On March 16, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) announced that the traditional ondol underfloor heating system will be designated as a National Intangible Cultural Property.
The CHA said that, “The traditions and heritage inherent in Korea’s ancient ondol underfloor heating system show people’s wisdom and creativity in dealing with the cold winters here.” The CHA further clarified the reason for its designation. “The creation and development of ondol systems is a unique heritage aspect that highlights Joseon-era technology and lifestyles.”
The origins of ondol systems were in the Bronze Age (900 B.C.-800 B.C.) and during the Three Kingdoms of Korea (57 B.C.-A.D. 668). The systems derived from primitive forms of heating that used a fireplace and a smoke tunnel. It’s estimated that underfloor heating on the Korean Peninsula has a history of more than 2,000 years, since brick or stone ondol artifacts built between the 200s B.C. and 0 B.C. have been found in various parts of the Korean Peninsula.
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Underfloor heating is one of the main features of all ondol systems.
Fireplaces and hot water radiators, typical heating systems in the modern West, use direct heat. Therefore, the place around it is warm, but the heat does not spread throughout the room. On the other hand, underfloor heating systems warm the floor by heating the flat stones that were traditionally used in Korean architecture, and then the heated air rises from the floor and warms the whole room.
Underfloor heating systems not only influenced housing design and building architecture, but they also influenced the lifestyles of various societies that developed on the Korean Peninsula. Since the floor was warm, people sat on the floor. In countries where people sit on the floor, eating and sleeping on the floor is also common. Therefore wearing shoes in the house is generally frowned upon. People by now are quite familiar with underfloor heating systems and, to this day, the system has only changed a little, substituting high-tech insulated pipes for the old stone slabs.
The Cultural Heritage Administration is expected to decide on its official designation for traditional ondol underfloor heating systems in the National Intangible Cultural Property archive after a 30-day review period.