On my way home from work last night, I heard a news clip on the radio about a woman in DC who had rigged a fan to blow over a block of ice as a substitute for air conditioning. She was using what she had to make up for what she didn’t have and make her life better. That’s exactly what people did on Oatlands Plantation in the early 1800s.
Being at Oatlands in the high summer is an opportunity to appreciate the ingenuity of people who lived before electricity, central air or central heat. People used what they had to make their environment work for them. Oatlands mansion and its outbuildings are laid out with precise attention to sun exposure, convection within the building, prevailing winds and construction materials.
The greenhouse was built in 1810 to propagate plants and provide fresh food through the winter. The system used to heat the greenhouse in winter is ingenious (although I’ll be the first to admit it’s a sauna in there in this heat!). The mansion is built to vent hot air out the top floor and draw cool air in on the bottom floor. The barn, our current focus for research and restoration, was built to keep stored grain cool and dry, even in the worst of the damp heat. The ice house was built into a hill with thick, stone walls. The garden has boxwood walks that are about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the garden.
We warn visitors that the mansion has no air conditioning, but even yesterday, people let us know that they were comfortable as they took their tours. We do run fans to help things stay a little cooler, but old-school, near-zero carbon footprint technology is still at work!