Why Are Coastal Houses White?

I know this will sound pretentious, but I had the misfortune to be stuck on an island in Greece for much of the pandemic. Rhodes, it was, which after the initial thrill of being on a semi-permanent vacation wore off, paled the same as every location in the world did for everyone. Sadly, the closest I managed to come to some deep Greek philosophy was to wonder, “Why are coastal houses white”?

Coastal houses are white because:

  • Before paints were produced economically, whitewash was the standard wall covering.
  • The darker the pigment, the higher the cost, so white is the most economical. This applies to individuals as well as property developers.
  • White reflects the sun most effectively.

There is also something very clean about white, and a house painted in white seems both summery and welcoming, somehow. I was ‘stuck’ in the town of Lindos for most of the time, and with white everywhere you looked, the atmosphere and vibe were very different. It was almost as if the white houses and their occupants were a team that stuck together and looked after one another.

Are Coastal House Painted Or Whitewashed?

Curiously, most of the houses I checkout out physically were whitewashed and not painted. This surprised me because Greece is not short of tourists under normal circumstances, and tourists are not short of U$D.

Apparently, whitewash still contains limestone, which acts as a disinfectant and which was originally used by many residents to sanitize their homes against cholera, which broke out just before the second world war. Some residents, however, assured me that cost was far more important a reason and that whitewash was easy to maintain and re-apply.

In 1967, the military Junta of the time decreed that all houses should be painted in white with blue trim, the colors of the Greek flag. This was started in Santorini, and many other islands and beaches followed, but as with all laws, time has started to erode them, and the rules are far more relaxed now.

Santorini

Santorini is perhaps the best-known of all the Greek islands and is a prime example of white coastal houses. The island has a rugged landscape, created in the 16th century when a volcanic eruption created a huge caldera (volcanic crater) underwater just off the coast. This left Santorini shaped like the head of a dinosaur, with the caldera in its gaping jaws.

Oia and Fira are the main towns, and each would be in opposite jaws in the above analogy, high above the bay housing the caldera. Both towns are resplendent in white – though not every building being so – giving the visitor the impression of age. Not decay, but age with strength and character, bleached by the sun, as it were.

As I traveled through Greece for several months, another thought dawned on me as I passed through the scores of coastal villages that line its dramatic coastline: Many of the sea- approaches off the coast are littered with rocks and coral beds, and perhaps many hundreds of years ago residents would whitewash their houses to assist sailors in avoiding running aground in low light conditions. Not inconceivable.

Since there were no lighthouses back then, apart from Alexandria in Egypt and one or two others built by the ‘superpowers’ of the time, piles of rocks were stacked on the beach and whitewashed white. Not particularly easy to see at sea level, particularly in a heavy blow, it makes sense that the houses perched far higher on the cliffs could do a far more efficient job.

Certainly, the inexpensive nature of whitewash and unpigmented paint is the leading reason for whitewashed coastal houses. The people with homes closest to the water were always the poorest, forced to live amongst the stench of rotting fish, sewage, and anything else dumped into the sea or a river nearby.

Disease would always hit the close confines of the seafront first, and no one stayed there unless they had to. The wealthier you were, the further you moved uphill, towards the peaks if accessible and to the cooling breezes and open spaces.

With little or no funds for lavish decorating, the poor would still need to protect their homes against the elements, and pride would want them to keep the home looking clean. Usher in whitewash, which, with its limestone content, both sanitized and covered their house.

Since many villages started on the western side of islands to catch the setting sun, whitewash also helped repel any excesses and kept the home as cool as possible.

This is the reason why so many coastal homes in Greece, Spain, Turkey, and much of North Africa have rooftop patios: In cooler weather, they allow the sun to warm you, and in the warmer months when even the whitewash isn’t cooling enough, they give you access to any breeze available.

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Are All Coastal Houses White?

Certainly not. The destination that immediately springs to mind is the lovely island of Burano in Venice, Italy, where the lacemaking community went the other way when deciding on a color scheme for their island. Located towards the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon, Burano is well-known as a splash of color, and though my visit was admittedly short, I didn’t see a single white house.

Pinks, purples, ochre, and colors that have yet to be named adorned all buildings, giving them a vitality reflected in the lacework the crafters were producing. The atmosphere was vibrant rather than relaxed, with a sense of anticipation when going into each store and boutique.

The USA also boasts several colorful coastal towns, as any visitor to Carmel-By-The-Sea in California, or the US’s oldest seaside resort, Cape May in New Jersey, will attest. However, white is still the most popular color globally for a coastal house, and I hope you’ve enjoyed covering the reasons why?

Conclusion

A fully colored house at the coast, particularly at the beach, just looks wrong to many people, but no law or rule suggests you need to comply with anyone else’s tastes. If your coastal house is in a cooler area, then perhaps repelling heat with white walls is not the optimum choice, or if you simply prefer brick, go for it!

References


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