Since the advent of air conditioning in first half of the 20th century, there has been a never-ending movement to insulate buildings within and without to effectively trap all the cool/hot air inside the building. This has movement has resulted in various forms of insulation, including but not limited to radiant barriers in attics, spray foam, fiberglass insulation, and much more.
It is interesting to note that the insulation industry has really only existed for less than 100 years. So how did people keep their homes cool in the hot Louisiana summers and warm during the occasionally cold winters? They had a few tricks up their sleeves:
1. Building design – If you travel the great River Road, you’ll notice that the architectural styles of the old plantation homes and vernacular structures are markedly different from those we see today. In Louisiana, buildings had to have large porches to shade the living area of the house from the rays of the sun. The porches also provided extra living space when the air got too hot and stuffy inside the building. Floorboards were spaced slightly apart to allow air to flow in from under the raised house and cool it off. Dormers were added to the roof to help vent the attic.
2. Landscaping – Today, we use landscaping to beautify the property surrounding our homes and places of business. The same was true in antebellum Louisiana, but landscaping also served a secondary purpose: to shade buildings from the sun in the summer and block the cold winds in the winter. Hence plantations like Houmas House are almost completely shaded by the surrounding live oaks.
3. Original Insulation – In the statelier Louisiana homes, insulation was generally achieved through the building materials used: bousillage between the wooden posts in the frame, mortar between the bricks in the foundations, and plaster (to some extent). This provided a modicum of comfort, although it was nothing like what we are used to today. In vernacular structures, such as slave cabins, newspaper was used to insulate the walls (see picture above). The slaves would mix flour and water together to create a rudimentary glue and paste the newspaper to the walls with it.
If you’ve ever been to Louisiana between June and September, you know how bad the heat and humidity can be. It’s a wonder that people were able to live in such a place without air conditioning, but then again, they never experienced what a perfectly cooled house at 72° felt like. I for one am grateful that I don’t have to spend a Louisiana summer without AC!
(For the best practices in responsive climactic design and restoration, please see Eddie Cazayoux’s A Manual for the Environmental and Climatic Responsive Restoration and Renovation of Older Houses in Louisiana).