When you look at old black and white pictures of cities from before the 1950s you may notice something on most buildings that are no longer there today. Awnings. They were ubiquitous over nearly every window of buildings from the most basic single family home to massive buildings like The White House.
Where did all these awnings go and why did they disappear? Before we answer that let’s look at what an awning actually does for a building.
How Do Awnings Work?
Awnings were and still are extremely effective at blocking solar heat gain through windows. We often look at builders from the 19th century with a pitying condescension like they just weren’t as smart as we are today. To me it’s really despicable the lack of respect we give these incredibly talented contractors who were able to design and construct these solid structures that have withstood the test of time without the use of computers, power tools, or energy codes.
They built these structures with incredibly clever passive heating and cooling systems like the double-hung window, making the best of the technological limitations of their day to create buildings that could keep people relatively comfortably even in extreme temperatures and awnings were a major part of that.
Awnings work by covering the top portion of window and thereby blocking the high summer sun from pouring into the window and heating the room. Since in the winter the sun is lower in the sky the awning, when positioned and sized properly, allows the winter sun into the room to warm things up.
No adjusting, no tweaking, just completely passive heating in the winter and cooling in the summer by a thoughtful design. The metal frame could last for decades without needing changing, and the fabric covering would need to be replaced every 8-10 years depending on exposure and climate.
Why Awnings Disappeared
So where did all the awnings go? Two simple words…air conditioning. Before the widespread adoption of air conditioning, awnings were the preferred way to keep buildings cooler. But just because we invented AC does that mean we don’t need the help that awnings provide?
In the middle of the 20th century as air conditioning was gradually installed in homes across America, awnings came down or wore out and were not replaced because now we had the technology to mechanically cool our buildings.
Energy costs were relatively cheap in those decades and one generation later when energy prices jumped up during the 1970s people seemed to have forgotten about awnings for energy savings. We jumped into the insulation craze and began stuffing fiberglass into every wall and ceiling as fast as possible, forgetting what our fathers and grandfathers knew to be true. If you kept the sun out of the windows you could keep the heat out of the building.
Today, awnings are mainly used as signage for storefronts and coverings to keep rain off of customers. Retractable awnings to cover decks and patios have picked up in the ensuing decades and remain a market for manufacturers, but the days of covering individual windows with awnings have gone away.
In this age of increasing energy prices, I’m hopeful the awning will swing back into popularity since it is an extremely simple way to keep temperatures moderated throughout the year. Time will tell. How about you? Would you consider adding awnings to your house to keep your heating and cooling costs down? If not then why? Let me know in the comments below.
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41 thoughts on “Why Don’t We Use Awnings Anymore”
I want to leave a reply because I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I know all the comments are very excited about awnings, so I apologize to be so anti-awning in this pro-awning space. However, my comment is mostly about the view.
We just bought a house – with awnings on it. We despise them, not so much for the way they make the house look, but the way they make the house feel so *dreary.*
We can’t see out the windows except for a tiny little sliver of the yard. It cuts out so much natural light. You open the curtains and see… awning, with all its metal skeleton in full view. This is what I don’t understand – do people like to see awning instead of the outside? I never see the suggestion of curtains and drapes as an alternative.
It’s honestly depressing, considering we live in a place with beautiful historic brick homes and unimaginably huge trees in front of basically every house along the street which provide tons of shade anyway.
We are very eager to get the awnings off the house.
I understand their usefulness in keeping out light and heat, and I think they would actually be a fantastic implementation especially in new neighborhoods without trees to keep the sun out, if they could be built in a way that doesn’t make one feel like they’re living in a box. I also like the idea of the retractable awning, but admittedly I don’t often find them to be very attractive.
Anyway, those are my thoughts!
Our 100+ yr old four-square center stair Colonial has 9′ ceilings and an exhaust fan in the attic. Using passive cooling alone (without awnings), I can keep the house 15 degrees cooler than outside. The only exception to that is when it only cools down to 70 at night, which is the only time that we use our 2 AC window units. Awnings wouldn’t necessarily help when it’s the oppressive night-time temps that are the culprits vs the daytime sunlight.
Besides being so effective, I think awnings look charming. I imagine they can also keep blowing rain from coming in open windows? But I live in upstate N.Y. and wonder about heavy snow sitting on top of them. Can you take them down in winter?
My house is older, early 1800s. Didn’t shutters provide the same benefits?
I’ve been debating about awnings on the W side of my home. Original single pane windows let in so much heat at days end. My concern is NE winds damaging them on my 100 yr old Craftsman Catalog home. Which will be more durable & stable; canvas or aluminum?
For sure I’ve considered awnings and will get some as my house needs them. It was moved and what was beautiful in the cooking the morning is now turned 90 degrees to the south.
I usecrolker shades and curtains and think awnings are a near perfect solution!
I love awnings. How about solar panel awnings? I think that would be a great idea.
We installed 6 awnings last year on our south facing windows. They really cut down on the direct Sun heat. And they look great!!
Great to read this. I have an eastern sliding door to a balcony, which I’ve often thought would be a perfect place for an awning to keep the sun from hitting the door directly in the summer. I generally don’t turn on the A/C, unless there is extreme heat — usually no more than a few days a year.
I live in a 1950 brick Cape Cod style house in the South. There are aluminum awnings over the windows in the sun room and over the back doors. There is a big porch on most of the front. I am glad to have the awnings, and hope they last as long as I do in this wonderful house.
I have a 1912 Pasadena bungalow, which retains the original double-hung windows. I just finished the exterior painting, and the awnings are ordered! I added (professionally installed) solar film to the larger windows several years ago, which reduced heat gain without altering the look of the house
“To me it’s really despicable the lack of respect we give these incredibly talented contractors who were able to design and construct these solid structures that have withstood the test of time without the use of computers, power tools, or energy codes.” – this paragraph warmed my heart. So true! I love the look of awnings, and it was interesting to learn more about them. When I have my old house, I would love to have them.
Yes, I love awnings. We have a new craftsman style home, and would love to put awnings on the two front windows. These windows face east, and we need to keep the drapes closed in summer to keep the heat and sun out. Unsure if HOA would approve.
Thanks to our 1876 shutters, which serve the same purpose, we don’t need awnings. But they are entirely useful and look great as well.
We have an 1879 folk victorian in central Mass. It’s currently covered in aluminum siding. We are starting to remove that and plan to scrape and paint the original clapboards. We are hoping to find awning ghost marks as well as other decorative trim marks so we can begin working to replace all of that stuff. Next thing will be finding someone to make new awnings for us.
We have a 1876 foursquare which is also covered in aluminium siding, unfortunately. what did you find underneath once you started removing it? I assume its a long and expensive process? Please share. Thank you!
I love awnings. From a design perspective, any time the plane of a surface changes, it adds interest and drama. That is why ultra modern buildings inspire only ennui.
For my 1929 Craftsman, I have often thought of awnings, especially for the south windows, but I also love to watch the birds in the surrounding trees, the stars at night, and the shifting light/shadows during the day.
So I have relied on my fully restored double sash windows, and find that interior bamboo window shades are just the thing in the summer. Heavier curtains which I can pull aside on a sunny day are perfect in winter. We have never wanted for air conditioning here. It is like camping out, just as it was designed to be.
My parents live in a 1930’s house that has always had awnings. They’ve replaced them multiple times, most recently with remote operated, power ones. It helps keep the house cooler.
I think they’d be odd on our 1915 Tudor though.
I agree with all the comments. We’ve a 1914 bungalow that we renovated. The south facing kitchen gets a ton of sun plus has the refrigerator and oven. It is always warmer than the rest of the house. My wife and I were just discussing an awning for the summer months over the 3 south facing double hung windows. Do awning companies still exist? I was thinking it could be installed in the summer and removed in the winter.