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.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
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.