How Houses Functioned Before the Advent of Air Conditioning
Greene County via flickr cc
Earlier this summer, my next door was complaining to me about how costly his electric bill had gotten due to running his air conditioning system. I was shocked when we compared inside temperatures and bill amounts and realized that despite the fact that his house is a single-level home and about 70 years newer than my 1920’s split-level, his electric expense is considerably higher. “How can that be?” he asked “That drafty old house should cost you an arm and a leg!” I replied “I guess they just don’t make them like they used to!” Not until the last few weeks did I realize just how right I was. That conversation got me thinking about all the things about older homes that are basically designed to conserve energy.
It makes sense, really. Air conditioning systems didn’t become a common feature in American homes until after World War II, and homes built before then had to have architectural and strategic features to help them and their residents stay cool in the summer. Here is a breakdown of some of those features, as well as a few extra tricks used by our grandparents’ generation to avoid melting during the sweltering heat of summer back in the “old days” before we became reliant on air conditioning.
One of the biggest things about older homes that helped them conserve energy was the thickness of the walls. The exterior walls of many quality older homes were made of brick or stone, which provided a great deal of insulation and protection from the outside weather. In fact, in southern states where the weather got especially hot in the summer, brick and stone walls were commonly made 12-24 inches thick, a huge difference from the 2×4 or 2×6 lumber used in most modern construction.
While the thick stone walls kept heat from penetrating the house during the day, they did absorb heat, which could more easily be eliminated from the homes later in the day when cooler night air prevailed. Which brings me to my second point:
Airflow, Airflow, Airflow!
The split-level designs of many older homes featured open stairwells that freely and naturally allowed warm air to rise to the upper levels. In fact, some older homes even had turrets or towers that sat above the living spaces of the home to collect heat and allow it to be vented from the home. Even without turrets, however, strategic opening of windows in the home maximized the flow of cool air through the home. For example, if the wind was from the west, basement or first-floor windows would be opened on that side of the house, and on the opposite side of the house, windows on the second floor would be opened to essentially draw cool air through the house and eliminate heat with the natural force of the outside breeze. Fans could also be used to increase this effect.
In southern states, where basements are not as common, many homes would actually be built on top of blocks that allowed breeze to flow underneath the living space of the house all the time.
Higher Ceilings & Larger Windows
Another way that older homes facilitated air movement and removing heat from living space was through higher ceilings. Most modern homes are built with 8 foot ceilings being the standard, but in the pre-air era, ceilings of 10-14 feet were very common. Naturally, heat tended to rise to the ceiling while lower areas stayed cooler. Ceiling fans also encouraged this effect, commonly used to draw heat upward in summer months and to blow it downward in cooler months.
Another way that warm air could be eliminated from rooms in older homes was through transoms, which were essentially small windows over doorways. Transoms were very common in older homes, both over interior and exterior doors to vent heat from the highest points of the room. Over exterior doors, hinges and special hardware allowed the transoms to be easily opened to allow airflow but still provided a degree of security to the home.
Transoms weren’t the only way windows were used differently in the old days, of course. Many older and historic homes had extra-large, double-hung windows. During the day, the top window could be opened to allow heat to escape near the ceiling, and at night, the bottom window would be opened to let cooler air inside. Not only did windows tend to be larger in the days before air-conditioning, there also tended to be more of them. To control the heat of direct sunlight pouring through these windows, large, heavy drapes were often used. Though there were other ways to control the effects of the sun, which brings me to my next point:
Strategic Trees, Shrubs & Shade Porches
Older homes tended to have large shade trees and shrubs planted on the south and west sides of a home. This blocked a good portion of the summer sun during the midday and late afternoon hours when the heat tended to be the most intense. Window overhangs and external awnings also helped to control sunlight in a similar way.
Of course if all else failed, and the heat of the day still made being inside almost unbearable by the time evening came to call, there was always the covered porch, which seems far less common in modern construction. Many older homes had wraparound porches which always had shade to offer on at least one side of the house, while other homes had large front porches, which were often screened and furnished to allow the residents to sleep outside in the cool night air without the bother of bugs. Screened porches were often preferential to sleeping in the hot bedrooms which tended to be on the upper levels of homes. Apartment dwellers in the pre-a/c era would often sleep on their fire escapes to get the same effect.
While most modern roofs are covered with asphalt shingles, many older homes were more likely to have light-colored metal roofs, commonly made of tin, copper, or lead. These old-fashioned roofs, while a little noisy in a rainstorm, were very effective at reflecting the sun’s rays and excess heat away from the home.
Electric fans and refrigerators also gave people some creative ways to beat the heat of summer before air conditioning. You could call it an old-time air conditioner, but one popular way to cool off was to simply put a fan in front of a pan of cracked or dry ice.
Another trick people used to control their body temperatures was to either refrigerate or freeze bedsheets and/or pajamas during the day with the hope that the cool effect would last them long enough to fall asleep.
Still one other trick was to hang wet clothing, bedsheets, and other fabrics in front of open windows or fans to provide a little extra cooling effect to the otherwise warm summer breezes.
If there’s a point to this, I suppose it’s that human ingenuity always provided solutions to problems as we encountered them, and we never really “needed” our air conditioners, though these days we certainly tend to feel that way when they go on the blink… And if you want a newfound appreciation for the way previous generations tried to beat the heat, try turning off the air conditioner for a day and sleeping in some frozen pajamas!