Before the advent of the utility company ancient civilizations used sun, wind and water to cool and heat their homes.
The Aqueduct Bridge of Segovia, Spain 112 AD
The ancient Romans constructed systems of pipes, ditches, canals, tunnels and other structures to convey water from faraway sources into city centres. Fresh water was used for public drinking fountains, baths, watering crops and as we will see shortly, for cooling indoor spaces.
The Alhambra, the complete Arabic form of which was Qalat Al-Hamra, is a palace and fortress complex located in Granada, Andalusia, Spain.
Put to practical and aesthetic use, water features are central to the design of the Alhambra. Here, several are featured in the Patio de los Leones.
The native landscape outside the Alhambra remains naturally dry in contrast to the lush plantings within.
Patio de la Acequia courtyard and central pool at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
What did central air conditioning look like in ancient times? This “an ab anbar” (water reservoir) with double domes and windcatchers (openings near the top of the towers) in the central desert city of Yazd, Iran keeps things cool and wet inside without the aid of electricity.
Six thousand years ago Neolithic Chinese villagers had the sole opening of their homes face south.
The ancient Chinese did this to catch the rays of the low winter sun to help warm the interior. The overhanging thatched roof kept the high summer sun off the houses throughout the day so those inside would stay cool. Two thousand years later the Chinese began to formally study the movement of the sun throughout the year in relationship to the earth. Knowledge gained from these studies stimulated Chinese urban planners to construct the main streets of towns to run east to west to allow every house to look to the south to catch the winter sun for supplementary heating. Over the millennia Chinese cities followed such planning and still today the Chinese favor a south-facing home.
Socrates was outspoken about the value of building with the sun in mind for the comfort of the occupants. Aristotle also taught his students the value of designing houses to make maximum use of the winter sun and to keep the house in shade during the hotter months. Archaeological digs have confirmed that the ancient Greek builders followed the advice of these sages. Retrofits in Athens followed by whole cities such as Olynthus, Priene, Delos and many others, as well as rural dwellings, show that solar architecture became ubiquitous in Greece and its surroundings for centuries.
Archimedes reflected the Sun’s rays onto the Roman galleys to set them alight.
Rome’s greatest architect Vitruvius saw solar houses while on duty as a military engineer in recently conquered Greece. When writing his great work On Architecture, he emphasized proper solar orientation for buildings and bath houses. From literature of the time it appears many followed Vitruvius’ instructions. Baths were especially popular among the Romans but demanded a great amount of heat. From the times of the early empire onward, most faced the afternoon sun in wintertime when they had maximum use. They also had their large windows covered with either transparent stone like mica or clear glass, a Roman invention of the 1st century ACE, one of the great breakthroughs in building and solar technology. Transparent materials like mica or glass, the Romans discovered, acts as a solar heat trap, admitting sunlight into the desired space and holding in the heat so it accumulates inside. Facing structures to the winter sun became so popular in Roman times that sun-right laws were passed, making it a civil offense to block one’s access to the south.
Built in 60-70 AD the bathing complex in what is known today as Bath, England is a completely intact example of a fully heated swimming pool in ancient times.
The water which bubbles up from the ground at Bath falls as rain on the nearby Mendip Hills. It percolates down through limestone aquifers to a depth of between 2,700 and 4,300 metres (8,900 and 14,100 ft) where geothermal energy raises the water temperature to between 69 and 96 °C (156.2 and 204.8 °F).
What do all of these places have in common? No utility bills … ever.