Building Technology Heritage Library

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization.

April 22, 2020, will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. First celebrated in 1970, the annual event was inaugurated to support environmental protection and reform in order to promote a healthy planet.

While the built environment contributes significantly to pollution, waste, and consequently climate change, product manufacturers and material scientists have worked for decades to create cleaner and more environmentally responsible alternatives to limit construction's negative impact.

Here, the BTHL chronicles landmark product innovations from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that highlight efforts for responsible building and design.

A Description of a New-Invented Stove-Grate, J. Durno, London, 1753
This 18th-century document highlights heating stoves as a “disruptive technology,” with improved heating efficiency compared to an open hearth.

Catalogue of Stoves and Hot Air Furnaces, Perry & Co., Albany, N.Y., 1868
The Oriental Stove Works produced cast-iron heating and cooking stoves and eventually became one of the first companies to produce a gravity hot-air furnace. Initially ideal for smaller houses, the gravity hot-air furnace became ubiquitous after the invention and integration of the electric motor and fan.

Descriptive Catalogue of U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., Batavia, Ill., 1879
The wind turbine is an essential component of a renewable energy system today. But windmills have long been used to produce mechanical energy, which could be used for pumping water or milling grain. A leading producer of windmills in the late 19th century, the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. highlighted numerous testimonials from across the U.S. in this catalog.

Patent Mineral Wool, A.D. Elbers, New York, 1880
Some of the earliest commercial insulation was made from mineral wool, a fibrous material formed from mineral or rock materials such as slag. Still in use today, mineral wool could be used for piping and heating insulation as well as architectural applications.

Air, Light and Efficiency, David Lupton’s Sons Co., Philadelphia, 1917
The use of large steel windows for both ventilating the walls and roofs are promoted in this catalog as a key to improving modern factory design and worker efficiency.

How the Impelling Force of Electric Energy is Applied to the Farm, Niagara Lead & Battery Co., Niagara Falls N.Y., 1920
This company sold a gasoline-powered small electric generator and a battery system to deliver and store and electricity to rural farmsteads that lived "off the grid” long after electricity was introduced to urban areas.

Building Material, Millwork-Lumber-Roofing: Mantels and Fireplace Furnishings, Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, 1929
This Sears Roebuck catalog of building materials includes a case study illustrating the energy efficiency gains of installing wooden storm windows.

LeJay Wind Electric Equipment, LeJay Manufacturing Co., Minneapolis, 1940
The use of small wind turbines for farmsteads brought the advantages of electricity before the transmission grid reached much of rural America. The LeJay Manufacturing Co. provided a complete range of products for electrifying these areas.

1941 Catalog Libbey-Owens-Ford Quality Flat Glass Products, Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co., Toledo, Ohio, 1941
In this catalog, outdoor storm windows or “modern double-glazed casement” windows were both noted for their energy significant savings for residential applications. Insulated glass first became commercially available in the 1930s and was promoted for both its energy savings and acoustic properties.

Solar Houses: An Architectural Lift in Living, Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co., 1945
Designed to “take advantage of solar radiation as an auxiliary source of heat,” Libbey-Owens-Ford’s solar house featured “transparent glass wall on the southern exposure” and “overhanging roof construction to keep out direct Solar rays during the summer months.”

Living with the Sun, Vol. 1, Association for Applied Solar Energy, Phoenix, 1958
This publication features 60 “plans selected from the entries in the 1957 international architectural competition to design a solar-heated residence.” While most examples used shading devices, several of the entries include solar heating systems.