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Elizabeth Porterfield

How Air Conditioning Has Changed the Way We Build and Live:
A History of Residential Air Conditioning, Effects of Air Conditioning on Residential Architecture and Lifestyle, and Sensitive Adaptations for Use in Historic Residences

Carrier Air Conditioning System – Congress Theater, Chicago, IL, Photo by Christine Barr, 2003

       Air conditioning and its development over the course of the twentieth century have radically altered architecture and how we use and interact with the built environment. While traditional building techniques have, for centuries, incorporated ways to ventilate and provide cooling in hot climates, it is with the advent of mechanical cooling that we have developed controlled interior environments. These have allowed for new design techniques, innovative materials, and a different approach to using buildings.

            First, the history of air conditioning will be explored. From its early stages as humidity control in manufacturing plants to the concept of comfort cooling for people, the evolutionary steps of invention and design will be explained. An emphasis will be placed specifically on residential air conditioning and its development from early portable room-cooling units to completely integrated central air conditioning systems.

Holland Furnace Company Advertisement Better Homes & Gardens, September 1935

            The second section will address air conditioning’s dramatic influence on architecture and the way in which we live. Changes in residential architecture will be investigated, including the use of new building materials and new design concepts such as expanses of plate glass, flat roofs, and windowless rooms. Traditional methods of ventilation that began to disappear with the proliferation of air conditioning such as double hung windows, transoms, and front porches will also be assessed. Direct changes in lifestyle have also occurred due to air conditioning and its subsequent design changes. Loss of connection with the community, increased privacy, and other social issues will be examined.

            Finally, air conditioning poses a question for historic home preservationists. Can an historic home be air conditioned without undermining its integrity? Factors to consider include the need to air condition, preserving original air conditioning systems if they exist, and exploring options for retrofitting air conditioning to historic homes. Various available methods of retrofitting will be discussed and specific case studies—including an historic house museum, two 1850’s cottages, and a Century of Progress home—will be presented.



           Elizabeth Porterfield received a BS in Nursing from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996. Before beginning graduate study in Historic Preservation, she was a Registered Nurse in a dialysis clinic and worked in public health education. She completed a summer internship in San Gemini, Italy, documenting an historic church and monastery, and is currently employed at Glessner House Museum.


Thesis Advisor: Rolf Achilles, Adjunct Associate Professor, Historic Preservation; Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Thesis Reader: Bart Swindall

Second Reader: Edward Atwood, History Instructor, St. Philip’s College, Alamo Community College District






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