Monday, October 11, 2010

No AC - Important Interpretive Theme for Historic Houses

Our Summer Experiment: Living without AC tells me that “How Did People Live Without Air Conditioning?” would be an important major interpretive theme in historic houses for the next few years.

During the first semester of teaching The Green Museum, as my students conducted their own greening projects, The Brophy Family (of four) did its own: collecting and measuring waste generated during the month of December – yes the one with Christmas in it. With recycling at the usual level, we contained our non-recyclable waste to one garbage can.

In preparation for this semester’s class The Family conducted a summer-long experiment: how long can you go without AC? We made it through with only one night’s AC and localized it to the master bedroom. I was pretty impressed myself, but before you call Stan Lee’s Super Humans at The History Channel, keep in mind we can all do this.

Over the last few summers we worked ourselves up to indoor temperatures of 82 and often 84 degrees before turning on the AC – and that was in a bungalow built for AC with tiny windows with zero, I mean zero cross-ventilation. We even had to install screen doors and we were renting the place! And of course now we live in an 1875 home designed to manage Southeastern US heat and humidity: set up off the ground on a raised basement to catch breezes, tall and operable windows aligned expressly for light and cross-breezes, VERY tall ceilings with ceiling fans, a through-house staircase taking heat up and out through the third floor window, and the best front porch in town. Even though working from home meant being here during the hottest times, yet I needed to head to shared AC at the coffee shop or public library just three times this whole hot summer.

With thoughtful window-management throughout the day I could control sun and air to keep it comfortable. I pulled out my sons’ clay projects from over a decade ago and used them as paperweights and doorstops. One other trick: we turned off the hot water heater, too. Water tanks warm up in summer with ambient air temperature, don’t you know, so the water was comfortably cool. Who needs a hot shower in summer anyway? The question is, once we get an on-demand heater, will I use it in July and August? Maybe not now that I know I don’t need it.

So, all you historic house people, I’m thinking that “How Did People Live Without Air Conditioning?” should be a major interpretive theme in historic houses for the next few years. Think what great community engagement opportunities it offers, and what great ‘try this yourself at home’ ideas you could share with your visitors. YOu could do a 'bring back the front porch'-themed event; you could show your collection of fans (hand-held, or ceiling); and you could interpret the advent of ice boxes and ice cream and popsicles! Man, a popsicle is heaven on the front porch on a hot night...

The down side to our experiment? I’m so acclimatized that winter may be a tad tough with interior temperatures at 64 degrees. I have a plan, though. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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