Question

I have a "California cooler" in my kitchen. Can you tell me more about them?

Asked by Kim Gundlach
Pasadena, CA

I am interested in knowing more about California coolers and/or cooler pantries. My house was built in 1949. I have a pantry in my current kitchen that has a screened cut-out at the top of the cabinet box, which leads to the attic, and another screened cut-out above the raised foundation. These cut-outs are at the back of the cabinet box. The pantry is not on an exterior wall, but rather on an interior wall. The kitchen is on the northwest corner of the house, and does get the afternoon sun. I am going to be remodeling my kitchen soon. If this is a cooler pantry, I thought I should preserve it. However, I am replacing most of my cabinets. I also added AC to the house. If I keep the pantry, how could it be improved to work in a modern home?

Answer

Kirsten Flynn

Answered by Kirsten Flynn

Palo Alto, CA

Sustainable Home

June 28, 2011

Yes, I am almost certain that what you have is a California cooler, although yours sounds like it is slightly unusual.

  • Most California coolers are cupboards placed in the outside wall of a bungalow-style home.
  • They would have a screened vent at the top and bottom of the cupboard.
  • By heat chimney effect, the air heating up inside the cupboard would rise, exit the cupboard through the top vent and suck replacement air from the cooler air next to the foundation.

Bungalow builders favored natural ventilation

Although found in homes in coastal areas of the West, these cupboards were probably based on the East Coast “meat locker,” which was an outside cupboard used to store winter meat in cold areas.

This passive cooling technique is used in green building today when designers place an operative skylight or clerestory window in the top of a room and openable windows near the floor on the north side of the same room.

Bungalows were built post-World War I, during a period of population growth in the U.S. There are large bungalow neighborhoods in the cities that were expanding at that time: Portland, Oregon; the San Francisco Bay Area and L.A. region; and Chicago. (As an aside, during the period from 1890 to 1930, Los Angeles grew from 50,000 to 1,240,000 people!)

Although electric appliances, especially lighting, were becoming common at that time, refrigeration was not.

Bungalow-style homes were a bit of a response to the highly decorated, large and ornate Victorian houses that directly preceded them. Many bungalow builders were followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, which stressed handmade over machine-made and simple lines over ornate. They tended to design houses to stress natural ventilation, efficient small floor plans, and natural materials. Sort of the green builders of their day!

Your home is a bit later, but still built during a period when cupboards were constructed on-site by the home's builder. It makes me think that whoever built the cupboards in your home was an old-school guy who had been building since the Bungalow period.

Your cupboard is slightly unusual because it opens to the attic and basement of your home.

  • It sounds as if it was always on an interior wall of your kitchen, which means that they did not have access to a wall to use exterior vents.
  • This difference has an effect on how your "cooler" functions.

Are you bringing in clean air?

If this cupboard draws replacement air from a crawl space or foundation area, you might be bringing that air into your living space.

When your bungalow was originally designed, kitchens were not vented with a kitchen fan. When you are running your hood vent, your kitchen has slightly lower pressure than the surrounding areas. It will pull replacement air from adjacent spaces, including this cupboard.

So one of my concerns is whether the air it will be pulling in from the attic and crawl space will be clean. If you do continue to use this cupboard, check that these areas are dust and mold-free.

Your cooler needs to be insulated from the rest of the house

You also mentioned that you had added AC to the home. I would be concerned that when the AC is on, the air that your cooling cupboard will be getting from the foundation area will not actually be any cooler than the ambient air in the home. This will mean that the chimney effect will not occur within your cupboard.

If you want your cooler to work as intended, it would have to be insulated from the rest of the house -- to be outside of the envelope. You probably have insulated, weatherstripped, and taken other measures to make your home energy efficient to heat and cool.

  • The junction between the outside world, which you are not heating or cooling, and the inside, is called the building's envelope -- made up of the walls, the windows, the floor and ceiling.
  • Your cooler will become a little chimney of "outside" running up through the space inside the envelope.

You would have to insulate/weatherstrip at the door and sides of the cupboard or it will pick up on the inside temperature and cease to work as designed.

How to decide?

You seem to have a strong sense of preservation and respect for the history of your home. With that in mind, you could think of it this way:

  • You are carefully tuning up your home to allow it to continue to function for another 60 years.
  • But during the time your home has existed, kitchens have changed a great deal.
  • If you preserve this cupboard, it will be a nod to a less technological time, a reminder of when we solved energy problems with the natural laws of thermodynamics, rather than with a machine.

These cupboards do work

When I am on historical home tours and check them out, they are always several degrees cooler than the kitchen.

  • Perhaps they are the perfect place to store preserves, wine or root vegetables.
  • However, it may be that our expectations of efficiency, and how long food can be kept, have changed too much for us to appreciate their design.
  • You will have to balance the benefit, in history and in function, versus other benefits that space could give your home.

Thanks for your respectful approach to your remodel, and have fun with your project!

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