Features and Occasionals

Life Before Air-Conditioning

By Royal Delegge

How did Utahns of bygone days handle the summer heat?

Northern Utah is experiencing hotter temperatures on average almost every year. The temperature in our region is increasing at twice the rate of global warming overall. We need to find ways to adjust to these changing conditions—to keep cool enough to function and live in relative comfort.

Air-conditioning has become a standard amenity of modern life. While the most popular method of providing comfortable and livable environments, air-conditioning systems consume a lot of energy and are relatively expensive to install. Many Utah homes rely on evaporative cooling systems (swamp coolers—see story, this issue), which cost significantly less to install and run, and work well in our dry climate.

In exploring alternative means of keeping cool, we can learn a thing or two by looking at practices from previous eras.

How climate control changed the world

Modern air-conditioning was invented just after the turn of the 20th century. However, those systems were developed, not for homes but for workplaces, to improve various industrial processes. The comfort of the workers was an unintended outcome, albeit a beneficial, and welcomed, one. Eventually, the development of artificial climate control systems allowed us to make the world radically different from the one in which even our recent ancestors lived.

Climate control systems made the construction and operation of massive buildings and skyscrapers feasible. These could not have been successfully built if they had to rely on open windows and area fans to move air through massive spaces in an effort to ease the discomfort of heat build-up inside such structures.

After World War II, residential air-conditioning became widely available to homebuilders  and ushered in the development of suburban tract housing.

The new technology changed our expectations of comfort and brought about a rapid departure from tried-and-true architectural features and social customs that people had relied on for generations.

Cooling by design

One of the oldest methods of securing a livable home climate was to live underground. Prehistoric people used caves, rock overhangs and other such geologic opportunities for protection.

It was common for early settlers on the Great Plains to build dugout homes, often constructed with clods of sod, partially below the level of the ground. Even though they required a lot of labor to construct, they were inexpensive to build using locally available materials. Best of all, they remained cool in the heat of the summer.

This idea survived in some modern houses in the form of deep, spacious basements, split-level homes, and houses built into a hillside. With these modern architectural design features, the lower levels can stay much cooler than they would in buildings constructed entirely above ground level. The use of thick stone, adobe or traditional brick outer walls also helps to maintain a cooler environment inside of buildings. Combined with air-conditioning, these types of design also allow for the use of cheaper and lighter building materials.

Not that long ago it was unheard of to cancel school due to heat conditions. Even though it was uncommon for schools to have air-conditioning, buildings encorporated other methods of easing the effects of heat buildup. Schools were commonly built with thick brick walls, high ceilings, transoms above the doorways and ceiling fans. Trees planted on the premises helped cool the buildings, too, and may have provided shady areas in which to hold classes when conditions made the indoor environment unbearable.

Each of these design features had a specific purpose in making the indoor environment comfortable. The high ceilings (often reaching 10 feet) allowed hot air to rise. Ceiling fans pulled hot air up during the summer, and pushed warmer air down in the winter.

Many older homes were two stories tall or more, taking advantage of the stack effect, in which open stairwells vented heat to the upstairs spaces. For this reason, upper floors were used only at night, with the windows open to vent the warmer air to the outside. Some houses even had a tower or a turret to act as a heat exhaust vent, similar to a chimney.

Bedrooms were ideally designed with windows on opposite sides, which allowed for cross ventilation of cooler nighttime breezes.

Take it outside

Outside design features also contributed to  the purposes of cooling. Trees were planted on the east and west sides so they could provide shade to block the summer sun before it warmed the exterior walls, preventing heat from radiating inside. The shade they provided also cooled down breezes slightly before they enter the porches—a common feature, where people could seek refuge from the indoor heat.

Porches, together with deep eaves, protected windows by keeping them out of the line of direct sunlight. Sitting on the front porch was an easy means of escaping the indoor heat, and became a defining means of social interaction. People would walk through their neighborhood and visit with other families sitting on their porches.

Awnings and window overhangs provided an effect similar to that of tree shade. And during the winter months when the sun was lower on the horizon, sunlight easily entered through the windows below the level of the awnings.

Changes in our lifestyles, including the widespread use of the automobile, television and air-conditioning, all reduced our face-to-face interactions and largely eliminated the front porch as a foundation of daily social interaction—and a means of respite from indoor heat.

When daytime temperatures would rise to uncomfortable levels in dry climates, people would hang wet sheets or laundry in doorways. This would provide a cooling effect that mimics what evaporative coolers provide, albeit to a lesser degree of effectiveness.

Another way to deal with excessive midday heat was to rest during the hottest hours, and resume work later in the afternoon. People shopped and socialized later in the evening when the air was cooler. Some cultures still practice this habit today.

In the mid-20th century, when household air-conditioners were available but still uncommon, one air-conditioned place was accessible to almost everyone: the movie theater. People would gather there and spend a summer afternoon enjoying the relief of the artificially cooled air. This developed into a social phenomenon which Hollywood eventually capitalized on, bringing us the now-traditional summer blockbuster movies.

Our cultural ancestors, even up to very recent times, did not enjoy the benefits we now take for granted. Some of us are still of an age where, faced with excessive heat, we applied  the practices described here in attempt to make our lives more comfortable. The fact is that many of us didn’t have other options. We were used to dealing with what would be considered extreme conditions in today’s modern society, even as temperatures rise.

With or without air conditioning, many of these practices are still capable of providing alternative means of keeping cool when the dog days of summer are upon us.

Old-school DIY ways to stay cool

The CATALYST office building is old, with high ceilings. It’s an a/c-free zone. Our We finally got an evaporative cooler a few years ago (an excellent move—see Pax Rasmussen’s story in this issue and also last September on swamp coolers).

Interested in acclimatizing to a broader range of temperatures? Here’s what kept us tolerably comfortable during the previous 30 years, and which we continue (misnus the water pistols).

The first goal is to keep heat out.

  • Window management: Open windows first thing in the morning (or at night, if you’re at home) to let in the cooler air. When outside temperatures are about to exceed inside temps (or you’re leaving for the day), close the windows and draw the shades—particularly those on the south and west sides.
  • Upgrade your light bulbs. Even CFLs give off some heat. Invest in a box of LEDs.
  • Unplug chargers. Have you noticed how your various charging devices are warm when plugged in? Pull the plugs out of the sockets when not in use. Or use power strips you can easily turn off.
  • Weather-stripping. As it keeps the cold air outside in the winter, it helps keep the cooler air inside in the summer.

Most of the following suggestions will not lower your thermostat’s reading. They will, however, make you more comfortable.

  • Ceiling fans. Great invention. Using a ceiling fan, which costs a lot less than an air conditioner to run, can make you feel up to 4° F cooler, according to Energy Star.

Choose a fan that fits the room (a fan with a 52-in. blade in a small room can feel like you’re in a hurricane).

If your ceilings are high, use a downrod; eight to nine feet is the ideal height, according to Consumer Reports.

Make sure the blades are set to pull the air up. And turn off the fan when you leave the room.

  • Box fan. When the air is hotter inside than out, point it out the window, so it sucks the hot air out.
  • Hydrate. Here at the CATALYST office, we’ve gone through countless jugs of Water Wellness water through the years, to good effect.
  • Spray bottles (and occasionally water pistols, but that’s another story). I used to make the rounds a few times each day, misting my stalwart companions as they slaved over hot computers. Evaporative cooling comes in many forms.
  • Ditch the formal dress code. As if we ever had one. Still, loose-fitting cotton has proved to be the fabric of choice in an a/c-free office.
  • Dogs hang their heads out of the car window because it feels good. So does a desk fan. In the dog days of summer, the point is not to make your dwelling cooler, but to cool you. Desk fans fit the bill when you need them.

— Greta Belanger deJong

Royal DeLegge is Salt Lake County Health Department’s director of environmental health, an adjunct professor at Westminster College and Utah Clean Cities Coalition’s chairman of the board and CEO.

This article was originally published on May 2, 2018.