Beating the Heat in America’s Early Office Buildings, Pt 1

3 Jul

The mercury has been topping 90 here in Chicago for the last few weeks.   Time to dust off those window AC units and enjoy some relief until things cool off.

This Chicago cat’s had enough of the heat. Photo by John Cramer.

Though I’m a big fan of passive cooling, I know when I’ve been beat.  I have now utterly surrendered to the heat.  The Sun 1, John 0.  Even the air conditioner at work has conked out on us.  Though the office ceiling fans have been doing their best, the steady stream of frigid air coming out of the vents has been missed.

In offices like mine, like in a lot of contemporary work environments, the fluctuation of outside temperature and humidity makes for an inconsistent air quality.  Plus those electronics that keep businesses functional and connected — the computer, the printer, the server — tend to be happier in cool, low-humidity environments, just like the humans who use them.  From what I’ve seen over my working life, hot and humid office spaces can make for hot and bothered employees.

Oriel Chambers, Liverpool UK, designed by Peter Ellis and completed in 1864. Photo credit Courtauld Insitute of Art

Even as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, architects of the world’s first modern office buildings knew how important interior ventilation affected the work of the world’s first modern office workers.   There was, however, no way to effectively ventilate early offices other than to keep windows operable and pray for sustained cool, dry weather.  Liverpool’s Oriel Chambers (1864), one of the very earliest office buildings ever built, provided its resident barristers inside more than enough light through its innovative glass curtain wall; architect Peter Ellis knew better, however, than to seal the interiors off, and provided mini-casement windows at each of Oriel Chambers’ window bays to allow for at least some internal temperature and humidity modulation.

Chicago’s Marquette Building, designed by Holabird & Roche and completed in 1895. Note the office floors’ Chicago-style windows. Photo from the MacArthur Foundation

Across the pond, architects of America’s first skyscrapers in Chicago and New York anticipated the soaring steel towers we work in today with their early use of structural steel frames, innovative new elevators, and floor upon floor of large-paned transparent glass.  But late nineteenth-century office architects like William LeBaron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, Holabird & Roche, and Cass Gilbert still knew that to keep the workers inside their buildings from roasting within their offices’ glass skins, they had to make the skins of their buildings breathable.  The development of the “Chicago-style” window in the 1880s was one solution to this problem of ventilation, a compromise between aesthetics and functionality;  the Chicago window’s large center pane let in the most light while its adjoining double hung windows allowed occupants to moderate temperature and humidity of their workspaces within as much as possible.  Or it at least allowed them to try to moderate their office climate — on hot, humid days in the city, the soupy air outside inevitably made early office life unbearable.

Chicago-style windows at Chicago’s Marquette Building. Photo by author

The ideas of two unrelated businessmen from Buffalo, New York, changed all of this.  After the turn of the twentieth century, the visions of two men — Willis Carrier and Darwin Martin (with more than a little help from Frank Lloyd Wright) —  heralded the American office dweller’s escape from the flailing variations in his office air quality and pushed architects to rethink the office building’s relationship with the natural environment in which it was built.

Part 2 of this series can be found here.


3 Responses to “Beating the Heat in America’s Early Office Buildings, Pt 1”

  1. Kim Bookless (@kimbookless) July 4, 2012 at 2:02 am #

    Love this post, John. Cleoma’s famous now!

    • johndcramer July 4, 2012 at 2:17 am #

      Thanks, Kim! This post literally came from the sweat of my brow. I’m telling you, it’s too darn hot.


  1. MADE IN WNY: CARRIER’S AIR CONDITIONER | Insyte Consulting - November 6, 2012

    […] more about Willis Carrier and the Buffalo Forge Company, read John Cramer’s insightful blog about architecture and […]

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