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.
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