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What Science Forgot About Airborne Pandemics

by World Health Now
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Homes needed ventilation as well. In Victorian England, reformers successfully fought a window tax that penalized large windows, says Henrik Schoenefeldt, an architectural historian at the University of Kent. Bigger windows meant better ventilation. One doctor, Schoenefeldt told me, even railed against small windows as a “crime” that was killing people. When I was Zooming with another historian of architecture, Harriet Richardson Blakeman of the University of Edinburgh, she pointed her webcam up toward the ceiling. Above the door was a grate, which ventilated the room that had become her office in her Victorian-era home. (Blakeman thinks the grate may have actually been added some decades after the house was first built, as ventilation continued to be a concern.)

The massive growth of cities in the 19th century also sparked the creation of bigger and more elaborate public buildings, which meant the creation of bigger and more elaborate ventilation systems in new museums, prisons, and courthouses. “There are new types of buildings being invented to respond to urbanization,” Alistair Fair, an architectural historian also at the University Edinburgh, says. This was a time of innovation in ventilation too. In these complicated buildings, simple windows and chimneys would no longer do. Instead, intake vents were installed, as were ducts that wove through the walls and floors.

Rows of hospital beds with windows open behind them
Harrison /Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

A famous example is the Palace of Westminster, in London, whose construction began in 1840. The building’s architect consulted with a doctor, David Boswell Reid, and Reid suggested extensive revisions to the architectural plan to improve ventilation. The two iconic towers of Westminster—the Victoria Tower and the one that holds Big Ben—are both also ventilation towers that helped draw warm, stale air out of the buildings. Reid further insisted on an expensive third tower, the Central Tower, for the sole purpose of ventilation. The ventilation system as a whole, which also included mechanical fans, valves, and a series of air chambers in the basement, accounted for a quarter of the building’s costs. Physically, too, “that system, when it was completed, took up about a quarter of the entire building,” said Schoenefeldt, who has extensively studied historical ventilation in Westminster.  

The system’s physical remnants are still in the building, now unused. Even in the 19th century, the building’s ventilation did not always work as designed—Reid was a doctor, not an engineer, after all—but the principles of his designs were influential. “The Palace of Westminster was, at the time, the technologically most sophisticated building constructed in Europe,” Schoenefeldt told me. Its ventilation system inspired those in the era’s new museums, concert halls, and courthouses.  

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