Sunday, July 26, 2020

Climate and architecture

Someone once quipped that nowadays the purpose of architecture schools is to graduate tortured geniuses who design one-of-a-kind buildings which have no relationship to their surroundings. There is a lot to analyze in that observation, but I am going to focus on "no relationship to their surroundings."

Prior to the invention of air-conditioning, architects had to figure out ways to keep people cool and ventilated through design rather than through the action of refrigerants and compressors. I can remember walking into an upscale late 19th century home with an open tower just off the foyer, a foyer connected by large openings to the rest of the house. To stay cool, the residents would simply open the windows. The hot air would flow upward into the tower and rush out the open windows at the top, thus pulling air in through the ground floor windows. This created a constant internal breeze in the heat of the summer.

Other methods of beating the heat included:

  1. Single-room-width homes which promoted cross-ventilation when owners opened windows on each side.
  2. Wraparound porches which shield the interior from the sun and allow open windows even during rainstorms.
  3. Tall ceilings that allow hot air to rise above the people in the room.
  4. Sleeping porches for outside sleeping, sometimes screened in. (My boyhood home had one of these just off my parents' second-floor bedroom.)
  5. Transom windows which allow circulation between rooms when the doors are closed (popular in apartment houses and hotels).

Sunday, July 19, 2020

If you can't stand the heat...get off of the planet!

As I sit in 90-degree heat typical of Washington, D.C. in midsummer and a so-called "heat dome" hovers over much of the United States, I am reading the following:

At 11 or 12 degrees [Fahrenheit] of [global] warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually.

That implies one of two things: A lot of migration or a lot fewer people. This second thought is suggested in the observation above, but few people want to come out and say it: What we are doing to the climate, to the air, to the water and to the soil, and thus to ourselves, on our current trajectory implies a dramatic decline in human population as multiple crises converge and our ability to cope with them dwindles.

As it turns out, the number of 90-degree days in Washington's summers has been on a steady rise. And even though the record for the longest streak of days with temperatures reaching above 90 wasn't broken this time—only 20 days in a row instead of 21—those 90-degree days are coming sooner in the season, and there are more of them.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Cracks in the supply chain: Is metastable turning into unstable?

You who are reading this sentence are metastable systems. So, is the biosphere, and so is all of human society. A metastable system is one that remains stable so long as the inputs necessary to maintain its stability are available.

For humans this includes food (energy) and water. For the biosphere the key element is the energy input from the Sun. For human society, which is a subset of the biosphere, the Sun is also the key energy input. Much of the energy used by humans is stored in the form of wood, coal, natural gas and oil which all ultimately come from living organisms dependent on the Sun for energy.

Hydropower is also a product of the Sun which drives the water cycle on Earth and therefore allows hydroelectric dams to be filled. Wind and solar energy are, of course, products of the Sun as well. The energy harvested by humans gets expressed in manufacturing and transportation in machines. It gets expressed in human labor, but also in the thought, planning, and communications needed to make things happen.

What we are witnessing as a result of this pandemic is a widespread challenge to metastable systems upon which our societies depend. The most obvious are those related to hospitals and health care products. We often read in the news that hospitals are near "the breaking point" as if the hospital walls will burst when too many patients crowd into the building.

Sunday, July 05, 2020