How Home Design Helped People Survive Before Air Conditioning

Shotgun homes were designed to keep inhabitants cool in the Southern heat.

Back in 1979, former TIME magazine writer Frank Tripper wrote that people have become “all but addicted” to air conditioning. That’s a harsh way to put it, but some forty years later, Tripper’s observation is as true as it ever was. For those who live in hot climates (and even for many of us north of the US border) it’s hard to imagine life without the miracle of mechanical cooling.

Air conditioning has been around since 1902, but it’s only in the last 80 years or so that people have been accustomed to having it in their homes. So how did people survive the sweltering summer months before that?

There’s no one-stop solution to A/C-free cooling. In the years before air conditioning, people combined a variety of habits and routines to keep themselves going during the hottest days of the year: escaping to the outdoors, taking mid-day siestas, and getting creative.

But the coolest pre-AC cooling tricks were found in architecture.

Most modern homes are designed with central air conditioning in mind. They’re built to be as airtight and weatherproof as possible, hoarding cool air during the summer and keeping out cold winds in the winter. But if your A/C is on the fritz, it can be very difficult to keep your home from becoming stuffy, and humid.

Before 1902, builders in warm climates designed buildings that were meant to keep their inhabitants cool. As Apartment Therapy explains, they built higher ceilings to allow heat to rise and make the space below feel cooler. Some builders added deep eaves and porches to prevent sunlight from streaming in through the windows. Rooms had windows on opposite sides of the space for cross-ventilation, and people planted trees for additional shade.

Perhaps the best example of this technique is in shotgun-style homes. These homes were most iconic and prevalent in New Orleans, but you can find them in San Francisco and other American cities as well.

Shotgun houses had all the rooms lined up in a row to allow air to flow through them. High ceilings, covered porches, and window shutters kept the air circulating and the direct sun off interior rooms. Many windows had awnings and interior shades to provide additional UV-protection.

It’s a shame these ingeniously-designed homes gone out of vogue, but it’s not hard to see why: their unique layout is pretty far from what most modern buyers are looking for.

For one, they’re small. While the tiny house movement is bigger than ever, the mainstream thought still embraces the idea that more space = better. Typically, the front door in a shotgun home leads straight into the living room, and the kitchen is all the way in the back of the house to keep the heat from the stove and oven secluded. That made sense back in 1900, but now, we’re open-concept all the way.

Besides, the homes are an introvert’s nightmare – the bedrooms upstairs are often interconnected, with no hallway separating them! What you gain in cooling efficiency, you lose in privacy.

For now, I’ll stick with my air conditioner.

What Will Happen to the Toronto Cube House?

toronto cube house
Martin Trainor calls the cubes home sweet home. From the Toronto Star

Toronto is home to a score of amazing architectural feats. There’s the striking, contentious Crystal addition which juts out onto the street from the Royal Ontario Museum; the glass palace that is the Globe & Mail Centre; and, of course, the iconic CN Tower.

With so many massive structures, it’s easy to forget this modest entry in modern architecture: the cube house on Sumach St.

Designed by architect Ben Kutner in 1996, the Unitri cubes may be the most unique home in Toronto. And though it’s not as big as the ROM or the G&M, it’s hard to miss it.

The home is sandwiched between two on/off ramps between Adelaide and Eastern Avenue, greeting drivers heading to and from the Don Valley Parkway. Though originally intended as a three-condo unit, it has gradually transformed into a house-billboard hybrid.

Each cube is 42 feet by 42 feet and divided into three separate floors, which adds up to over 9,000 square feet of living space. Though they have few windows, the cubes get enough natural light to grow house plants inside.

Kutner based his idea on Rotterdam’s famous Cubic Houses. The cubes are designed to be the versatile and affordable modular homes of the future. They can be erected in weeks and arranged complex residential or commercial units. They can also fit in areas where there’s no room to build a traditional house. Kutner calls them, “Meccano on steroids.”

Of course, the cubes didn’t catch on like their Dutch inspiration did. Kutner never got around to building more cube homes, and they didn’t exactly lead the way to the future of architecture. But that just makes the Toronto prototype all the more special.

CBC video producer Martin Trainor calls the cube house home for fifteen years. “I choose to live here because it’s unique”, he says. “It’s a great architectural masterpiece, if you ask me.”

Unfortunately, these cute little cubes face an uncertain future. Last fall, the owner of the property placed the entire lot up for sale – cube home and all.

It’s not surprising, given how the value of the land has soared in the past decade. Since the cubes are just over twenty years old, it’s unlikely they could get protection as heritage properties. What happens to the Unitri cubes will be up to whoever buys the property.

Sure, not everyone wants to live in a forest-green cube with billboards plastered to the side. But there’s no shortage of identical suburban townhomes out there for plain, ordinary folk to snap up. There’s only one Unitri cube in all the world!

Building are part of what make the city what it is. Let’s hope the eventual buyer will help keep this spark alive.