Keeping a House Cool: What I learned from Grandma that the French All Know

We’re replacing all the windows and doors in Maison d’Etre this year. If you look at the photo, you can see that our house was two houses which are now one (connected by two hallways through thick stone walls). For that reason, the windows and doors are all different. Some have mullions, some do not. Some have shutters, some do not. Some work acceptably, some are falling apart. It was time for a face lift.

“Why does everything look so empty?”

When driving through villages and towns in rural France, I used to wonder why everything looked so empty, the buildings and homes were so shuttered, so closed up. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out.

Grandma knew…

When I was growing up in the Southern US, in the days before airconditioning, I learned from my grandmother how everyone kept the house cool on hot summer days. In the morning, she would leave all the windows and doors open, allowing the cool morning air to enter the house. As soon as the temperature outside started to rise, my grandmother would close them all and pull the curtains. All day long, inside the house would remain relatively cool and comfortable, while outside would blister. In the evening, after it cooled off again, she would open all the doors and windows again, and the windows would remain open at night to allow for cool breezes while sleeping. In the next morning the cycle would repeat.

Doing without Air Conditioning

We don’t have air conditioning in our home in Seattle. We do what Grandma did — with great success when it’s hot outside. Visitors on such days will comment that it is nice that we have air conditioning!.

We don’t. We just close up the house.

We also don’t have air conditioning in our house in France.

Maison d’Etre is actually made of local materials — mostly limestone rock, which is very porous. The house is located beneath a causse (a hill with plateau). Water naturally drains down the through the hill, through the stones and into the River Lot. This flow of water through limestone is what has created the ages old caves that were used by people as early dwellings and where they created the famous painted walls inside.

A giant swamp cooler

So our house is something like a giant “swamp cooler” — another Southern invention which involves any device (even a wet sheet or towel over a door!) that cools through the evaporation of water. If you keep the doors and windows closed in our house in France, the house can stay cool on hot days. What I didn’t realize until I lived there is that the shutters on the outside of the house work just like Grandma’s curtains. They make the whole system work even better.

Shuttered Down is not Shut Down

The next time you are in France, driving through a town that looks closed up, just remember it is shuttered down, not shut down. The French are inside, eating a wonderful lunch and relaxing in a cool room. And remember, when you are at Maison d’Etre, close up the shutters for the day while you are out. You will return to a much more comfortable home!

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