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Life Before A/C: When Homes Were Cooled with Smart Architecture

During times prior to electric fans and the modern-day HVAC system, keeping temperatures cool in businesses and homes was largely achieved through creative architecture. Nowadays, most cooling is achieved by mechanically recirculating air within a sealed building, but in years past, houses were constructed with natural cooling means in mind.

Ceilings in many older homes were as high as 12 to 14 feet to allow heat to rise above room occupants. Cupolas were constructed atop some homes to allow hot air to escape. Houses were oriented to take advantage of sunlight during the winter and shade during the summer. Shutters on the sunny side of a home were often closed during the day and opened at night, and trees provided shade as well. Kitchens were often housed in a separate building both to prevent fire and to keep it from heating up the house.

Wind creates a pressure difference between windward and leeward walls, causing cooler air to enter one window and hot interior air to exit through an opposite opening, so windows were often positioned to allow for cross ventilation. Long, narrow, one-room “shotgun” homes with doors situated on opposite ends of the house served a similar purpose. A single open window or door or window does little to facilitate air movement.

Most porches on modern-day houses are primarily an attractive architectural feature, but in older homes they served two important purposes. They were designed to provide shade for first floor windows, keeping interiors cooler, and they gave people an outdoor place to sit during cooler morning and nighttime hours. Large wrap-around porches extending ten to fifteen feet from the home were most effective, which is why they are most prevalent in the South. Screened-in sleeping porches provided a more comfortable place for people to sleep during oppressive weather.


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