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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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.
42 thoughts on “Why Don’t We Use Awnings Anymore”
I’m Les and I own a 1922, 4 over 4 American colonial that originally had awnings. I found the frames in the rafters of my garage several years ago and never even considered recovering and hanging them until I read your post. I stood out in front of my house and visualized what it would look like with all the awnings installed. “WOW”! I’m pulling the trigger and getting the covers replaced and turn back the clock and install my awnings! Not just for the energy savings but, they’re going to make my home look awesome. I’ll be sure to post b4 and after pics.
I have awnings. 1950’s 2″ step back semi opaque fiberglass with aluminum frames. The fiberglass is weathered and deteriorated.
Where can I buy replacement material like what was originally installed ?
Thanks for the information. We live in a home built in 1916 and we would install awnings if we could find a professional who offers a good product and installs them properly. I would love to hear more about awnings and how to install on Historic Homes. Thanks.
Adding awnings to our 1950-s ranch is not a big need due to the wide overhang of the roof (2′ plus). This style of roof is a more decorative solution than awnings and serves a similar purpose on a 1-story home. But fear not, we created our own problem of a similar nature.
My wife loves lots and lots of windows and would prefer to live in a greenhouse. When we bought our ranch it was a fixer-upper so we added several skylights which really lighten the place up. Unfortunately we did not have the cash to add integral shades and now we both complain about the heat coming in in the summer and the cold dropping in in the winter. I am sure we could save a lot of HVAC cost if we had spent the extra $$$ up front. (sigh)
I found old natural color awnings stored on higher shelves in the garage.
How long does canvas last ? After inspection , as long as it doesn’t tear or rip, it seems
smart to re-install. Does it take two people on two ladders to install? Is there a
UTube video showing step by step installation and hardware needed ? Thank you.
My 1950 house still has the (original?) awning on the front bedroom window, and I love it! That room still is the warmest in the house, with 2.5 outside walls. I can’t imagine the cost of cooling it without that awning!
We have a 1911 Tudor exterior with Craftsman highlights, the architect like to mix many styles. We can see some evidence of awnings having been used. It is in our list when we can afford it. But for right now we have to paint and repair the exterior.
I am a a fan of your blog. I have wanted awnings for a long time, and we finally had them installed this spring. Even on the very hot days, they keep the house cooler. And we like the look of them, too.
I agree with Peggi, we don’t have air conditioning either.
I would also love to install awnings, particularly on the window OVER the air conditioner, as it seems the air conditioner works twice as hard, and much less effectively when the sun is beating down on it . We use curtains as our way of keeping the solar heat reduced, but an awning would keep it from entering at all.
BTW, I have been rehabbing my old windows, and a amazed at how much cooler the house stays during the summer when we do close it up in the morning – trapping the cooler night air inside. Everyone talks about the advantages of rehabbed windows for the winter, but they are great for the summer too! We have had 90+ degree days, and it has remained in the 70’s inside with out using an air conditioner.
I have often thought about getting awnings . I haven’t really found some examples which would suit my house. If I could find and learn about what angle (?) they would have to be to allow the winter sun in I might even consider building some myself. I find it confusing
I thought awnings were something that went up in spring, and down in winter, since they not retractable and the risk of heavy snow accumulation. How do they work in the winter?
We are looking for a contractor to supply awnings for our brick Victorian (circa 1884) Colorado, someone who can properly fit them for year-round use. We are restoring the double-hung sashes, starting to get screens made for the storm windows. Now, we’re ready for awnings. Any suggestions? Thank you
I’m replying so late, I hope you see this sometime. I have in the past removed all my canvas awnings every fall and rehung every spring. Takes a spry person with long arms and a long ladder about 1 hour to hang 9 awnings on both floors of my house. Finding a person to do the ladder work is the trick (my handyman has just retired from ladder work). Last winter I experimented and left the most difficult to hang awning up. It did not accumulate any deep snow over our Michigan winter, and looks just fine this summer. So if I can’t find a ladder guy this fall, I’ll be leaving my awnings up this winter and see how it goes….
I would most definitely use awnings. I converted a building that was a store with large glass storefront windows into my home. The problem though, is that awnings are very expensive today so I will not be able to add them. I enjoyed your article commending the construction of yesteryear for the genius that it was. Given the lack of technology, the architects, builders construction workers and finish craftsmen were amazing. Our society has gained in technology, but has lost much of the passing of the trades. My building is a 3500 sq ft., two story brick structure built in 1932 and is as solid today as when it was built. It amazes me daily.
I would love to put awnings on our 1920 home in Bisbee Arizona. We currently use our double-hung windows (which I restored/rebuilt) to full advantage and our trusty old swamp cooler keeps the indoors tolerable in the summer. But awnings would be a real boon. They’ve been on my list for a long time. Maybe it’s time to get on it.
Interesting! I’ll be on the hunt for images of awnings on craftsman homes after reading this, looking for some inspiration & possible ways to add them to our 1917 home without them looking tacky & outdated.
Being a person who doesn’t like (despises)
AC , and lives without it – loved this ! I’ve always liked seeing awnings, they are definitely going on the wish list now.
I despise sweating . I gotta say I have never heard anyone express your opinion! lol
I like the idea of awnings. Will have to check with the homeowners association (sometimes called NAZI’s).
Who would install them now Or do you have a DIY guide?
I would like awnings on the south side of my 1922 Arts and Crafts bungalow in Colorado. I wonder if it had them?
My Grandpa built our house in 1952 out of saw mill oak ( you have to drill a smaller hole than the nail size just to drive a nail into a stud, LOL). We have one metal awning over an outside door on an addition to the back of the house, and it looks great (custom made) to help protect the door from rain. I would like to put metal awnings over the rest of the windows. Does it make a difference between metal versus cloth covered awnings?
I love the idea of awnings! My wife and I live in a 1927 house in Tucson AZ where summer temperatures are in the 110°-115° range normally (and the average is moving up). We have been discussing pitting metal awnings up to help cool our house.
I got canvas awnings for my little Michigan bungalow 10 years ago. Since they are custom made, I wasn’t surprised that it cost over $2000 for 9 windows (installed). They seem to help slow down heat gain in my house in the summer and look really festive. I don’t have a way to figure out whether they will ever pay back in energy savings, but they were one of the most visually satisfying home improvements I ever made. When the fabric wears out, I will definitely have new awnings sewn to fit the metal frames.
I agree! My house was built in 1895 and I am sure it had awnings. I have been thinking of getting awnings for years but don’t know what I need to know–what kind of awning is suitable for my home? How can I get the perfect angle for summer and winter you talk about? I would love if you would do a more extensive look at awnings.