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It’s easy to see how different architecture of today is from the houses and buildings of history. If you look at historical architecture, there is some obvious differences between the way homes and buildings are constructed today. While styles and materials have of course changed over time, another big driver of this evolution is the invention and resulting popularity of air conditioning.

There’s no doubt that air conditioning plays a big role in our lives and that’s even evident in the way we build our spaces. We have a lot more flexibility in how we design homes and buildings today thanks to the advancements that have been made in artificial cooling. Prior to air conditioning, buildings had to be strategically constructed in order to maximize air flow and manage the temperature. Throughout history, it’s clear how homes and buildings have changed overtime to adapt to modern advancements, especially air conditioning. Keep reading for some insight into how buildings were constructed before air conditioning and how the evolution of air conditioning influenced the evolution of modern architecture.

Before Cooling

Prior to air conditioning, architects had to design structures with a lot more factors in mind. Before air conditioning, the weather and climate of the area had to be heavily considered in the design of a structure. Homes that were built in hot and humid areas, like the Southeast, had to be designed with built-in cooling mechanisms and the ability to let natural cool air in and hot air out.

These mechanisms were sometimes found in older buildings and homes in the form of large, open stairwells. Stairwells would be built with windows towards the top so that breezes could come through and cool the warm air that would rise to the top. Another feature of architecture that is evident in many historic homes, especially in the South, is the large front porch. Porches were not only thought of as nice features for homes, but rather an area for guests and homeowners to escape the heat while enjoying the fresh air. Roof overhangs would also be a popular addition to porches. These overhangs would not only provide shade to people while they were on the porch, but they would also keep windows shaded, reducing the sun’s warming effect on the home. Another building hack that architects used to help maximize coolness in homes prior to air conditioning was strategically selecting materials, such as stone to build thick walls that would help keep temperatures controlled.

Modern Buildings Begin to Take Shape

Despite the lack of modern air conditioning, humans still innovated upon building design. While it may seem strange, and even unsafe today, early skyscrapers were designed to work even without the modern advancement of air conditioning with functional windows. It may be hard to imagine considering how today’s skyscrapers are thoughtfully climate controlled, but before air conditioning, skyscrapers had to be designed with airflow and temperature in mind.

In 1884 one of the first skyscrapers was built – the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. Engineers and architects had to overcome many challenges associated with ventilation, airflow and cooling in order to make the building inhabitable. In early skyscrapers, many of the same strategies and techniques used to keep smaller buildings and homes were used, although they had to be adapted in order to work on this new, larger scale. For one, operable windows were a must in these early skyscrapers in order to allow for ventilation. High ceilings and central open courts were also used to give warm air a place to escape to and promote airflow. Another strategy architects used was to build these early buildings in shapes that ensured cross-ventilation and daylight were available everywhere. This approach sometimes resulted in buildings in the shape of letters such as “C” or “E.”

Even with all of these efforts, early skyscrapers were still far from comfortable. Ventilation was mostly done out of concern for letting in fresh air, rather than cool air since the coal-and gas-powered lamps of the time were notorious for filling rooms with toxic smoke. That being said, before the invention of air conditioning people were simply more used to hot and humid conditions.

Even though people had a higher tolerance for heat before air conditioning, there was still a desire to provide relief from the heat, especially in businesses and buildings where many people gathered, such as theaters. To help keep theaters cool during the summer months, air cooled by ice would be pumped in, though this offered only minimal cooling. Another feature that was added to entertainment buildings in an effort to keep guests cool was roof gardens. While there were no actual cooling mechanisms on these roof top gardens they would at least expose guests to fresh air and give them a better chance of catching a breeze.

Air Conditioning is Introduced

In the early 1900s, Carrier introduced true air conditioning, although these systems were very large and cumbersome making them impractical for use outside of large buildings. It wasn’t until 1913 that Carrier had its first residential installation, although it was only possible because the unit was being installed in an extremely large mansion. For much of air conditioning’s early history, units were simply too large and expensive to be mainstream.

It wasn’t until 1952 that a skyscraper was designed with effective enough air conditioning and ventilation allowing it to be sealed off from the outside. This building marked a significant change in the relationship between architecture and air conditioning. Now, it was possible for buildings to be designed with style first. Architects could now utilize more windows and glass features without worrying about the side-effects of letting in too much heat or not allowing enough cross-ventilation. Air conditioning also eliminated the need for large atrium and open spaces, allowing for architects to fit more functionality into every building and enabling building owners to maximize profits.

When you look at historical buildings compared to today’s modern architecture, it’s evident that style and function has changed significantly. Air conditioning has removed the need to design buildings around maximizing air ventilation and can now instead be designed with new approaches to style, size and functionality.

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