Environmental Integrity : interpreting historic indoor conditions

Date
2013-05
Authors
Frederick-Rothwell, Betsy
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Increasing concern with the amount of energy required to maintain static indoor conditions in hot-humid climates is encouraging designers to again contemplate passive methods of indoor environmental control. Yet prevailing cultural perceptions of acceptable comfort levels make building occupants wary of any suggestions to reduce the mechanical control of building interiors. The rapid deployment of air-conditioning in the building sector over the past fifty years and its consequent pervasiveness nearly guarantees that most Americans have had little conscious experience with non-conditioned space.
This thesis considers the potential for historic sites in Texas to interpret pre-air-conditioned indoor environmental conditions and to demonstrate historical approaches to climate mitigation. Within the context of preservation practice and theory, this study examines the historical context for these sites, particularly the professional and cultural constraints on architectural design in the nineteenth-century American South and architects’ strategies for managing environmental conditions within the limits of prevailing stylistic modes. Three case study sites are explored as potential venues for discovery and interpretation of traditional or transitional methods of cooling and ventilation: Historic Texas (Goliad and Comal county) courthouses, Galveston Historical Foundation’s Gresham House (Bishop’s Palace), and the University of Texas at Austin’s Battle Hall. Issues of historical interpretation are discussed and strategies that could be deployed in an indoor-climate interpretive program are proposed. With the rest of the world poised to follow America’s lead into a fully air-conditioned existence, it is critical to understand the modes and methods building designers used in the past in order to imagine alternate futures. Historic buildings and sites are well positioned to be the interpreters of those conditions and activities that made life in a hot-humid climate manageable. However, the ways in which preservationists value and evaluate historic buildings may have to change in order to participate meaningfully in this discussion.

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