How Homes Kept Warm Before Central Heat

It happens at the worst times: your central heat goes out right before or during the coldest storm of the year. While you wait for your HVAC repair savior, you light the fireplace (if you’re lucky enough to have one), you bundle yourself, your kids, and your pets in layer upon layer of sweaters and blankets.

You make soup!

You do all you can, and you’re left to wonder: How did our ancestors survive without central heating?

As this article explains, homes built before modern conveniences like air conditioning and heating were designed in a way that promoted self-heating and energy conservation – it was simply necessary for survival!

Of course, fireplaces (and other ingenious mechanisms like the hypocaust) played a big part in creating warmth inside the home, but the home still had to be constructed in a way that maintained that warmth.   

Here are a few of the structural prerequisites for homes providing cold-weather shelter:

Low Ceilings

We’ve all heard that “warm air rises,” but we don’t usually feel the effects of that until we’re in a high-ceiling room in the winter, feeling too much open air.

In homes built in cold climates (before modern heating comforts), you’ll find lower ceilings and smaller rooms – less space for warm air to escape!

If you have trouble keeping warm in a high-ceiling room, even in your modern home, try turning your ceiling fan settings backwards, so that it will pull warm air back down into the room!

Minimal Windows

Windows are really great for pulling heat into houses in the summer, but run the risk of pulling heat out of the house during the winter!

Because of this, old homes in colder climates usually kept windows small, and southern-facing, so that the home could pull in direct heat from the southern sun.

Thicker Walls

While we have space-age efficient insulation to keep our homes warm, our ancestors relied on thick walls of stone or brick to hold the heat from the sun and keep the home warm from that heat into the night!

They also had their own methods of insulation, often in the form of mud and straw.


Overhangs were an important element of homes that existed in climates that experience both freezing and warm climates, and are still a popular element for modern homes designed for passive heating and cooling.

The overhang is positioned in such a way that it provides shade from direct sunlight coming from the higher-positioned sun in the summer and creates an opening for direct sunlight from the lower-positioned sun in the winter.

In some climates, a trellis covered with leaves is sufficient to shade the home in summer, and those leaves fall away to provide sunlight in the winter!

Interested in owning an historic home with central heat?

If you already own or are looking to buy a home built before modern heating and air conditioning, you may have potential for energy savings as a result of these architectural elements.

You should consult both an architect and an HVAC professional, like BNG Heating & Cooling, to learn more about the ways you can maximize the energy efficiencies of historic homes with modern materials, all while maintaining the home’s original style.

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