Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/November 1873/Health and Comfort in House-Building



AS implied in the title, my subject is not house-building itself, as such, but only certain arrangements for health and comfort therein. House-building has at least two aspects—architectural and sanitary. The former belongs exclusively to your own profession, but the latter comes within the sphere of the medical profession also. It is the architect's province to provide dwellings for the people, and to see that they are made protective and safe; and it is part of the medical man's province to help to make them healthy and comfortable. In this respect the medical profession has lately been very forcibly reminded of its duty by Mr. George Atchison, who said: "No greater benefit could be conferred on mankind than the teaching them the necessity of ventilation, but that lesson is more likely to be learned if it come from the doctor than from the architect.... Until the faculty can convince the people that their life is shortened and serious diseases are brought on by want of ventilation, architects have no chance."

House-building being the point in which the duties of the architect and the physician meet, it becomes necessary that architects and medical men should occasionally discuss together the requirements involved in this art. Much public and much mutual benefit would, I am sure, result from such a practice. The object I have now in view is to invite your consideration of a few conditions of house-building that I deem of particular importance in a sanitary and medical point of view.

In building a dwelling-house, the conditions I deem of essential importance are the following:

1. That the house shall be so placed as to be as much as possible exposed to the fresh air and sunlight; because fresh air and sunlight are essential to the health, and growth, and life of the occupants. The site, therefore, should be rather elevated, if not absolutely, at all events in comparison with the surrounding objects.

2. That it shall be absolutely free from damp; because a damp house is a most potent, and active, and ever-present cause of disease, especially of rheumatism, neuralgia, colds, coughs, consumption, and such like. The site, therefore, if not naturally dry, must be rendered so by means of asphalt or cement, throughout the foundation, and the roof, and gutters, and drainage must be perfect. All the house-drains should terminate outside the house on an open grid or trap; that is, they should be cut off from the street drain, and they should be ventilated by having a pipe run up from every soil-pipe and every bend in the house.

3. That it shall be so placed that the direct rays of the sun shall have free admission into the living apartments; because the sun's rays impart a healthy and invigorating quality to the air, and stimulate the vitality of human beings as they do those of plants, and without sunlight human beings, as well as plants, would sicken and die. The aspect, therefore, should be southeast.

4. That the lookout from the living apartments shall be cheerful, lively, and interesting; because much of the time of the family must be spent indoors, and a cheerful lookout is as necessary to render indoors attractive and even endurable in the daytime as society is in the evening. The prospect, therefore, should be as extensive and varied as possible.

5. The apartments should admit into themselves a great quantity of light; because light is essential to the health and vigor of the inmates. The window openings should, therefore, be large; but, as the greater the surface of glass, the colder the rooms in winter, and the hotter in summer,

6. The window-openings should be well splayed, as well outside as inside, so as to do with as little glass as possible.

7. The windows should be so arranged as to admit the direct rays of the sun at the times when the apartments are in use; because it is when the apartments are occupied that they require the cheering and invigorating influence of the sun's rays. For instance, the breakfast-room window should admit the early morning rays; the dining-room windows, one should admit the morning rays for breakfast-time, and the other the noon rays for dinner-time; and the drawing-room windows, one should admit the morning rays for callers, and another the evening rays for company; and the bedroom windows should, if possible, admit the early morning rays.

8. The interior of the apartments should provide wall-space for the arrangement of furniture; because, without wall-space no manner of furnishing a room can make it either handsome, elegant, or comfortable. The windows, therefore, should be few, and they and the door and fireplace should be so arranged as to provide as much wall-space as possible.

9. In the bedrooms, the window, door, and fireplace, should be so arranged that the bed can be fixed entirely out of the draught, and not have to be placed between the window and door, the window and fireplace, or the door and fireplace; because a cold draught playing on persons while sleeping is often dangerous to life, and always destructive of comfort.

10. The doors of the apartments, besides not admitting cold air when shut, ought not to admit cold air when open; because the draught thus produced not only destroys the comfort of the apartment, but produces lumbago, rheumatism, neuralgia, etc., in the occupants. The doors should, therefore, open out of a warmed lobby or corridor.

11. The apartments should provide a large cubic space for air; because plenty of air is essential to the health and comfort of the inmates. The apartments should therefore be as large and lofty as possible.

12. The apartments, besides providing a large cubic space for air, should also provide for the escape of the foul and admission of fresh air; because, however large an apartment is, the air is sure to become deteriorated and contaminated when the apartment is occupied by living beings. There should, therefore, be two special openings to each apartment, one for the escape of the foul air, and another for the admission of fresh air. There must be two openings, an outlet and an inlet. It is useless to make one without the other; it is useless to make an outlet unless there is also an inlet, for no air can go out if none comes in. This is a self-evident fact; still it is very frequently disregarded in attemping to ventilate apartments. There will, for instance, be a perforated or louvered pane in the window, a perforated brick or grating in the wall, an Arnott's ventilator in the chimneybreast, an opening above the gas, with a tube leading to a grating in the wall or into the chimney smoke-flue, or some other contrivance for the escape of the foul air, while there is no opening at all for the admission of fresh air; and the doors and windows are made to fit as tightly as possible, and even list put round them to prevent any possibility of air getting in by them, as though that could go out which never got in! In these cases, if the outlet act at all as an outlet, it must obtain its supply down the chimney—hence a smoking chimney; but generally, instead of acting as an outlet, it becomes an inlet to supply the current up the chimney, and always so when the fire is burning—hence the cold draught so generally complained of from the ordinary ventilators, and hence the reason that ordinary ventilators are so generally closed up in disappointment and disgust, and ventilation decried as a nuisance, failure, and farce.

13. These openings providing for the escape of foul air and the admission of fresh air should, both of them, be special and permanent, and altogether independent of every other arrangement of the house; such as opening the windows, doors, chimneys, etc.; because the escape of foul air and the admission of fresh air are most needed when, in consequence of the coldness of the external air, we close the doors and shut the windows. Special ventilation is most needed in winter, in cold, frosty weather, with an east wind blowing, and when we are very careful to shut the doors and windows, and adopt every other means we can to exclude the out-of-doors air, particularly of sitting at table for meals, or round the fire for evening entertainment.

14. The outlet should take the foul air from the upper part of the room; because the foul air, being more heated, is specifically lighter than the fresh air, and so rises to the upper part of the room. The outlet should, therefore, be in or near the ceiling.

15. The outlet should be effectually protected against any possibility of back-draught—indeed, it should have a considerable amount of suction; because any liability to back-draught is quite incompatible with an efficient outlet. The outlet, therefore, should not communicate directly with the out-of-doors air, but, by means of a tube or flue, should pass through some permanently heated contrivance. If the outlet go directly to the out-of-doors air—as, for instance, a tube from over the gas to a grating in the outer wall—there will certainly be back-draught; and so also will there be if the tube lead to an opening into the chimney-flue; at any rate, when the fire is not burning, and particularly if the room-door be also open, and most certainly if there be also a strong draught up the chimney of another room opening out of the same lobby, as, for instance, a dining-room or a kitchen. To prevent any possibility of back-draught the outlet should be provided with some means of constant suction, and, the more thoroughly to remove the foul air, the more suction the better, provided there is also an ample inlet for fresh air: if not ample, the suction would produce a smoking chimney and draughts from around the windows and doors, and perhaps draw in air from foundation and drains. The necessity for this suction is generally acknowledged, and it is sometimes attempted to be gained by carrying the tube before mentioned up a little way in the smoke-flue, and even by bending it down and round the fireplace. But a fatal objection to this plan is, that it is quite inoperative for the greater part of the year, and is of no use whatever unless the fire is burning; when the fire is not burning it may, indeed, become an inlet, and then an additional objection is, that a back-draught down the smoke-flue carries the soot into the room, to the spoiling of the ceiling, paper, and furniture. And, to be really effectual, the suction referred to must be constant and permanent, and operative both winter and summer, and day and night; and whether the apartment is occupied or not, and whether the fire is burning or not. The outlet must, therefore, pass through some contrivance for keeping it constantly and permanently heated.

16. The inlet should admit only warmed air; because the admission of cold air would produce dangerous draughts, and these specially directed toward the part of the room occupied by the inmates in cold weather, viz., the neighborhood of the fireplace. The inlet should, therefore, open out of a warm lobby or corridor.

17. The outlet should be sufficiently large to carry off all the foul air at the time when the apartment is being put to its maximum of use; because it is just at that time the outlet is most needed, its capacity for other times could be regulated by a valve. The outlet for a dining-room, for instance, should be calculated for a dinner or supper party, and that of a drawing-room for a ball, conversazione, or soirée, and should be sufficiently capacious to carry off, at the very least, fifteen cubic feet per minute for each occupant. The outlet should, however, be considerably less than the inlet, or it will produce draughts.

18. The inlet, on the contrary, should be as capacious as possible; because it has to provide not only for the outlet in the ceiling, but also for the chimney, and that when the fire is burning and requiring for its supply alone from 600 to 1,000 cubic feet per minute. Indeed, the inlet should be able to admit more air than can possibly find its way out by both these outlets, otherwise it will produce draughts. When the air can get out of an apartment more rapidly than it can come in, there are sure to be currents; but when more air can come in than can get out—when the air has to go out under pressure, so to speak—there will be little or no current. And the inlet should be through the wall of the opposite side of the room to the fireplace; because the fire will then draw the air into and across the room, and thus cause it to circulate throughout the whole of the apartment. If the fireplace be on the same side as the inlet, it will not only not assist to circulate the air throughout the apartment, but it will prevent it from so circulating by drawing it directly up the smoke-flue; and it should, moreover, be split up into as many divisions as possible, so as to distribute the supply along the whole side of the room, and thus assist to prevent any perceptible current; and this will be further helped by having the openings through the cornice instead of through the skirting, because then the fresh air will be the warmest that is in the corridor, and it will also have to descend through the warmer air of the room before it can come in contact with the persons therein. When through the skirting, it is the coldest air of the corridor; it comes through the coldest air of the room, and it comes first to the part of the body where it can least be borne, viz., the feet.

In this country (England) it is necessary to provide specially for ventilation. In consequence of the nature of our climate, the doors or windows can very seldom be left open, even in the day, and never in the night, without risk. Indeed, no direct admission of the external air into the apartments of the house can be endured during at least eight or nine months of the year—in fact, the great prevalence of cold, searching, and shriveling east wind renders such an admission absolutely dangerous; so that no kind of arrangement of openings directly to the out-of-doors air, such as drawing down the window-sash, perforated bricks or gratings in the wall, perforated or louvered square in the window, the wire-gauze at the top of the window-sash, patent ventilators, or any other contrivance that communicates directly with the out-of-doors air, can possibly answer for ventilation in a country like ours. In this country, where eight or nine out of the twelve months in the year are cold, windy, and winterly, houses should be built with reference to winter, and not with reference to summer; and they should be planned and built with the object of keeping out the cold air and not with the object of letting it in; ventilation should be provided for specially; and in making this provision it should be borne in mind that we are living at the bottom of an ocean of air, and that the same manipulation is required as though we were living at the bottom of an ocean of water, and were endeavoring to make it come in at the bottom of the house and go out at the top in a continuous stream.

From the foregoing remarks it will be seen that I maintain that ventilation is the great and main necessity of house-building; and that, whatever else may be left undone, this should be attended to; and, whatever else may be left imperfect, this should be made perfect and complete; and that it should include the whole house; and should be self-acting and inexpensive. It should, I repeat, be perfect and complete, include the whole house, and be self-acting and inexpensive.

Ventilation is the point for discussion between the architectural and medical professions, for it is here in particular that their duties meet and combine; the education, knowledge, and experience of both professions are wanted here. However much the medical man may be impressed with the absolute necessity of rooms and houses being ventilated, he cannot himself provide it—this must be done by the architect; and, on the other hand, the architect cannot be expected to provide flues and tubes, which involve extra expense, except under the certainty that they are absolutely necessary and required arrangements involved in the plan of every house. But there is a third party interested in this subject, namely, the public. The public are, after all, the "yea" and "nay" in this matter; it is, indeed, for them that these arrangements are to be made, and they are the paymasters. Whatever extra cost is involved, it is the public that will have to pay it; and it is of little use for a doctor to prove the necessity, or for an architect to design the arrangements, unless the public be persuaded to adopt them, and pay the cost involved. That the public can be thus persuaded I have no doubt, but that this will take some time I am equally ready to admit. It will take some time thoroughly to educate the public into the absolute necessity for special provisions for ventilation, because they have hitherto been left under the impression that special arrangements for ventilation are unnecessary and superfluous, or that they are impracticable, or at least incompatible with warmth and comfort; and I am sorry to have to add that they have been encouraged in this impression by many architects and engineers, and that medical men have not protested with sufficient force and intelligence. Medical men have gone on from generation to generation silently mourning the resulting evils of the want of efficient and practicable means of ventilation, and architects have continued to design houses with very little regard to these absolutely necessary provisions; while the public have submitted, and, if they have not thought it was all right, have at least thought that the evil was quite beyond their remedying, because every amateur (if not every professional) attempt hitherto made had only ended in failure, disappointment, and loss of money.—The Builder.

  1. From a paper read at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Liverpool.