Leaky Houses are Healthy Houses, Says Doctor (in 1882)

You really want to live in a tent.

A lovely but leaky old house
A lovely but leaky old house.

Aymar Embury II/Public Domain


Fresh air is a weapon in the fight against Covid-19. This isn't a new idea; Stephen Mihm, a history professor, writes in Bloomberg about how they fought disease in the 1880s: fresh air.

In the nineteenth century, a growing number of people lived and worked in cramped, airless quarters in the nation’s growing cities. As disease ran rampant, the solution was simple: better ventilation. A growing number of medical professionals prescribed “natural disinfectants” – fresh air and sunshine – to counter the threat of disease.
Book Cover
Book cover. Joseph Edwards MD

Mihm follows the story that we have covered in our series on Light, Air and Openness, where urban planning and building design changed in the early 20th century to ensure that people all had windows and access to fresh air. But he pushes it back a few decades, to a book titled "How We Ought to Live by Dr. Joseph Edwards, who thought houses should be more like tents.

A tent? He explained: “I am sure we would all enjoy better health, if houses were unknown, and we lived in tents or in the open air, as animal life in a state of nature is accustomed to do.”

I had never heard of Joseph Edwards, but it is a marvelous book, with the full title of "How We Ought to Live: A Practical Guide, Written in Plain, Intelligible Language, for the Preservation of Health, and the Attainment of Longevity: Designed to Enable All so to Live That They May Reach Old Age in Health and Comfort."

Written in the days when people believed in miasma theory, he writes that "you must remember that a very prolific cause of consumption (tuberculosis) is the breathing of impure air." He recommends the "tent cure" – to live in tents: "By tent-life is meant to spend the day absolutely in the open air, and at night to sleep in a tent, in the country, so that you are constantly inhaling pure air."

I have often described modern houses as little more than tents in terms of their ability to stop air infiltration, and have discussed how modern efficient design is all about reducing air leaks. In fact, Edwards recommended that our homes be designed to leak.

Bricks are porous and will allow air to pass through them; so will brown stone; while granite, slate and marble are impervious. Therefore, realizing as you now do, the necessity for all the air you can get, you will think it wise to build of bricks. Wall papers are impervious to air and they will absorb dead organic matter in considerable amount. Therefore they are not to be commended. A house that is painted inside, or finished in natural woods, will be, not only much handsomer, but much healthier.

And the windows! Too much is never enough.

Large windows and large doors will help much to make a healthy house. You cannot have them too wide and too high. You remember what I said about tent life. The larger you make your openings, the nearer will your house approach a tent.
tile house living room
Living room in the tile house.  Charlotte Tayor and Formundrausch

Dr. Edwards then quotes Dr. Benjamin Richardson from his book "Hygeia," where he imagines an ideal city with healthy houses. The inside walls are all glazed bricks, eliminating "mouldy paste and layers of poisonous paper," because "the walls of the room can be made clean at any time by the simple use of water." (We have admired a house like this.)

Dr. Edwards also describes how much fresh air we need (3,000 cubic feet per hour per person) and how leaky our homes should be: "Natural ventilation by means of window and door cracks, the porous walls etc, will change and purify this air three times in the course of an hour."

This is all very funny to read now, in a world where Passive House fans want to reduce the air changes to 0.6 air changes per hour by eliminating all those leaky walls and windows, although they do then add controlled ventilation. It's also very interesting to read Dr. Edwards' recommendations for schools, to meet the needs of growing children, noting that "as the twig is bent, so the tree will grow." (Remember open-air schools? All about fresh air.)

Let me impress upon parents and guardians the necessity of a personal inspection of the school to which they intend sending children under their charge. If the school-room has not the improved methods of ventilation ... let them look further, for a school that does.

Back at Bloomberg, Stephen Mihm writes that this obsession with fresh air mostly came to an end with the introduction of air conditioning.

Not everyone embraced the new technology. So-called 'open-air crusaders' warned that no matter how sophisticated the machinery, there was simply no substitute for open windows for discouraging the spread of germs. Ventilation engineers sought to allay these concerns by drafting codes that guaranteed an exchange of fresh air. But these inevitably collided with cost concerns: It was cheaper to recirculate indoor air than it was to pull it in from the outside.

And so we ended up where we are today in North America, mostly with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems that deliver a minimum amount of fresh air mixed into recirculated air that is primarily doing the job of heating and cooling.

I am not sure that we all want to go back to Dr. Edwards' architectural specifications; we have a climate crisis as well as a coronavirus crisis, and it takes a lot of fuel to heat a leaky building. But it is probably a good idea to open a window or two these days, to check out your kid's school, and if you can, take a few days and go sleep in a tent.