols. 359–60 (March 2015), pp. 324–34.
[2] L. Marquer et al., ‘Charcoal Scarcity in Epigravettian Settlements with Mammoth Bone Dwellings: The Taphonomic Evidence from Mezhyrich (Ukraine)’, Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 39 (2012), pp. 109–20; Megan Glazewski, ‘Experiments in Bone Burning’, Oshkosh Scholar, Vol. I (April 2006), pp. 17–25.
[3] Iakovleva, ‘The Architecture of Mammoth Bone Circular Dwellings’, p. 331.

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