A House on the Prairie

The Unfortunate Legacy of the Little House on the Prairie

Reviews

How about some crushing news to start the day?

Remember the Little House on the Prairie? That humble yet darling home sitting proud and welcoming like a beacon of warmth, safety and hope on the wide open prairie?

Well, it appears that was a really bad house. Like seriously, the worst idea for a house ever.

This, I learned while watching A House on the Prairie, a short doc from the late 1970s about dwellings and how much (if any) sense they make with regards to their surroundings.

The surroundings being explored in the film are that of the Canadian Prairies, an environment known to be on the hostile side of harsh both winter and summer alike. (Scalding sun? Check. Backside-biting cold? Check. Year-round howling winds? Check and double check.)

Legitimate question: if the house is so ill-adapted, why did so many people build it? (Including Pa Ingalls, who was certainly no Prairie amateur?)

The answer is as silly as it is surprising: people built houses like that because that’s what they thought a house should look like. Prairie settlers, hailing from the East, brought from Ontario the uninsulated clapboard house that had always worked for them. But here’s one thing they neglected to factor in: that type of house worked for them there.

Sillier yet, poor settlers eking out a hand-to-mouth existence on the fierce flat plains, often initially built very good shelters out of stuff found in their immediate surroundings. (“Shelter is the first necessity,” the narrator tells us, “any shelter”.)

Though highly context-appropriate, the sod houses (or “soddies”) and log houses were too intimately linked with “the coarseness and privation of the Frontier” to last.

For most, these dwellings were a mere stopgap. As soon as money came, lumber was brought in from elsewhere, and neat little frame houses were raised.

In the Prairies, this neat little frame house provided “little protection, and little comfort.” There, the elements demoted it to nothing but a leaky, insufficient house.

(Prairie: 1; Little House on the Prairie: 0.)

But this isn’t a film dissing the Little House on the Prairie and its drafty fellows, however. The film’s aim, rather, is to explore more efficient alternatives to this leaky, energy-hungry mess of a house.

Fortunately, this is the 70’s and we meet some awesome hippies along the way. (Unfortunately, no yurts. Boo.)

The first stop (and my personal highlight of the film) is the dome house. The woman, who lives there with her 3 kids and her open-shirted, peace-sign-belt-buckled husband, says people routinely mistake their love nest for a granary, or a greenhouse. But no. A cursory visit of the premises confirms this beyond all doubt: the dome house is a house all right. And what a house! I swooned all over their retro-yellow kitchen and upstairs den.

We also visit an “underground” house (it’s actually more of a built-into-the-side-of-a-hill house, hobbit style), a “modern” log cabin, as well as an off-the-grid ranch that runs on solar, natural gas, propane and methane gas from cows. (Yee-haw.)

The solutions depicted are thought-provoking, if slightly vintage (eco-energetic building has progressed in leaps and bounds since 1978 – all the way to LEED certification), but the wider conversation around homes and sustainability is still one worth having.

Then as today, deficient, ill-adapted homes depend on the availability of cheap energy sources for heating and cooling, something that is becoming more and more elusive (and nostalgia-inducing) every day.

Soon, the film predicts, we may no longer have the luxury of choice. That was 34 years ago.