How Did People Survive Before Air Conditioning?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

How did people survive before air conditioning?

They built their houses differently.

We may not think about it much, but the invention of the air conditioner radically changed the way people built buildings, especially in the south. You may have noticed that older buildings tend to have much higher ceilings: this allowed heat to rise so that inhabits could enjoy the cooler space below. Deep eaves and porches protected windows from the heat of the sun, and it was common to plant trees on the east and west sides of a house for additional shade.

In addition to this, rooms were designed with windows on opposite sides of the space, which allowed for cross ventilation. Air likes to have a place to go, so opening up a single window won’t generate much air movement. But open two windows right across from each other and you can get a nice breeze going. In cases where it wasn’t possible to have two windows on opposite sides of a single room, architects would line up rooms in a row, allowing air to flow between them. You can see this in old shotgun homes in New Orleans, or in railroad apartments in New York.

They got outside.

Currently the porch, like the fireplace, is a charming but somewhat vestigial architectural feature. But in the past porches were incredibly important, not just for shading the windows of a home, but also for providing a place where people could sit outside, out of the glare of the sun, and perhaps enjoy a breeze. These days, when it’s hot, people flock inside, but in the past it was the opposite: temperatures indoors and out were more or less the same, and the porch was much less stuffy than the rest of the house. This led to a whole culture of people sitting outside on their porches after supper, which has essentially disappeared. Some older houses were also built with sleeping porches, screened-in porches where one could sleep during the summer, enjoying the breezes but protected from bugs. New Yorkers replicated this by sleeping on the fire escape on especially hot days.


  1. Grasspunk says:

    No mention of stone houses with 80cm thick walls?

  2. Isegoria says:

    Not a whole lot of that in the American South — but the Southwest does have a history of thick adobe walls.

  3. Bob Sykes says:

    And high ceilings, 12 to 14 ft, and windows that opened at the top as well as the bottom.

    I once taught in an original Carnegie building that had this, even in my office. You could get quite a breeze going if you knew what to do.

  4. Slovenian Guest says:

    We have no air conditioning but do live in a 150-year-old house with super-thick walls. We are not allowed to put one in even if we want to, for historic reasons; the kaiser would disapprove of condenser units or something…

    And speaking of, they used to have passive cooling towers called windcatchers back in ancient Persia, architectural elements which create natural ventilation in buildings.

  5. Abelard Lindsey says:

    This highlights what I despise about modern houses. I like a house that is more open. Both an open floor plan as well as large windows on both sides of the rooms. I like a large porch because I like to sit outside a lot. I prefer not to use A/C because I prefer the more natural air from outside.

  6. Mike In Boston says:

    I once visited friends in a house more than a century old that was across the street from the Gulf of Mexico. It was designed with doors or windows in each wall that ran parallel to the Gulf, so that a breeze could blow all the way from the windows at the front of the house, through sitting rooms and even bathrooms and out through the kitchen windows at the back of the house. You did have to remember to open the bathroom door back up when you were done to keep the breeze going. Quite an elegant design.

  7. AAB says:

    There are some funky hippys who are building so-called ‘Earthships’ in the desert (New Mexico) that don’t require any air conditioning units:

    The outer few feet of the earth heats up and cools off in response to surface weather. However, deeper in the earth, about four feet and beyond, the temperature is more constant (around 58 degrees). Here, the earth can be used to both cool and stabilize temperature if the home is appropriately designed.

    Earthships are thermal mass homes first, passive solar homes second. Therefore, the layout and design of the Earthship can be completely customized to look like any conventional home, and still be sustainable.


    Some of the Earthships also act as greenhouses so homeowners can grow figs, grapes etc inside. This is in addition to them being self-sufficient in water and energy, and doing loads of other hippy-type stuff.

    There’s a couple of Youtube videos knocking around as well that you might be interested in:

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