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History of radiant heating and cooling - A chronological review
Copyright © 2010, Robert Bean, All world rights reserved.

(see also this comprehensive list of citations on radiant cooling, heating, energy and indoor environmental quality)

Welcome to the history of radiant heating and cooling. This page is under continuous update. If you wish to contribute to its thoroughness please email us or post your new information at the forum and be sure to include the citation.

The base data comes from the research work Bean, Olesen, and Kim did for the ASHRAE Journal article published in January and February of 2010 (see citations in articles). As a result of the research and article the authors received the ASHRAE Lou Flagg Award.

Some of the myths dispelled include who was first to use radiant heating (it wasn't the Romans) and when was it first used in America (you'll be surprised it wasn't Frank Lloyd Wright) and what country has the greatest use (it isn't Germany or Sweden)...many more interesting bits of information for the student of HVAC history - and more to come as archaeology digs deeper into this fascinating study of anthropology and architecture.

History of Radiant Heating and Cooling (ASHRAE Journal Article Part I)

Time period, c.BC



From China, the word kang, can be traced back to the 11th century B.C. and originally meant, “to dry” before it became known as a heated bed.


Evidence of “baked floors” are found foreshadowing early forms of kang and dikang “heated floor” later ondol meaning “warm stone” in China and Korea respectively.


Korean fire hearth, was used both as kitchen range and heating stove.


Ondol type system used in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska and in Unggi, Hamgyeongbuk-do (present-day North Korea).


More than two hearths were used in one dwelling; one hearth located at the center was used for heating, the others at the perimeter was used for cooking throughout the year. This perimeter hearth is the initial form of the budumak (meaning kitchen range), which composes combustion section of the traditional ondol in Korea.


Greeks and later Romans scale up the use of conditioned surfaces (floors and walls) with the hypocausts.


Central hearth developed into gudeul (meaning heat releasing section of ondol) and perimeter hearth for cooking became more developed and budumak was almost established in Korea.


China, Korea and Roman Empire use kang, dikang/ondol and hypocaust respectively.

History of Radiant Heating and Cooling (ASHRAE Journal Article Part II)

Time period, c.AD



Asia continues to use conditioned surfaces but the application is lost in Europe where it is replaced by the open fire or rudimentary forms of the modern fireplace. Anecdotal literary reference to radiant cooling system in the Middle East using snow packed wall cavities


More sophisticated and developed gudeul was found in some palaces and living quarters of upper class people in Korea. Countries in the Mediterranean Basin (Iraq, Algeria, Turkey, Afghanistan et al.) use various forms of hypocaust type heating in public baths and homes (ref.: tabakhana, atishkhana, sandali) but also use heat from cooking (see:tandoor, also tanur) to heat the floors.


Ondol continues to evolve in Asia. The most advanced true ondol system was established. The fire furnace was moved outside and the room was entirely floored with ondol in Korea. Europe uses various forms of the fireplace with the evolution of drafting combustion products with chimneys


Hypocaust type systems used to heat Turkish Baths of the Ottoman Empire.


Attention to comfort and architecture in Europe evolves; Cornelius van Drebbel (born in 1572 in Alkmaar, Holland) is credited with inventing automated temperature control to regulate the temperature of ovens and chicken incubators - 400 years later this will become significant in the development of plastic pipe by Thomas Engel in 1963/64...  China and Korea continue to apply floor heating with wide scale adoption.

1540 (circa)

The Lotus Mahal, Hampi, Karnataka, India uses cool water in wall pipes for space cooling.


In France, heated flues in floors and walls are used in greenhouses.


The Wirsbo company is founded in Sweden, later becomes manufacturer of PE-x pipe in the 1970's.


Benjamin Franklin studies the French and Asian cultures and makes note of their respective heating system leading to the development of the Franklin stove. Steam based radiant pipes are used in France. Hypocaust type system used to heat public bath (Hammam) in the citadel town of Erbil located in modern day Iraq.


William Herschel discovers infrared radiation. Beginnings of the European evolution of the modern water heater/boiler and water based piping systems including studies in thermal conductivities and specific heat of materials and emissivity/reflectivity of surfaces (Watt/Leslie/Rumford). Reference to the use of small bore pipes used in the John Soane house and museum.


Ondol type system used at Civil War hospital sites in America. Reichstag building in Germany uses the thermal mass of the building for cooling and heating.


The earliest beginnings of polyethylene based pipes occurs when German scientist, Hans von Pechmann, discovered a waxy residue at the bottom of a test tube, colleagues Eugen Bamberger and Friedrich Tschirner – called it polymethylene but it was discarded as having no commercial use at the time.


Liverpool Cathedral in England is heated with system based on the hypocaust principles.


Frank Lloyd Wright makes first trip to Japan, later incorporates various early forms of radiant heating in his projects.


England, Prof. Barker granted Patent No. 28477 for panel warming using small pipes. Patents later sold to the Crittal Company who appointed representatives across Europe. A.M. Byers of America promotes radiant heating using small bore water pipes. Asia continues to use traditional ondol and kang – wood is used as the fuel, combustion gases sent under floor.


Oscar Faber in England uses water pipes used to radiant heat and cool several large buildings.


Explosion at England’s Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) laboratory during a high pressure experiment with ethylene gas results in a wax like substance - later to become polyethylene and the re-beginnings of PEX pipe.


Frank Lloyd Wright designs the radiant heated Herbert Jacobs house, the first Usonian home.


First small scale polyethylene plant built in America.


American developer William Levitt builds large scale developments for returning GI’s. Water based (copper pipe) radiant heating used throughout thousands of homes (ref.: Irwin "Jal" Jalonack). Poor building envelopes on all continents require excessive surface temperatures leading in some cases to health problems. Thermal comfort and health science research (using hot plates, thermal manikins and comfort laboratories) in Europe and America later establishes lower surface temperature limits and development of comfort standards. Famed British engineer Oscar Faber and J.R. Kell write about the radiant floor system installed in the Bank of England


150-bed Hospital, St. Benedict's, Ogden, Utah incorporates radiant floor heat
ref.: Hosp. Manage. 1946 Nov;62(5):32.


Korean War wipes out wood supplies for ondol, population forced to use coal. Developer Joseph Eichler in California begins the construction of thousands of radiant heated homes.


Dr. J. Bjorksten of Bjorksten Research Laboratories in Madison, WI, announces first results of what is believed to be the first instance of testing three types of plastic tubing for radiant floor heating in America. Polyethylene, vinyl chloride copolymer, and vinylidene chloride were tested over three winters.


The first Canadian polyethylene plant is built near Edmonton, Ab.


NRC researcher from Canada installs underfloor heating in his home and later remarks, “Decades later it would be identified as a passive solar house. It incorporated innovative features such as the radiant heating system supplied with hot water from an automatically stoked anthracite furnace.”


Thomas Engel patents method for stabilizing polyethylene by cross linking molecules using peroxide (PEx-A) and in 1967 sells license options to a number of pipe producers.


Evolution of Korean architecture leads to multistory housings, flue gases from coal based ondol results in many deaths leading to the removal of the home based flue gas system to a central water based heating plants. Oxygen permeation becomes corrosion issue in Europe leading to the development of barriered pipe and oxygen permeation standards.


The first standards for floor heating are developed in Europe. Water-based ondol system is applied to almost all of residential buildings in Korea


Floor heating becomes a traditional heating systems in residential buildings in Middle Europe and Nordic countries and increasing applications in non-residential buildings.


The application of floor cooling and thermal active building systems (TABS) in residential and commercial buildings are widely introduced into the market.


The use of embedded radiant cooling systems in middle of Europe becomes a standard system with many parts of the world applying radiant based HVAC systems as means of using low temperatures for heating and high temperatures for cooling.


Radiant conditioned Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, topped out at 71-stories and the radiant conditioned 22 story Manitoba Hydro Place is commissioned.


Radiant conditioned Manitoba Hydro Office Tower (Canada) awarded LEED Platinum and becomes the most energy efficient office tower in North America.


". . . the ingenious subterranean heat, conveyed by a stove under the conservatory all vaulted with brick so that he has the doors and windows open in the hardest frosts, secluding only snow." (referencing the year 1676). Source: Burnby, J.G., A study of the English Apothecary from 1660 to 1760, Medical History Supplement, The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, 1983

Additional study:

  1. Global milestones in the development of radiant heating and cooling

  2. History of Radiant Heating and Cooling - Part 1 - Asia

  3. History of Radiant Heating and Cooling - Part 2 - Europe and North America 

  4. Civil War Hospital: Radiant floor heating keeps hospital tents warm

  5. Aleutian Islands, Alaska: Radiant floor heating keeps northern ancestors warm

  6. History of Radiant Heating: Ondol

  7. Radiant Mythology - 22 Myths about radiant heating 

Related reading:

Do I need an engineer? A Guide to HVAC/Indoor Climate Design Service Providers
Where will your indoor climate system score?
How to "ball park" your budget for indoor climate control.
Indoor environments: Self assessment
Built to code: What does it mean for consumer thermal comfort?
The Total Comfort System - The "Un-minimum" System
Thermal Comfort: A 40 grit perspective for consumers
Thermal Comfort: A Condition of Mind
Do-It-Yourself HVAC - Should you do it?
The Cost of HVAC Systems - Are You Paying Too Much for Downgrades?
Radiant Installations - The Good, Bad and Ugly
Thermal Comfort Surveys - Post Occupancy, Part I
Thermal Comfort Surveys - Post Occupancy, Part II

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