Wednesday , December 26 2018
Home / Homesteading / How Houses Functioned Before the Advent of Air Conditioning

How Houses Functioned Before the Advent of Air Conditioning

How Houses Functioned Before the Advent of Air Conditioning

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.

Interior Controls:

Wall Thickness

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!

many homes would actually be built on top of blocks
many homes would actually be built on top of blocks

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.

PAGE 1 0f 2


  1. we live in eastern New Mexico and have not had our ac on all summer. Windows open, fans running toward the outside to draw air out and sheer determination has allowed us to “weather” this challenge. Our kids are old enough to self-regulate ie I have no infants or young children who could be adversely affected by this sometimes suffocating heat. I can’t wait for winter since hopefully we can now afford to run the heat!!

  2. I live in NW Iowa. When I first moved into this house, I had a handyman put in my Dad’s favorite thing, a large louver on one side of the attic, and an automatic fan that opens and blasts the hot air out of the attic if the temp gets over 95 degrees. It goes off and on several times a day, I don’t have central air, I have a 1926 house and two window ACs. I haven’t used them this summer. I have a fan running and the occasional time the attic fan comes on, the temp in the house drops about ten degrees.

  3. I never experienced air conditioning until I was over 20 years old. We ate lighter foods and were not overweight back then. We all became acclimated to the hot weather and did not need air conditioning. Humans prospered and became used to the heat thousands of years before air conditioning. We do not need it in our lives, but it does make living more comfortable. I grew up sleeping outside on a screened in porch year around and I never complained except when I got up on cold mornings and my feet hit the cold wooden floors. We did not have running water, telephones, nor bath rooms. I breathed fresh air all year long.

  4. Of course some of this is just common sense… like opening the windows early in the morning and shutting them when the sun hits them (or having blinds).

    Some of the things mentioned which will help with summer heat… high ceilings, large windows, etc. will make it expensive and difficult to heat the home in the winter (although the 12-24″ thick walls will probably help in summer or winter).

    Depending upon where you live… a brick or stone home may not be the best of all ideas. Those of us who live in seismically active zones know that insuring a masonry home for earthquakes is expensive. Yes, having trees around your home shading it can be very nice. However, for those of us who live out west this creates a situation where you don’t have a defensible space around your home for wildfire — an unfortunate reality.