It is hard to believe that anyone ever lived in central Texas without air conditioning. Imagine trying to survive last summer’s oppressive heat without cool air in the home! While I’ve welcomed the opportunity to open windows now that the weather has cooled, I would never have dreamed of turning off the central air conditioning during the last few months’ string of hundred-degree days. However, central AC is a relatively recent amenity, and our neighborhood played an important part in its development.
Window AC units came into widespread use in the 1930s, but central air was not yet available at that time. It owes much of its existence to an experimental project conducted in 1954 - 1955 in Allandale, which was then in the northwestern suburbs of Austin. In this project, the National Association of Home Builders, the University of Texas, and dozens of other organizations and companies joined together to try out a novel idea: using the AC equipment that had been developed for commercial and business applications to provide central air conditioning for residences.
To do this, the organizations contracted with Austin homebuilders to build 22 differensingle-story homes, each using a different AC manufacturer’s equipment. The builders constructed these homes quickly in an already existing subdivision called Edgewood, northwest of the 1954 Austin city limits. They faced onto four streets: Park View Drive, Twin Oaks Drive, Nasco Drive, and Daugherty Street. These street names may be familiar already; they are within our Allandale neighborhood, just west of Burnet Road. It is unclear who first used the phrase “Air Conditioned Village” to refer to the project, but the name stuck.
This project was essentially a test of the then-current AC technology in a residential setting – what today we might call a “proof of concept.” However, it was not a mere technical laboratory; the builders sold the houses to families, who agreed that researchers could observe various aspects of their home life in a one-year field test of the houses. While the houses were similar in size, they varied dramatically in their construction; according to a contemporaneous article in House + Home, they used “practically every type of cooling equipment, air-distribution systems, insulation and shading device.”
Glenn Jones, a current Allandale resident, viewed one of the Air Conditioned Village houses a few years ago. Glenn says, “One of the interesting things about the house was that the AC ductwork in the ceilings was all exposed; none of it was run through the attic. Apparently, the builder installed it that way to showcase the new technology.”
Companies were indeed eager to display their products. The AC manufacturers included many well-known names: Westinghouse, Coleman, Carrier, Frigidaire, American Standard, Lennox, General Electric, and even Chrysler. Other types of companies were equally eager to tout their products’ use in the Air Conditioned Village; these ranged from cabinetry (by Curtis Woodwork) to interior doors with built-in vents for air circulation (Amweld) and accordion-style wall partitions (Modernfold Doors). The Air Conditioned Village project was quite well known; its visitors even included a group of 10 housing experts from the Cold War-era Soviet Union.
One key variable in the construction was the type and quantity of wall insulation used. Sheryl Novak and John Michael Whitman have lived on Twin Oaks since 1994, in what was the water-cooled “General Electric” house. When they remodeled and added to their house a few years ago, they found that the exterior insulation material was no more than a thin radiant barrier, which looks like grocery bag paper with a shiny silvery coating on both sides. At the time, the manufacturers described this material as “2-ply foil” insulation. (Sheryl and John Michael replaced it with a more modern, and effective, alternative.)
The thin radiant barrier insulation, while skimpy by today’s standards, was probably more than most houses in the region had at that time. The 1954 House + Home article states “wall insulation was practically unheard of in the South until a few years ago.” A 1960 article in The Victoria Advocate reports on one Air Conditioned Village resident who seemed particularly happy with her house:
A good illustration of the value of insulation was a joking comment by Mrs. William J. White, of the Air Conditioned Village. “We don’t even need air conditioning,” she laughed. “The house is so well insulated all we have to do to keep cool is open the refrigerator door.”
Insulation was not the only thing that made each house unique. The houses varied significantly with respect to various aspects of their construction. One house was reportedly built with steel rafters rather than wood; some had garages, others carports. Some used masonry for the walls, others used wood siding, and still others used both. The houses were oriented in different directions, and even had different roof overhangs.
Cathy Yang lives on Park View, in the “Carrier” house. Around 2000, when she bought the house, she thought she would have the AC ducts cleaned in order to start with cleaner air. To her surprise, the technician told her she did not actually have metal ducts; the builder had constructed all of the AC ducts using sheetrock, like her walls. In fact, a 1955 article summarizing some of the research results from the Air Conditioned Village project states, “Poor ductwork was … the greatest single headache.”
Despite these sorts of unorthodox construction methods, Cathy reports that she is happy with how energy-efficient her home is. In fact, most of the homes are still standing (although owners have torn down at least one due to foundation problems). Even some of the AC equipment lasted many years: Richard and Agnes Martin, who live on Twin Oaks, replaced their original Carrier Weathermaker unit only some ten years ago. They may be the Air Conditioned Village’s longest-term residents, having lived there since 1961. (Their house was not actually one of the test houses; it served as the main office for the Air Conditioned Village.)
The Air Conditioned Village research lasted for one year. It addressed issues such as electricity usage, effectiveness of insulation, and various energy efficiency issues relating to the design of the houses. These studies, in turn, informed the boom in central air conditioning in the following few years. According to an article in Cabinet, by 1962, nearly 6.5 million US homes had air conditioning.
According to a 1955 article in Texas Architect, the project aimed “to determine the effect of manufactured weather on the budget, health, and home life of American families.” Thus, the project sought to not only highlight the AC equipment’s efficacy and test a variety of building methods, but also to examine how year-round cool weather could affect family life. The researchers planned to examine questions such as whether children eat better in air-conditioned homes, whether people wanted to open windows, and whether AC helped alleviate allergy symptoms.
Since the AC industry sponsored the project, it is perhaps no surprise that the research found a number of improvements in the quality of life of the Air Conditioned Village families. These included:
- Being able to sleep 10% to 35% longer
- Improving social skills
- Increasing the number of hobbies
- Having less dirt and dust in the house
- Staying at home more and having better appetites (amazingly enough, without gaining weight)
- Spending more time together as a family and entertaining guests
While the more skeptical among us may question the scientific validity of these findings, I, for one, am not willing to give up my central AC in order to put them to the test!
Thanks to the many neighbors who provided research materials and shared their experiences, including Cathy Yang, Sheryl Novak, John Michael Whitman, Richard and Agnes Martin, Glenn Jones, Joyce Hogan, and Peggy Maceo. Thanks also to the families of the Air Conditioned Village for playing a valuable part in our nation’s cultural history.