In Praise of Older Houses, Air Conditioning Edition

In Praise of Older Houses, Air Conditioning Edition

My old high-school buddy Phil Rosenthal, who still lives in Chicago, wrote a piece about the social costs of now-ubiquitous air conditioning last week, and it’s had me thinking.

In particular, it’s had me thinking about older houses, and how they were designed to stay fairly comfortable without air conditioning. My house dates from 1903 — it has good cross-ventilation, big windows, and a lot of insulation. If I leave the windows open all night with a couple of fans going, then close the house up in the morning, it stays pretty cool. Right now it’s 92 degrees outside, and the thermometer in my kitchen reads 77.

Now granted, this isn’t Chicago, or Sacramento, or New York, or even North Carolina — places I’ve lived where it gets really hot. But even in those places — we never had air conditioning when I was growing up. It was hot in the summer, and then we went to Northern Wisconsin for a couple of weeks where there were lakes, and cool nights (or later, we went to Camp for the bulk of the summer, but that’s a different post altogether). In North Carolina I worked for a rafting company and lived in a shacky house at the bottom of a “holler.” There wasn’t any AC in the outpost, nor in my shack, but of course, we were on the river much of the day and in the mountains where it usually cooled off some at night. Sacramento vies with New York City for the hottest place I’ve ever lived, but even there, we didn’t use the AC that much because we were broke graduate students (and in NYC I lived in a tenement and sweltered. It sucked). We were just hot a lot of the time. You didn’t do anything outside between one and seven or eight if you could help it.

What got me thinking about Phil’s piece is that when we were in high school we all went downtown on an architecture tour for one of our classes — history maybe? Can’t remember. But we looked at a number of those early skyscrapers from the turn of the 20th century — buildings that were built with windows that opened, and designed for cross-ventilation and natural light. When I was looking for apartments with my mom a few years ago, we looked at a number of commercial buildings from that era that had been converted to apartments, and what was so striking was the huge windows, the natural light (and in Milwaukee, the radiator heat that was generated by the city in a central downtown boiler). We used to have ways of dealing with these things that we seem to have forgotten. Perhaps it’s time to start paying attention again.

Air conditioning is a huge huge drain on our electric grid, and while it is necessary in some circumstances, it seems to me that we would do well to look back a little bit, to figure out what worked in the past and to pay a little attention. Here’s a link to a good article the New York Times ran about fans with some alarming statistics: almost 2/3s of American homes have air conditioning, AC is eating up 25% of our electric usage, while in comparison, a ceiling fan uses up only 30 watts of power.

So I’d love to urge people to reconsider their cooling options. Learn to work with what you have. Window fans are great (mine are the kind with two fans that can blow in, out, or exchange air). Cross ventilation is good. Learning to live outside the typical American comfort zone is not a bad thing.

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Older Houses, Air Conditioning Edition

  1. It’s amazing what a little insulation will do for you… and a basement. This is the first time I’ve had both in 20 years. Makes a huuuuge difference.

  2. we Brits do not have air conditioning, mainly because summers were never hot and we are all born with a stiff upper lip that even the hottest weather cannot cause to droop. But with all of this climate change and not knowing what the next day will be like I fear some folk may start to install it in their homes. Probably the same people who sit under patio heaters in November.

    Me, I have been known to sit with my feet in a bucket of cold water when the temperature rises…

  3. We live in a 60 year old house in Berea, a suburb of Cleveland. We do not have air conditioning. I, like you, open windows at night and close up during the day. I find the best way to “beat the heat” is to spend the day outside in the shade. I read, knit, walk around admiring the garden, drinking water and enjoying the beautiful weather. I am always amazed at the people that are flat-out SHOCKED that we have gotten by without air our entire home-life from childhood to near retirement. I have thought we should add air to our home before we do retire ((We have a house “bucket list” before retirement that we are chipping away at) and reading your post reminds me why we have chosen our particular life path. I just hope that when I am in my 90s…I am planning on living to 100… I don’t kick myself for taking air off the “bucket list”!

  4. Yes. Insulation must be nice. I live in a early 1900s house with no insulation: in the middle of West Texas! We haven’t had a day with temperatures below 95 degrees or so in almost two months. Most days the temp has been triple digits. And August is normally the hottest month of the year.

    I spent the whole month of August in Sacramento in ’89. I ‘loved’ it there. I woke up and stepped outside. Compared to what I was used to, I almost needed a jacket to go out in the mornings with that breeze coming from the bay.

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