Radiant Cooling, Sustainable Building

A Short History of Radiant Cooling Systems

Radiant cooling systems, as a 21st-century green building design element, have seen a massive rise in popularity and a push to priority status in project planning along with the green building revolution in Asia.

To highlight the rapid rise of radiant cooling, it is worth remembering that all the advancements in technology and the exponential spread of more sustainable HVAC solutions came from very humble beginnings – some a lot longer ago than you’d think. Here we’ll take a look at how some of the trends in sustainable building design seen today, came from an early awareness of how to harness natural resources for our energy needs.


Humble Beginnings in Asia


Historical and archaeological research has provided evidence that Asia was the earliest adopter of natural floor heating in homes – thousands of years ago. As far back as 5000BC (7016 years ago), Koreans were making use of the ‘ondol’, meaning ‘warm stone’, in a method of heating the floors of their homes with a baking oven. They then went on to use wood in these ovens to serve the dual purpose of heating the room and the floor.


The Roman World

a hypocaust system

A few thousand years later, in 500BC the Romans were using a hypocaust system in their buildings and homes. This system is the closest ancient relative of central heating systems today. The floor would be raised above the ground by pillars, and hot air heated by a furnace would circulate under it – and through the walls which had flume channels for circulating this same air to then escape through the roof.

The First Use of Underfloor Piping


The Turkish Baths characteristic of the Ottoman Empire also made use of a hypocaust system for heating a connected water system, and this is the earliest example of a radiant heating system.

The earliest example of a radiant heating system

In the 12th-century Syria, they adopted the use of the Roman hypocaust system with air heated by a furnace, but instead fashioned the use of pipes to transfer the heat through the floors instead of having to raise them. This is the earliest example of inspiration and technology for today’s radiant cooling systems!


19th-Century Plastic


The waxy Polyethylene substance discovered in one of Hans Von Pechmann’s discarded test tubes in 1899 would form the basis of the world’s most widely used plastic in the coming century. Polyethylene pipes (plumbing pipes) are the type used for the transport of water in radiant heating and cooling solutions today.


20th-Century Technology


Still based mostly on the ancient systems discussed, architects and designers began to use these principles for modern heating applications. The American Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his inclusion of underfloor heating in home projects during the period of his ‘Usonian’ design.

In 1945, Walter Levitt – also American – became the first person to incorporate radiant heating on a large scale, which opened up the doorway for future developers to incorporate it in designs of any size and type.

In the 1970s, Korea once again played a huge part in the shaping of modern systems – this time with a reinvention of the fire-fueled system to one that used water pipes.


The Modern Systems


The radiant cooling solutions that now exist on an industrial scale in many buildings across the world – especially green buildings aiming for energy and resource efficiency – owe much of their design and practical inspiration to ancient systems.

It’s not possible that these early inventors would have seen the tremendous value to the built environment that their designs would bring in the 21st-century but nevertheless, these radiant heating and cooling solutions are now being widely implemented in homes and commercial buildings across the world and form an integral part of environmentally sustainable design.



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