Historic building perspective on staying cool

Posted in: Architecture & Interiors, Building Engineering, Cultural Resources


air conditioningIt’s hot out there and air conditioning is on – literally and on the minds of historic preservationists like me. Understanding the history of air conditioning and other building systems is an important and enjoyable part of my work.

Architectural historians at Mead & Hunt often review building projects to help them meet the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s Standards and Preservation Briefs. We work with architects, engineers and builders on sensitive project designs. Knowing the history and development of building systems like air conditioning helps us help clients.

The realities of historical cooling systems recently became personally relevant to me. The heat in Oklahoma has been oppressive with temperatures soaring into triple digits. Most of us today can bump up the AC to cope… but as a historian, I realize this wasn’t always an option.

A recent wood window restoration project in my home, originally built in 1929, led me to consider their original function. Windows were an important component of a historic building’s original cooling system.

Beating the heat before air conditioning, and how our modern, climate-controlled buildings came to be

Until the early 19th Century, cooling was accomplished largely through “natural” means. Architects used passive cooling and heating measures in their building designs. Homes were oriented to make the most of natural breezes. Trees were planted, and awnings were installed to provide cooling shade. People fanned themselves, relaxed on front porches and slept outside on sleeping porches.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these passive cooling methods gave way to more modern methods:

  • Founding father and inventor Benjamin Franklin was fascinated with air-cooling, and in the 1750s he conducted some experiments with evaporation.
  • John Gorrie experimented with cooling hospital patient rooms in the 1850s.
  • Nikola Tesla developed alternating current in the late 19th century that made motors possible.
  • Engineer Willis Carrier experimented with an invention to control humidity. He designed the first modern air conditioning system in 1902.
  • In 1925 air conditioning was introduced to the public at the Rivoli Theater in Times Square.

Though it was first used in public spaces, climate control through AC quickly became the norm for residential buildings as well. As air conditioning transitioned from a luxury to a necessity, it changed how and where we lived. Architectural design and social habits reflected this shift; now, there was less need for porches, large windows or transoms. AC also changed where we could live comfortably, opening the Sunbelt to millions of people and businesses.

Preservation Brief 24 by the National Park Service is a great resource if you want a comprehensive look at the history of building mechanical systems. The brief provides technical information on how to sensitively integrate modern systems in historic buildings.

New concerns about sustainability have seen a shift in appreciation back to “natural” or passive cooling measures. Both modern and “natural” cooling approaches have merit, and if used together, will create stronger solutions than either approach alone.

My experience as a historian has taught me that there is great value in learning how past generations have coped with issues we face today. Understanding our past allows us to see not only where we’ve been, but where we are going as well. It’s important to remember where we have come from; lessons we learn from the past help us build a sustainable future.


Liz Boyer

About the Author

Liz Boyer specializes in historic and archival research, reconnaissance-level surveys and evaluation of National Register eligibility. Her experience includes Section 106, Section 4(f), HAER documentation, and NEPA compliance. She lives one block off Route 66 and states that she loves “hands-on history and finding new ways to experience a historic place.”

Read more posts by Liz Boyer

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