How did homes stay cool before air conditioning?
Posted on: May 16, 2016 | by: Will Housh
Now a modern standard, it really wasn’t that long ago that air conditioning was considered a luxury – a little over 100 years ago, it didn’t exist at all! Summer humidity and temperatures across the United States weren’t much different than today, leaving people to find ways to keep comfortable indoors without the benefits of the technology we enjoy today. So, just what did our predecessors do to keep their homes cool before air conditioning?
Smart Home Design
Without the convenience of modern air conditioning systems or ventilation, homes needed to be built in such a way that they could harness natural ventilation to keep the home comfortable. Almanacs and wind diagrams were consulted to determine local wind and breeze patterns; this information was used when determining how to orient the home.
To encourage airflow throughout interior spaces, early home design facilitated cross ventilation. The placement of windows, doors, and interior walls played a significant role in keeping the home comfortable. Occupants would open windows to allow the breeze in, just as we do today on mild days; walls which ran parallel to wind direction allowed the breeze to flow across the home, improving cross ventilation, whereas walls running parallel to the windows and doors would stop airflow. With windows open on opposite sides of the home, cool air could enter the interior space while pushing warmer air out.
To improve natural ventilation throughout the home, window tuning was popular. Window sashes were opened to correspond with the breeze direction to create air pressure in the home which facilitated movement. Opening high windows and transoms over doorways on a hot day allowed warm indoor air to vent outdoors, opening outlet windows more than inlet windows increase drafts, and opening bottom windows on the upwind wall of the home while opening upper windows on the downwind wall would move air through the home.
In some areas, such as the south, homes were built upon blocks or columns. This allowed air to continuously flow beneath the home, working to cool the interior living spaces.
The thickness of the walls played a role in insulating older homes. Exterior walls were often made of stone or brick, and in the hot southern states, it wasn’t uncommon for these walls to be 12 to 24 inches thick; modern construction typically uses 2×4 or 2×6 inch lumber for exterior walls. The thick exterior walls kept heat out of the interior during the day.
Now used largely for decoration, window shutters were functional in older homes. Shutters could be pulled to close off window spaces during periods of direct sun exposure to shade interiors and block heat gain, yet slats could be opened to facilitate ventilation.
Utilizing Exterior Spaces
The exterior and areas surrounding a home were valuable real estate when it came to keeping the interior of a home cool. Exterior fixtures and even plants played a role in cooling before air conditioners became the norm.
Planting large trees in the right locations blocked direct sun exposure to the home, providing shade that helped indoor living areas stay more comfortable during the warmest parts of the year. Smart landscapers planted deciduous trees that would grow quite tall on the east, west, and northwest sides of the house; as the trees matured, they shaded the home from the hot summer sun. The same tree placement can be utilized even today to keep new homes cool!
Climbing vines were also planted around a home to provide natural shade. Varieties such as Virginia creeper and ivy grew quickly, instantly shading exterior walls from direct sun exposure. The vines also worked to reduce temperature fluctuations in the home throughout the day.
Outdoor kitchens are coming back around these days, as modern and functional outdoor living areas become more desirable to homeowners. The first outdoor kitchens weren’t used for entertaining as they typically are today – they were used to prevent heat gain inside the home.
Cooking stoves created a great amount of heat; when temperatures were already sweltering in the summer, the last thing people wanted was to add more heat whenever a meal needed to be prepared. To solve the heat gain issue while ensuring meals were still made, outdoor kitchens, sometimes called summer kitchens, were built. They were situated in freestanding structures away from the main home (sometimes connected by a breezeway) which housed stoves, fireplaces, and cooking equipment, and were sometimes also used for chores such as laundry and baths, which also created heat. As early heating systems made their way into homes, the summer kitchen was sometimes used to house the boiler or coal-fired furnace.
Don’t suffer through the summer without air conditioning – get with the times! HVAC.com can help you find a local HVAC contractor who can upgrade or repair your existing system, turning your hot and stuffy home into a comfortable indoor oasis!