How did people stay cool in Key West before air conditioning?
Monday, October 7, 2019
The “Conch House" is a unique, traditional way of constructing a home for the year-round hot weather of Key West that dates back over 100 years. It’s wood-frame, tin-roofed and has multiple passive cooling features. Until forty years ag, most architects considered them to be charming but antiquated relics.
Luckily, during the mid-twentieth century—while designers of the Modern Architecture persuasion were busy creating the concrete and glass boxes that they called “machines for living”—Key West was suffering through long decades of economic depression and couldn’t afford to keep up with the times.
Conch houses lack the clean, impersonal lines that were stylish for so long, but they have an intimate human scale and personality that their owners find comforting. And a closer look reveals an energy-efficient, sensible design for the tropics.
- Metal roofs reflect the heat and feed clean rainwater through gutters into a storage cistern. Metal shingles (shown on porch roof) and V-crimp metal panel roofing (shown on main roof) are both popular.
- Roof dormers make attic space into bedrooms, often added for expanding families, and also provide ventilation.
- Original walls did not have fire-stops (the horizontal blocks between wall studs) and were open inside from the bottom crawl space to the attic. This created a natural convection air flow to carry wall heat up to the attic and out through the louvered vents and roof scuttles.
- Shutters hinge closed to provide quck storm protection. With the louvers open, they block the tropical sun while letting in the sea breeze.
- Tongue-and-groove wood flooring, walls, and celings make each room into a sturdy structural box to resist hurricane winds.
- Porches shade the exterior walls, cutting down the heat load inside. They often face southeast to catch the prevailing breeze.
Disadvantages of a Conch House? Termites love to eat them, and wood rot takes its annual toll. But, unlike a concrete house, wood is easy to patch and replace as problems occur.
Besides, a Conch House is easy to love. Local artist Carolyn Fuller liked to call them “upside-down boats in a sea of sky."
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To learn more about heating and air conditioning systems, see these other blog posts:
This article was originally published in our Key West Sketchbook (1990, Maupin House). Illustration by Richard McGarry.
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