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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 ago, 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.

  1. 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.

  2. Roof dormers make attic space into bedrooms, often added for expanding families, and also provide ventilation.

  3. 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.

  4. Shutters hinge closed to provide quck storm protection. With the louvers open, they block the tropical sun while letting in the sea breeze.

  5. Tongue-and-groove wood flooring, walls, and celings make each room into a sturdy structural box to resist hurricane winds.

  6. 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: 

What is a cool roof?

• When is a ceiling fan too low?

Should I remove an old whole house fan or keep it?

How can I find out the SEER of my air conditioner? 

My air conditioner won't turn on. What's wrong? 

How can I find out the size of my air conditioner? 

How can I find out the age of my air conditioner or furnace?

How can I tell whether the condenser (outdoor unit) is an air conditioner or heat pump? 

Where is the air filter for my central air conditioner and furnace? I can’t find it? 

Does an old air conditioner use more electricity as it ages? 

How did homes stay cool in Florida before air conditioning? 

What is wrong with an air conditioner when the air flow out of the vents is low?

Why has the thermostat screen gone blank? 

Why does it take so long to cool a house when an air conditioner has been off for a while? 

Why is my air conditioner not cooling enough? 

What are the most common problems with wall/window air conditioners?  

Will closing doors reduce my heating and cooling costs? 

     Visit our HEATING AND AIR CONDITIONING and ENERGY EFFICIENCY pages for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

This article was originally published in our Key West Sketchbook (1990, Maupin House). Illustration by Richard McGarry.

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