Old House Idiosyncrasies #4–Keeping Cool

The Front Porch of the Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast in Ontario, Canada. This is exactly the type of front porch that we don't have on our house. Photo Source: Tripadvisor.

The Front Porch of the Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast in Ontario, Canada. This is exactly the type of front porch that we don’t have on our house. Photo Source: Tripadvisor.

I got back from a trip to Banff, Alberta, Canada a week or so ago, where it had snowed on us three times (yes! In August!). We arrived at San Francisco International and could feel the heat as soon as I stepped onto the jetway. Our very temperate week was ending in a tropical weekend.

Now, I grew up in Boston, so I’m used to hot and humid summers, and at least the summers in the Bay Area aren’t too sticky. But I live in a Victorian house, and staying even somewhat comfortable when the mercury pushes into the triple digits takes a bit of work.

A recent article describes “10 Ways Victorians Managed to Stay Cool Without A/C”.  Reading through it though, I think it should more accurately be entitled “How Victorians Managed not to Die of Heat Exhaustion” as several of the methods don’t sound particularly effective.

At our house, we don’t have air conditioning, as you really only need it a handful of days per year in the Bay Area. However, over time, we’ve learned the idiosyncrasies of the house and how to use airflow and thermal conduction properties designed into it to make life bearable during those handful of days.

The key is to keep the hot air out as much as possible, meaning shades drawn and windows closed during the hottest part of the day. Many Victorian houses, especially those of the Queen Anne style have wide covered porches that serve this purpose. Unfortunately, our Italianate doesn’t, so we keep the windows and shades on the southwest side of the house drawn. Some of the heat that makes it in does rise up to the twelve-foot ceilings, keeping the lower regions relatively cooler; unfortunately some hot air also rises to the upstairs which can become pretty toasty by late afternoon.

Once the sun is setting, we can open things up again. After sundown, when the air has cooled (an effect that I was pleasantly surprised by when I moved to California because it definitely does not happen on the East Coast), we open all the windows and doors and use electric fans to bring as much cool air into the house. (You may think electric fans are not period. Aha! They were invented in 1886, so I’m counting it!) The upstairs fans are initially switched so they blow air outward to assist the hot air rising from the first floor to leave the premises.

At bedtime, the downstairs fans are turned off, but the upstairs are kept running. An interesting meteorological phenomenon is created by morning—a temperature inversion in which the upstairs fans have pushed all the hot air downstairs during the night. A few hours running the downstairs fans—either blowing in or out depending on the wind direction—and the downstairs is cooled off and ready to start the cycle again, or hope the weatherman is correct and it’ll be cooler today.

Our system may seem complicated, but it makes sense if you work with the natural airflow of the house and how it relates to the time of day. Of course, if our house had a wide front porch—a wish my wife frequently expresses—we’d be able to spend our summer afternoons sipping lemonade in the shade.


2 thoughts on “Old House Idiosyncrasies #4–Keeping Cool

  1. Love the picture of the porch at the bed and breakfast. We do the same dance of opening and closing windows and doors at different times of day to keep our 1906 house bearable during heat waves, but we haven’t used the fans yet as you describe (I actually have a large “breeze box” as it is called in the attic–stored, not in use–I should get it down and use it). One thing that makes a big difference in comfort is ceiling fans. I finally completed installing one in the master bedroom just as the latest heat wave hit and it made a big difference in comfort. As you said we only get a few heat waves each year and we just wouldn’t use AC enough to make it worth the expense and disruption.


  2. Pingback: Old House Idiosyncrasies #6–The Octagon House | Airship Flamel

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